SOMERVILLE — Eleven students are gathered around a long work table in the tiny kitchen of Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, watching chef Jason Martin mix a small ball of pasta dough while he explains the basics of his craft. A basket of bread and log of goat cheese are off to one side to stave off participants’ hunger until the pasta they make is ready to eat later in the evening. And there’s wine. “Handmade pasta is hard work, but only for 10 minutes,” Martin says. “That’s what the wine’s for.”
The 10 minutes is the kneading required to get the dough smooth and a little sticky. Whether the wine eases the process is not readily apparent, but its effect on the group is a different matter. Though not all are strangers when they arrive — some have come with friends — the room is considerably more lively an hour or so (and a bottle or two) into the session.
Dave’s is among several local venues to offer culinary classes, and all say they are experiencing a recent uptick, which has translated into a greater course diversity. Some say TV cooking shows fuel the public’s curiosity. Certainly chefs continue to have rock star status. The burgeoning numbers of students seeking inspiration from the professionals are learning directly from current and former restaurant chefs as well as teachers with professional training. “There’s more interest now than ever,” says Brehon Garcia-Dale of the Boston Center for Adult Education, where a rotation of 90 to 115 classes change every couple of months.
Dave’s has been holding participation classes for six years. Once they were pasta and sauce only, but now you might go to make mozzarella or learn how to throw a successful brunch. “These cooking classes have really taken off for us,” says chef Martin, watching flour-dusted students roll out sheets of pasta as if they’d been doing it for years. The specialty shop offers two to three sessions every week, plus private classes.
With a mix of students, whose abilities range from kitchen novices to experienced home cooks who want to improve their skills, or acquire new ones, the Boston Center’s offerings run the gamut from basic cooking to roll-your-own sushi. All are hands-on and limited to 15. As at Dave’s, BCAE students consume everything they prepare, with wine. So a cooking class is an “interactive dining experience,” says Garcia-Dale, who plans the curricula. About one-quarter of the programs are what the center calls “core classes,” or sessions that concentrate on the basics. The rest, she says, are based largely on trends and suggestions. “Farm-to-table is really big now,” she notes. In addition, “People like to make things,” hence the popularity of cheese making and “Pickle Me This, Pickle Me That.”
At the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, which offers professional training, a selection of recreational classes complements the degree programs. Thai classes have been selling out recently, and Indian, Moroccan, and Cuban offerings are very popular. “People want diverse cuisine,” says Sean Leonard, who plans these programs. A new Southeast Asian class, which Leonard says is actually a reintroduction of a course popular nine years ago, has a big following among couples. It’s not unusual, notes the 13-year CSCA veteran, for trends to recur.
Nor is it uncommon for students to return. Many take technique classes, then enroll in the professional program. Frequently, teens come in, then continue as adults. And people tend to return in groups, often with others they met in class. “Cooking food brings people together,” he says. “It continues outside of our kitchen, too.”
There are suburban options for those who don’t venture too far from home. CSCA graduate Lori Leinbach, a former elementary school teacher, began hands-on classes in her Southborough home eight years ago. When demand exceeded the space, she moved her Culinary Underground to a small shopping square off Route 9 in Southborough. She attracts singles and couples between the ages of 7 and 77, she says, “who get hooked on the cooking class thing.” She notices that many students are TV cooking show regulars. “You can watch the Food Network forever,” says the teacher, “but until you get in there with a knife, you’re not really cooking.”
To plan classes, Leinbach says, “you try to keep your finger on the pulse: What’s trending? People are very concerned about where their food is coming from. Sustainable seafood is popular.” Cheese- and sausage-making are other recent favorites. The school holds a monthly fresh pasta workshop, and frequent knife skills classes. But even with all that, Leinbach says, “the basic series is the most popular.”
Once you’re part of a class, it’s fun to watch the camaraderie unfold. A group starts out quiet, then ends sharing ingredients and cheering each other on.
As Dave’s owner Dave Jick puts it, “It is half education, half entertainment.”
Dave’s Fresh Pasta, 81 Holland St., Somerville, 617-623-0867, www.davesfreshpasta.com.
Boston Center for Adult Education, 122 Arlington St., Boston, 617-267-4430, www.bcae.org.
Cambridge School of Culinary Arts, 2020 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-2020, www.cambridgeculinary.com.
21 Turnpike Road (Route 9 West),
Southborough, 508-904-6589, culinaryunderground.com.