Preparing a traditional French jambonette is no simple task, as Rich Demers can attest – even if you were taught how at the world’s most famous cooking school.
“You take a whole leg of a chicken, thigh and leg attached, and you surgically extract most of the bone from it — which is a fun process,” said Demers, a retired Minneapolis resident. “Then you stuff the leg with, it’s almost like a pork sausage mix, then you cook it up with this elaborate sauce, and you serve it with these elaborate side dishes that are themselves a major undertaking.”
Demers and his wife, Lois, learned the procedure when visiting Paris about eight years ago. Looking for activities that would immerse them in local culture, they discovered they would be welcome to attend a class at the celebrated Paris-based, century-old Cordon Bleu school (www.cordonbleu.edu/lcb-paris/en), whose alumni include Julia Child and Mario Batali.
The retired Minneapolis couple — Demers was a computer programmer, his wife a high-school special education teacher — wound up in a classroom amid the school’s regular students, watching a French-speaking instructor demonstrate (with the help of a translator) the jambonette technique.
“Lois took notes like crazy and I took as many pictures as I could,” Demers said. After returning home, they made the dish themselves.
"The chef did the whole thing within a two or three hour period. It took us a whole day," he said. “But you try stuff, you know, because it’s fun.”
If this matches your idea of fun, you’re in luck. Culinary tourism, which can include learning to prepare fine foods as well as eating fine foods and visiting places where fine foods are grown or produced, is becoming an established segment of the tourism industry. It provides a combination of cultural education and social interaction and entertainment — a way to make your gâteau from scratch and eat it, too.
Cooking classes are available these days in just about any location you’d want to vacation, the classes themselves often held in historic or beautiful settings and sometimes paired with farmers’ market shopping excursions. You can learn to make paella in Barcelona, lamb tagine in Casablanca, eggplant Parmesan in Naples, pho with beef in Hoi An, Vietnam. Domestically, cooking tours are available to California, New York, New Orleans and elsewhere.
Tours for groups or singles can be entirely arranged around food tasting and cooking, through organizations such as Edible Destinations (www.epitourean.com), Gourmet on Tour (www.gourmetontour.com) or The International Kitchen (www.theinternationalkitchen.com).
Other travelers, like the Demers, simply sign up for classes a la carte, at cooking schools wherever they happen to be visiting. Arrangements can be made before leaving home or after arrival at the destination.
“There are definitely a lot of options,” said travel agent Carmen Schaffer of Lakeville, who specializes in travel in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. She has a colleague who leads cooking tours in Yucatán, Mexico.
Though Schaffer hasn’t had a lot of people ask about cooking travel, she wants to start promoting it as a great way to learn about an area’s culture while visiting.
“I like to promote the culture of a destination, not just the beaches,” Schaffer said. “Once you get into the culture, and you understand their food, it opens up more doors.”
While visiting Tuscany in 2007, Leigh Farrell of Dayton attended a one-day class in a 13th-century stone house in Chianti through Fattoria di Grignano (www.fattoriadigrignano.com/new/english/index.asp#). She learned to make pasta from scratch and had a great time with her Australian teacher and Canadian classmates.
“I was really good at it, and the teacher said, ‘You must have done this before,’” Farrell recalled. She hadn’t, but when she returned home she bought a pasta machine and has done it plenty of times since.
The Demers have taken cooking classes on several trips. In Lyon, their experience was more hands-on, with students divided into teams and supervised by a chef who helped them make a dish of shrimp and vegetables atop couscous. In New Orleans, they watched a chef entertain a crowd by demonstrating jambalaya, shrimp Étouffée and bread pudding.
The couple has prepared jambalaya and bread pudding many times since then. Jambonette, however, has not reappeared on their menu.
“It was just too much work,” Demers said. “I suppose if you have a sous chef to help you with all the preparations, it would be one thing.”