Whether it's to master a specific cuisine or just to make tasty food at home for friends or family, there's always good reason to get schooled in culinary arts.
"I had to learn to cook because my mom was a terrible cook."
So began the career of chef Johnny Vollertsen, popularly known around these parts as Johnny Vee, and the around-the-world culinary journey that landed him in Santa Fe. Originally from Rochester, New York, Vollertsen honed his craft working both front- and back-of-house in restaurants from New York City to Sydney, Australia, where he opened that country's first Cajun restaurant in 1986.
Upon his return to the states, Vollertsen ran Jane Butel's renowned Southwest Cooking School, where he shared his love of cooking, and also learned that he really loved teaching. When he met Mike and Karen Walker, owners of Las Cosas Kitchen Shoppe in the DeVargas Center, the three agreed their in-shop kitchen should be more than a demonstration space—it should be an active place of learning.
This month Las Cosas Cooking School (DeVargas Center, 181 Paseo de Peralta, 988-3394) celebrates its 20th year, offering three to four classes per week, with a guest chef every two weeks. Vollertsen says cooking classes are "90 percent hands-on" to ensure students are learning skills as well as recipes. Las Cosas also offers instructional classes such as knife skills and how to use a pressure cooker. A bonus for shoppers is that if you buy knives or pressure cookers from the store, the classes on using them are free.
There's often a waiting list for the most popular classes, such as high-altitude baking, a three-hour intensive where students of all ages learn about the challenges of baking at altitude by preparing two versions of the same dishes, adjusted and unadjusted.
"It's a fun way to demonstrate the challenges of cooking at altitude," says Vollertsen. "This is a great class because it also usually has people new to Santa Fe and has been a great place for lots of people to make friends."
There is an enticing variety of classes offered at Las Cosas, from "New Mexico Favorites Gone Gourmet" and "The Magic of Mole" to "Vegetable Dishes from an Italian Garden" and "Tasty Thai Street Food." An example of the breadth of learning in just three hours of instruction, the latter teaches students classics such as grilled pork skewers, Bangkok fisherman's soup, pad thai, coconut rice and black sticky rice pudding as well as more complex dishes including sour orange fish curry, deep-fried soft-shell crabs with garlic and pepper, and crunchy prawn cakes.
Vollertsen, who has also penned a cookbook, Cooking with Johnny Vee: International Cuisine with a Modern Flair, in addition to being the food editor at Santa Fean magazine, is always adding new classes inspired by his favorite cuisines and cookbooks. A current read, he says, is Koreatown: A Cookbook, so expect to see more classes in Korean cooking coming soon to the Las Cosas Cooking School schedule.
Another school that teaches training on, and insight into, ethnic cooking is relative new kid on the block, Open Kitchen (202-285-9840). Helmed by Hue-Chan Karels, this combination school/catering/special events company was originally based in Washington, DC, until Karels and her husband found their dream home in Santa Fe. Aiming to "inspire taste buds, connect mind and body, and explore the relationship between food and culture," as she writes on her website, upcoming classes include an April "Root to Leaf" cooking class and, in June, a class on northern, central and southern Vietnamese cuisines. In the near future, chef Karels also plans on offering a Vietnamese food culture series, Pho and Beyond.
Among the options for those looking to expand their culinary knowledge and skills are cooking classes offered through Santa Fe Community College's continuing education program (sfcc.edu/offices/continuing-education). Students of all skill levels can choose from foundation classes such as cheesemaking and high-altitude baking to more exotic options including Chinese regional cuisine, Puerto Rican cooking and Native American food with a modern twist. An impressive variety of classes on vegan and vegetarian cooking are also offered.
For those interested in upping their local and regional food game, the Santa Fe School of Cooking (125 N Guadalupe St., 983-4511) has been specializing in the teaching of American Southwest food for almost 30 years. From tamales to rellenos to sauces—and chile, of course—the school is a go-to for those looking to hone their skills in New Mexican fare. Also popular are the school's restaurant walking tours, where students can learn about food from celebrated local chefs.
The options obviously abound here in Santa Fe, not just for eating delicious food, but learning how to create amazing dishes yourself. Take advantage of the bounty.