Why You Should Take a Cooking Class

by Samantha Suarez | photography by David Specht

Grab your aprons, Grand Rapids — it’s time to learn how to make delicious recipes from professional chefs and cooks. Fortunately for us, we have our pick of hands-on cooking classes from fantastic establishments around the area, such as the Local Epicurean, the Downtown Market and Amore Trattoria Italiana. At these classes, you can whip up anything from Asian street food to fresh pasta, classic seafood or steak, and even velvety chocolate! Best of all: No previous cooking experience is required.

If you’re a foodie, cooking classes allow you to appreciate food as both a creator and a taster. If you’re adventurous and enjoy learning about different cultures, you can take a class on a new cuisine and learn how to work with unique ingredients. If you’re someone that wants to make more meals at home to save money or entertain guests at a dinner party, a cooking class will teach you new kitchen hacks that you won’t get from reading a recipe online.

Here’s what I learned from a cooking class at the Local Epicurean.

The Menu

Titled the “Sicilian Scampi Class & Dinner,” the class features the best of the Island of Sicily, beginning with lobster cakes with pesto aioli, followed by shrimp scampi with handmade tortellini in a tomato basil sauce and finally lemon basil gelato with freshly whipped cream for dessert.

First Course: Lobster Cakes

1 egg
¼ cup shrimp, cooked
½ cup langoustines, rough chopped
½ cup panko crumbs
1 clove minced garlic
1 tbsp, chopped shallot
¼ cup fennel, with greens
lemon zest to taste
⅛ cup mayo
¼ cup spinach
olive oil
grating cheese
aioli: ¼ cup basil pesto and ¼ cup olive oil mayo

Heat small layer of olive oil in a nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. Remove tails from shrimp and chop down with langoustines in a medium-sized bowl. Add panko, minced garlic, chopped shallots, fennel, mayo, and lemon zest. Mix well. If the mixture is too wet, add more panko. If the mixture is too dry, add mayo. Separate mixture into 2 to 4 patties and carefully place in hot oil. Wait for the bottom to turn crispy golden brown and flip over. When both sides are golden brown, plate on top of spinach and top with your favorite cheese. Mix together basil pesto and olive oil mayo and serve on the side.

Second Course: Shrimp Scampi with Tortellini

Shrimp Scampi

1 tbsp garlic butter
2 cloves garlic
1 shallot
⅔ cup raw shrimp
½ lemon
¼ cup tomato
oregano, salt, and pepper to taste

Melt garlic butter in a skillet on medium-low heat. Mince garlic and thinly slice shallot, then add to skillet. Add shrimp and cook until pink and no longer translucent. Squeeze lemon juice into the pan. Turn of skillet and grate cheese on top.

Tortellini
¼ cup ricotta
¼ cup parmesan
¼ cup romano
1 tsp parsley
1 sheet of pasta

Cut circles into your sheet of pasta. Mix together all cheeses with parsley. Place an even scoop of cheese in the center of each circle. Paint a very light layer of water on half of your circle and fold the pasta circle in half and press together around your cheese to seal it in. Roll the sealed in cheese onto your crease of pasta, pick your pasta up with your thumb on your sealed in cheese and pinch the two ends together over your thumb so you create a circle in the middle. Gently pull away the pasta overlapping on the back of your cheese pocket to create a “trap” for your sauce.

Tomato and Basil Sauce
½ onion
3-4 cloves garlic
olive oil
½ cup San Marzano tomatoes
salt and pepper, to taste
¼ cup fresh basil
Optional: oregano, Italian seasoning, thyme, crushed red pepper, sugar

Heat olive oil in a skillet on medium heat. Chop down onions and add to heated olive oil. Add salt and pepper to personal preference. Add minced garlic. When onions are translucent and garlic starts to turn golden, add San Marzano tomatoes. Add any optional spices to preference. Lower heat and simmer. Once the sauce begins to bubble, add basil (whole leaves or chopped).

Third Course: Lemon and Basil Gelato

1 cup milk
1 cup granulated sugar
5 eggs, beaten
3 tbsp lemon peel, grated
¾ cup lemon juice
2 cups heavy cream
3 – 4 leaves basil, chopped

In a saucepan, heat milk to 175F. Stir in sugar until dissolved. Slowly whisk mixture into beaten eggs. Return to heat. Add lemon peel, whisking constantly. Cook at medium heat until mixture is thick enough to coat a spoon. It should be 160F, DO NOT BOIL. Remove from heat and add lemon juice and cream. Let rest in bowl covered with plastic wrap touching the top of the custard to keep out all air. Refrigerate overnight. Pour mixture into gelato makers and churn. Add chopped basil and freeze.

The Experience

We had a class of eight people, plus the lead instructor and an assistant instructor, who just so happened to be from Italy. Almost everyone came as a couple, except for one father-daughter team, which was perfect because I came with my boyfriend. The class lasted just over two hours. I was thankful you could order and drink wine throughout the class. The alcohol definitely calmed my nerves about meeting everyone and helped me feel less insecure about my lack of cooking skills.

The most challenging and most fun part of the experience (besides eating, of course) was making the tortellini. Jason, our instructor, ran the dough through the pasta machine several times and passed the sheets around so everyone had a chance to feel it as it got thinner and thinner after each round.

Rolling, shaping and stuffing the tortellini was like making origami. For those who don’t know, tortellini is essentially a pasta dumpling, and it’s easy to mess up. The shape could turn out wrong, or you could end up overstuffing or under stuffing it. It was incredibly satisfying to roll a good one. I was a lady on a mission to have beautifully-shaped tortellini that day! Or at the very least passable.

I did also enjoy making the lobster cakes and getting my hands dirty with the shellfish and dough. Not to brag, but I thought our lobster cakes were the most golden brown and patty-shaped in the class.

After all the cooking and trying to keep up with instructions, we ate our finished products together as a class at a communal table. Needless to say, it was extremely rewarding. We definitely earned that meal. It was also great to sit down with the other classmates and talk to them without being busy with kitchen equipment. At the beginning of the class, most of us were quiet and didn’t interact with one another, but by the end, we were chitchatting about how good the food was and talking about our lives outside the class.

Overall, it was a fun and educational experience. I’m glad it was interactive, and it was a great way to practice teamwork with my boyfriend. If you’re looking pick up some cooking skills with friends, family members, co-workers, or a significant other, cooking classes are a fun group activity, an opportunity for team-building, and a great way to spend an afternoon.


Sam was born in Chicago, grew up in the Philippines, attended college in Australia and is now living in Grand Rapids. She loves cheese, video games and music, and will quote a movie or TV show every chance she gets.

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