In their day jobs, the guests at the Sheraton Sand Key were sales executives for Davidoff of Geneva, experienced at marketing fine cigars and luxury goods. On this night, however, they became sous chefs, cooking and serving gourmet dishes for each other under the culinary tutelage of the Sheraton’s John Harris.
Harris served as teacher, emcee and stand-up comedian, doing tricks with a blowtorch (searing tuna) and liquid nitrogen (instant ice cream).
The diners did most of the cooking, however. Each table had portable stoves, chefs hats and preportioned ingredients for a three-course meal. The tables divided into teams; one made salad in a Parmesan cheese bowl. Another prepared the entrees — steaks to order with Jack Daniels maple onions, truffled mushroom and crab stuffings. Although Harris bestows tongue-in-cheek awards as he cruises the tables, there’s no real competition, just a chance to work together outside normal roles. “They’re making really top-quality restaurant food at the table,” Harris says. “They’re blown away.”
The class was the highlight of the annual sales meeting for Davidoff, a Swiss company that set up U.S. headquarters in Pinellas Park a few years ago. “It got the most positive feedback of any part of the week,” says Lynn Hawkins, the company’s event planner. The novice chefs’ favorite activity, she says, was making the bird’s nest bowls of melted cheese, which some of her colleagues have since made at home.
The mix of education and entertainment is a recipe that Florida hotels are happy to cook up — at $75 per person and up — and serve as a corporate team-building exercise, children’s day camp, girls night out, guys-only or family program.
Hotels have found they are especially well-suited for cooking classes, with abundant space, a ready clientele, and most important, talent: Brigades of sous chefs, pastry and garde manger specialists, many who have classical culinary training.
» At food-forward hotels like the Ritz-Carlton chain, classes focus on amateur cooks spending a weekend at the hotel with rooms as part of package. At Salt, the signature restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton on Amelia Island, the classes are “almost too popular,” says chef Rick Laughlin. He and seven of his chefs take two dozen students into Salt’s kitchen four weekends a year for intensive classes followed by a midday feast. The Ritz-Carlton Naples schedules regular classes at =H20+, the hotel’s health-accented kitchen Wednesdays during the season.
» Azul at the Mandarin Oriental in Miami hosts private customized classes for couples and small groups Saturday mornings.
» The Biltmore in Coral Gables established a full-fledged culinary academy in 2009 with chef Lourdes Castro as director and a laboratory of worktables, ranges and blackboards. Classes are held almost daily for guests and the public on topics from risotto to Peruvian favorites, plus intensive three-day boot camps ($450). The menu for kids is extensive — cook-your-own birthday party, buddy classes with mom or dad and weeklong summer cooking camps.
» At the vast members-only Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo, Carole Kotkin’s Cooking School has a busy schedule all season. Teachers range from the Ocean Reef’s own chefs to local favorites like Dewey LoSasso of the Forge and brand name TV star Sara Moulton.