Learning to cook Thai dishes from one of Asia’s best restaurants, mastering the art of making macarons in Paris, cooking Venetian food with a Countess in Venice, and learning to how to make roti in a Cape Malay cooking class in Cape Town are just some of our picks of the best cooking classes in the world, all tried and tested.
We’ve long said that discovering the cuisine of a destination is a way into the heart of its everyday life and local culture, but learning to cook the food of a place is the route into its soul. Which is why we sign up for a culinary experience, whether it’s a street food tour or cooking class the moment we arrive in a new place.
Doing cooking classes on your travels is by no means a new trend. They’ve long been a popular holiday activity and long featured on itineraries of many travellers to Southeast Asia. So what’s changed? Once the domain of passionate cooks, industry pros, and travelling chefs, these days absolutely everyone is doing them.
Whether you watch a cooking demo as an observer or get up to your elbows in flour in a hands-on cooking class, there are few more meaningful and memorable ways to experience a country than by learning to cook its food.
However, not every cooking class is a good cooking class and we’ll be writing more about that soon. We’ve tested out way more than we’ve written about. There are definitely cooking classes we won’t recommend, like the one where the instructor opened a plastic box to reveal raw pork, chicken and fish together in the one container – just moments after lecturing the group about food safety!
The Best Cooking Classes in the World
These are our picks of the best cooking classes in the world that we’ve sampled. The list is by no means comprehensive but it will give you a good taste of some of the cooking courses on offer around the world.
Best Cooking Classes in Africa
Cape Malay Cooking Safari, Cape Town, South Africa
In Cape Town, South Africa, you can meet locals and get an insight into how they live their lives on a Cape Malay Cooking Safari offered by fair-trade tour company Andulela. The ‘safari’ began with a brief visit to Bo Kaap Museum to learn about the fascinating history of the ‘Cape Malays’ who were sought after as slaves because of their cooking skills.
This was followed by a stroll around the colourful neighbourhood of Bo Kaap, including a visit to a local butcher shop and the chance to play guess-the-spice at Atlas Trading Spice Shop, where we learnt how integral spices are to Cape Malay cuisine before putting our aprons on.
The hands-on cooking class took place in the home of a local cook, Faldela Tolker, who lets visitors into her house a few times a week to learn how to make her tasty home-style food. When we did the class, we made spicy chilli bites, roti, chicken curry, tomato and onion sambal, and samosas. Faldela’s cooking tip for the roti: “The dough should be shiny and elastic,” she advised. “The more you kneed, the less rising time you need.”
After, we sat down to enjoy the delicious meal together at the dining table, where Faldela taught us the meaning of ‘ubuntu’, the African concept of interconnectedness, openness and sharing. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, we also learnt that it’s possible to offer one of the best cooking classes in the world in your own home.
Best Cooking Classes in Asia
Issaya Cooking Studio, Bangkok, Thailand
Until Thai chef Ian Kittichai opened Issaya Cooking Studio in upmarket Central Embassy mall last year, cooking classes in Bangkok, Thailand, were limited to a handful of cooking schools, five-star hotels and tourist restaurants. While these often feature a fascinating walk through a local market to learn about ingredients, their menus rarely venture beyond the standards – spring rolls, red and green curries, mango with sticky rice – holding little appeal for people familiar with cooking Thai cuisine.
Issaya Cooking Studio undoubtedly offers some of the best cooking classes in the world. Participants learn recipes for dishes served at the chef’s Issaya Siamese Club restaurant, along with specialised classes on everything from pastry making to cocktails.
Expect to find yourself pounding spices beside locals who wouldn’t dream of doing a tourist cooking class but flock here to learn everything from sous-vide to the secret to Ian’s fall-off-the-bone Massaman curry lamb shank.
In Thailand, Ian, who teaches some of the classes himself, is even more famous than Australian Thai cuisine guru David Thompson, who helms another of Asia’s best restaurants, Nahm. Thailand’s Iron Chef, TV cooking shows, cookbooks, and restaurants in New York, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Hong Kong have made Kittichai a household name. The only delightful downside to the superb classes in the state-of-the-art Studio are the stream of Thai fans sneaking in for autographs and selfies with the chef.
Oriental Thai Cooking School, Bangkok, Thailand
From the dock of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it’s just a short boat ride across Bangkok’s bustling Chao Phraya River to the Oriental Thai Cooking School, set in a beautiful antique wooden house loaded with retro-Thai charm.
As you’d expect from one of the city’s most luxurious hotels, this is a genteel cooking school with a full professional kitchen, a team of kitchen staff on hand who prepare all of the ingredients in advance and assist the cooking instructor, a former hotel chef.
Classes are small, so students learn more than they would in larger groups, but instruction is mostly by demonstration, with students sharing tasks when it comes to the hands-on cooking component. Students learn about Thai spices, herbs and produce, and the menu of four dishes taught revolves daily, so check ahead to find out what’s on offer.
Chef Nairan shares tips throughout the class, like “Always use Kaffir lime leaves in Thai cooking – I’m in love with them! – they are very different to the leaves of lemons and ordinary limes. They are fragrant and zesty, and release an aromatic oil.”
Amantaka Cooking Class, Luang Prabang, Laos
The exclusive Amantaka resort, in an elegant French colonial building in UNESCO World Heritage listed Luang Prabang, Laos, offers private cooking classes on an organic farm, taught by the hotel’s executive chef on an organic farm. Local villagers work the community-operated farm, which Amantaka supports by buying the beautiful produce for its own hotel kitchen, as well as running its cooking classes there.
This was easily one of best cooking classes in the world that we’ve done. It’s a thoroughly hands-on class with students, generally a couple, family or small group of friends, first preparing the ingredients for all the dishes – chicken soup, steamed fish, stir-fried pork with coconut, and papaya salad on the day we cook – then cooking everything themselves under the close guidance of the chef.
The class begins with a visit to the vibrant local markets early the same morning to learn about Lao cuisine, which exhibits influences from the cuisines of China, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand, and local produce and ingredients. Our walk was punctuated with plenty of tips from Chef Anousit: “Only use the leaves of Kaffir limes – the fruit is too bitter and too sour. In Laos we only use it for shampoo and in the water used to make sticky rice.”
There’s a break for breakfast back at the hotel, before the class resumes later with a lovely drive out to the countryside, a wander around the farm, and cooking lessons in a small pavilion. When the cooking is done, participants relax under the shade of a sala overlooking a pond and rice fields, where they’re served the delicious feast they prepared.
Four Seasons Resort Cooking School, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Like all good South East Asian cooking classes, this brilliant course offered by the Four Seasons Resort just outside of Chiang Mai begins with a walking tour led by a private guide around a bustling food market to learn about Thai produce and ingredients, and to taste some local specialties.
Back at the beautiful resort, which overlooks luxuriant fields of rice paddies, guests observe a traditional Thai spirit house blessing before proceeding to the impressive Bill Bensley-designed, Lanna-style kitchen, where an expert instructor teaches students the art of Thai cuisine.
This is a 100% hands-on cooking class, with participants making everything themselves after a demonstration by the instructor, although kitchen staff are on hand to assist those who might forget a stage or ingredient. After the class, in a dining pavilion, guests get to savour their creations – along with views of the resort’s lush landscaped gardens.
Best Cooking Classes in Europe
Cook’n With Class, Paris, France
Eric Fradeau’s Cook’n With Class is one of the most popular English-language cooking schools in Paris, France, and one of the best cooking classes in the world as far as we’re concerned. Eric trained under chefs Joel Robuchon and Alain Ducasse and worked for the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton hotels in North America before returning to Paris and opening his school.
Eric offers a dozen different courses, with some including visits to the local market where the group decides what they should cook based on what’s available and fresh. The students then return to his Montmartre kitchen to cook a three-course meal, which they’ll later enjoy together.
Courses are offered at all levels – from beginner to specialist – and Eric is flexible and happy to adapt classes to suit people’s experience, interests and how hands-on they want to get. Eric’s two most popular courses are on pastry making. Students can choose to make pastry, biscuits and ice cream or they can learn how to make Paris’ famous macarons.
“Macarons are the new cup cakes!” our instructor, chef Pino Facara declared before our class. (This was back in 2010. He was right). His top macaron making tip: “Work in a dry area. Humidity is our biggest enemy. Moisture causes the macarons to crack and we don’t want them to crack.”
Cooking with the Countess, Venice, Italy
“Is there anything we should know beforehand about the cooking course?” we asked Countess Enrica Rocca before doing her full-day cooking class in Italy’s Venice. “Yes! Cancel your dinner appointments after the class!”
We met the lovely, elegant Enrica, known as ‘the cooking countess’, near Venice’s Rialto Markets, where, with the three other participants, we bought a whole mullet, shrimps, prawns, clams, tuna, scallops in their shells, beautiful vegetables, including San Erasmo Island artichokes, and pork ribs and sausages.
Our shopping done, we crossed the Rialto Bridge where Enrica introduced us to the time-old Venetian tradition of heading to a local bacari (Venetian bar) for a post-shopping spritz and taught us about Veneto wines at wine shop MilleVini before ambling back to her light-filled loft in the Dorsoduro.
There, our small group was quickly put to work coating gamberetti (tiny shrimps) with flour and frying them in oil, slicing tuna to make sashimi-style raw fish which we drizzled with olive oil, baking scallops with freshly-sliced ginger, making spaghetti with clams, baking fish, and searing pork. We enjoyed each dish as it was cooked and washed them all down with wine.
“I can’t give you a few recipes and expect all of a sudden you will be able to cook,” the Countess told us. “Instead, I teach you about the ingredients, show you where and how to buy them, and how to treat the produce,” she explained. “It’s a lot of food to eat and a lot of cooking, but we’re working off the calories as we go!”
Enrica’s unique approach, relaxed style of teaching, and hands-on experience make this undoubtedly one of the best cooking classes in the world for us. The beauty of the experience is that it doesn’t feel as if you’re in a cooking school.
Read’s Master Chef Experience, Mallorca, Spain
At Reads, a luxurious 23-room, five-star hotel at the foot of the Tramuntana mountains on the island of Mallorca in Spain, you can play at being a Master Chef for a day. Located in the countryside, just 15 minutes from the island’s capital Palma, Reads has been offering a Master Chef Experience in the working kitchen of its renowned restaurant, Bacchus, for close to a decade.
This is easily one of the best cooking classes in the world simply for the fact that no cooking school can match the experience you get in a real restaurant kitchen. Here you have the best of both worlds.
Participants get to work a whole day with the head chef in the kitchen, beginning with a meeting where you learn how the team works and learn about the various sections of the kitchen. You then get to work in each section, all the time assisted by the chef’s team. In the afternoon you get a chance to rejuvenate in the spa with a full body massage before returning for the evening service at 7pm.
The fee includes a gift of a Reads embroidered chefs jacket, lunch, an evening meal, and body massage. For an additional fee you and a partner can dine at the Chef’s Table. (Or, the partner can watch from the Chef’s Table as you sweat over the stoves, as I did.) If you don’t fancy spending a whole day in the kitchen, Read’s also offers hands-on, two-hour cooking classes with the head chef.
Best Cooking Classes in The Americas
Cook in Rio, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Bob Marley was blasting on the stereo when we arrived at the compact, down-to-earth Copacabana eatery Tasco de Lido, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The restaurant’s vivacious owner and cooking instructor Chef Simone Theisen was singing along as she prepped for our ‘Cook in Rio’ cooking class. The other students were chatting away cheerfully as they sipped drinks.
“The best way to understand a culture is to go into the kitchen,” Simone told the group as the class began. “People are what they eat.” Simone informed the group that we were going to learn about Brazil and Brazilians at the same time as we learnt how to make simple home-cooked local food. And then the fun began.
We made fried manioc crisps, drank coconut shots, and learnt how to make a cumari pepper sauce, farofa, rice, and seafood moqueca, as well as Brazil’s national cocktail, the caiparinha. “I enjoy cooking,” Simone told us, as we all sipped our second round of caipirinhas while we waited for lunch to finish cooking.
“It’s a way to show off an important part of my culture,” she explained. “I’m proud of being Brazilian, from a ‘mixed culture’. In Brazil we feel ‘mixed’, not black or white, and people only understand this when they eat our food.” A tip from Simone: “If you cry when you chop onions, swallow some water”.
Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
“The focus of my school is traditional Mexican food, not the cuisine of chefs,” Marilau Ricaud, owner of the Marilau Mexican Ancestry Cooking School, told Terence and I as she handed out our aprons. In the charming town of San Miguel de Allende, north of Mexico City, Marilau offers traditional Mexican cooking classes inspired by her family’s culinary repertoire and her small school is easily one of the best cooking classes in the world focusing on heritage cuisine.
Taught at several different levels, she has passed on her knowledge to some of the world’s best chefs who have flown to Mexico to do her advanced course where they learn 30+ dishes! When we did her cooking class, we learnt to cook just three dishes, from recipes that Marilau learnt from her mother and grandmothers: sopa de tortilla (tortilla soup), the pre-Hispanic dish of pollo en pipian rojo (chicken in a spicy pumpkin seed sauce), and sarapitos (plantains in tortillas with mole sauce).
It was a hands-on cooking class in which we get to do everything from deep frying tortilla pieces to learning how to toast ancho chillies on a pan. As we turned them continually, Marilau warned “You can tell when they’re ready by the smell – the smell is different when it’s untoasted and toasted. Mexicans always use their nose when they cook!”
The only thing we didn’t make was the mole sauce, which Ricaud said was made from a secret family recipe with 30 different ingredients. A cooking tip from Marilau: “Cut chillies and open them up, and pull the vein and seeds out, but never rinse them as water reduces the flavour.”
Central Market Cooking Classes, Austin, Texas, USA
When we arrived at Central Market’s ‘Cookin’ and Singin’ Class with Brandon Rhyder’ in Austin, Texas, in the USA, country music star Rhyder was strumming his guitar and singing a song about eating burgers. In the professional kitchen behind the singer, Chef Vance Ely was at the stove stirring greens, while other kitchen staff busied themselves with various tasks.
Participants sat in classroom-like rows, facing the kitchen, where a television monitor provided a close-up of the stovetop. A woman zigzagged back and forth along rows pouring generous glasses of wine. In between singing songs, Rhyder shared cooking tips and anecdotes about his childhood, life on the road, and his love of food.
As a child, Ryder told us, “We went squirrel hunting, we farmed ‘organic’ before it was invented, and we’d all cook and eat together.” When he’s on tour, Rhyder said they use the bus engine to cook. “It stays at a constant of 290 degrees. There’s space on the engine block so we throw on some ribs and by the time we get to the gig they’re ready!” The participants laughed.
The evening was punctuated with songs, jokes, laughter, questions, music, cooking and plating in the background, and, of course, eating: mustard greens, yellow tomatoes and corn bread; steak, potatoes and corn; and piping hot berries with a thin, crispy biscuit and ice cream.
This may not be one of the best cooking classes to do for those of you who prefer to get hands-on but it’s great fun and is fantastic for people who love to hear the stories behind the food while they’re learning to cook it. Central Market holds these quirky cooking demonstrations led by local personalities who are passionate about food, several times a week.
Do you do cooking classes when you travel? We’d love to hear from you in the Comments below if you have any cooking schools you love?