I don't see my aversion to cooking as much of a loss: Chicago is full-to-bursting with top-notch chefs and finger-licking cheap eats. But when a too-familiar relationship with local delivery drivers left me feeling a bit gross, I did my research, grilled a bunch of instructors, and signed up for cooking classes at five of Chicago's best recreational cooking schools. Here's how I did:
Chopping Block I eased into cooking with a demo class at the Chopping Block, which is staffed in Lincoln Square and River North with some of the city's most enthusiastic instructors. The demonstration format meant I could grab a seat, order a glass of wine and watch the cooking show come to life (yes, it was more engaging than the Food Channel). Some of the best tips were casual side notes, such as the proper way to cut an onion (and if you think you're doing it right, you're probably wrong). The fantastic tasting portions filled my belly and let me know immediately which recipes I'd want to try at home. I left ready to tackle a pot of chowder. Daily classes run $40 (demo) to $75 and up.
Sur La Table I felt a flicker of self-doubt entering this ultra-professional Gold Coast cooking space and spotting the conservative look of many of the students (think diamond earrings and tailored jackets). But my initial trepidation was immediately calmed by the instructor's willingness to describe things with words I'd use myself, like "weird-looking" and "gross." Despite the frou frou menu of brandad de morue and bouillabaisse, he was all for embracing the lazy chef in each of us, busting out everyman shortcuts. The hands-on class operated as two groups of six, each group making half of the recipes and ending with a full-on French feast. Classes, offered 3-4 evenings a week, run about $65.
Cooking Fools A plush sofa, votive candles and an oriental rug set the scene for a group pow-wow that kicked off the class before we all headed into the kitchen. Located in owner Nick Faitage's Bucktown residence above the eponymous prepared-foods shop downstairs, the class uses a good chunk of the apartment. Get your hands messy in the kitchen before loading up your plate in the dining room and heading to the living room to kick back and nosh. Wine brings the whole meal together, with Faitage merrily keeping glasses full. With no distinct chef and student areas, the evening was as much about asking a master chef those questions you've always wondered as it was about test-driving new recipes. Classes, offered 2-3 times per week, run $75-$95.
Heat and Spice The chilies poster that hangs in the foyer of Heat and Spice sums up the focus of this intimate BYOB school. Mexican, Indian and Thai food lie at the core of chef Joe Sochor's classes, and after drooling over offbeat offerings like "Mexican Street Food" and "Thai Curry Trek" I signed on for a couples Indian class. Mixing cultural insight with mad skills and a calm demeanor, Sochor made even the most intimidating recipes (samosas, anyone?) seem manageable. The Uptown apartment setting, which threw me for a loop when I first arrived, left me feeling confident that I could reproduce the recipes in my normal kitchen. Sharing the space with only one other couple, I got plenty of attention and left with a near-bursting belly. Classes, offered 3-4 times each week, run about $75.
Flavour What better way to end my mission than with four hours of hands-on cooking? An intimidating menu was quickly brought down to size by the easy smiles and quirky humor of chef/owner Denise Norton, who at one point sang the differences between potato varieties a la "West Side Story" in a song that featured the "waxies" and "starchies." This Forest Park teaching kitchen, surrounded by the shop's retail racks, is bright and airy, and aside from learning (and tasting) a slew of comfort food dishes, the class highlight was Norton's no-kidding demand that everyone take a turn spreading herbed oil under the turkey's skin, as if knowing that without that task under our aprons most of us would chicken out at home. Daily classes cost $50 (demo) to $70.
Other tables worth visiting:
Calphalon Culinary Center The classes at this high-tech West Loop cooking school are deliciously awesome, with each student working at his or her own counter and stove. Though you'll have to move fast to get a spot at one of these counters—early next year the school will host private events only.
Wooden Spoon This comfy Andersonville cooking school is best known for its hands on sushi classes and its market walks along nearby Argyle.