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Chopped! Sonoma’s Top Cooking Schools

Living in wine country we’re surrounded by the best, freshest ingredients. But do we really know what to do with them?

Sonoma chefs certainly do, and one of the best ways to discover their secrets is to take a cooking class. Some local schools are led by professional instructors, some are led by employed chefs, and some are led by both. The key is to make sure sessions are interactive, so not only do you learn hands-on, but you have more fun.

Relish Culinary Center, Healdsburg

“Have kitchen, will travel.” That’s the motto for Donna del Rey, even though she owns and operates one of Sonoma’s most stunning culinary schools, located in downtown Healdsburg. A specialist in off-the-beaten-path locations for cooking classes, she will pull up in her logo’d white 1952 Chevy panel van and show you how to create a feast, right there in your private home, a winery cave or cellar, on a farm, at the coastline, or even a remote hillside if a stove can be hauled up there.

Del Rey also coordinates culinary tours, co-ops with Sonoma’s top chefs and winemakers for celeb-style cooking demonstrations, and is renowned for her one-of-a-kind experiences custom created for her clients’ interests and skills. Often, the classes include working with the actual farmers, cheese makers, and other food artisans, and many times classes can be held right on their properties.

She caters to adults, but also to children, with specialty classes designed for the little ones.

Whatever the event, the goal is the same – get everyone involved, and having a terrific time while they learn. Chop those onions, whisk that cream, blend that butter, stuff those chickens and enjoy a few sips of great Sonoma wine along the way.

Just a few of the seasonal, off-site Relish adventures include wild mushroom foraging, where participants explore the mossy underside of the forest, learn how to find fabulous fungi and finish with a wild mushroom lunch. There are Farm-to-Table Day Trips, featuring a visit to a biodynamic winery and farm for a private tasting, followed by a hands-on cooking class and lunch with ingredients picked earlier at the farm, plus a private wine blending session. Specific themes might include summer peaches, or salmon, for Sonoma’s seasonal best.

Be sure to ask about multi-day Cook+Stay packages, too, including lodging. Popular choices include the Sonoma Locavore Experience; the Artisan Food and Wine Tour; and the Sonoma County Grape Camp (www.sonomagrapecamp.com) offered by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

Details: Relish Culinary Center, relishculinary.com.

Elements of Taste, Sonoma County

To be a passionate cook in Sonoma, it helps to be a passionate gardener. Chef and green thumb guru Mary Karlin combines the two for good food and wine in casual, interactive classes (she also teaches at Ramekins).

Check the calendar (http://www.elementsoftaste.com/calendar.html) for classes in a variety of locations, including private gatherings in your home. Seasonally inspired menus can include Live Fire Cooking Camp, Wood-fired Cooking Classes and Tutorials, or You-Cook/We-Cook Parties.

As just one example, the wood-fired classes unlock the pleasures of flame cooking, including grilling, roasting, searing and baking in an authentic Italian wood-fired brick oven from Forno Bravo, or on a Big Green Egg ceramic cooker.

Details: Elements of Taste, elementsoftaste.com.

Ramekins, Sonoma

Besides their downtown Sonoma culinary center, owners Sarah and Darius Anderson operate private cooking classes, which can be held nearly anywhere, and for anyone, from circles of friends to corporate teams. Maybe you want to host a get-together in your own home, or take their suggestions on magical, for-hire venues like Sonoma’s most sumptuous winery gardens.

Professional instructors work closely with you and your guests to create a custom menu, demonstrate how to create it, then let you and your party eat it all up.

Details: Ramekins Culinary School, ramekins.com.

G&G Market’s Ginger Grille Demo Kitchen & Cooking Classes

G&G is a very fine supermarket, but fewer people may realize that the Santa Rosa location is also home to an excellent cooking school. Its Ginger Grille Demo Kitchen hosts an ongoing calendar of top Sonoma chefs like Josh Silvers of Syrah and Scott Fortney of Petaluma Poultry, making Pollo Sotto Mattone starring Sonoma’s Rocky Jr., free-range chicken.

Other headliners include Sonoma County chef and cookbook author Maria Vieages, who specializes in Italian cuisine and offers secrets on how to make the perfect sausage and spinach cannelloni, lemon-garlic roasted chicken, and risotto with peas and prosciutto. Vieages is a hot talent – she auditioned for the Next Food Network Star Season 6 and hosts a food talk radio show on KGGV radio.

Details: Ginger Grille @ G&G Market, 1211 W. College Avenue, Santa Rosa, gandgmarket.com.

Sur La Table, Santa Rosa

There are so many tempting classes at this sophisticated culinary emporium, that it’s best to simply check the online calendar (http://www.surlatable.com/browse/storeCalendar.jsp?storeId=042&&offset=1).

A sampling of courses might include “5 Contemporary Fish Dishes Every Cook Should Know,” or “Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Basics in a Three Part Series,” or “SAVEUR Cooks: Charleston's Soul Food.” And then there’s the unexpected: a program on America's Food Truck Cuisine, for example.

As an extra treat, Sur La Table encourages couples to cook together, with its “Date Night” classes, on romantic topics like “Paris in the Spring,” featuring traditional seasonal recipes for an entire authentic French meal that you can share with your sweetie.

Details: Sur La Table, 2323 Magowan Drive, Santa Rosa, 707-566-9820, surlatable.com.

VIVA, Sebastopol

A touch of authentic Italy, in tiny Sebastopol? It’s true. This Italian based learning center is the work of Study Abroad Italy, in a mission to share a love of good food, wine and Italian culture and heritage.

Classes are taught by chefs trained in Italy, and draw from a network of international professionals wanting the opportunity to study at prestigious English-taught programs in Milan, Florence, Rome, Siena, Sicily and London, or chefs pursuing culinary and fine arts programs.

Sebastopol students work in a modern, Italian-style demonstration kitchen classroom, outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. Courses are hands-on, with delicious bits of Italian art, culture, history and travel information mixed in among the food and wine.

As another great option, the school can be rented for private group classes, or you can hire a private to host a class at your location. Creative themes might include Foraged Food Workshops with chef and Citta'slow supporter John McReynolds, or French macarons with Sonoma County pastry chef Dominique Cortara of the celebrated Dominique’s Sweets.

Details: Viva, Study Abroad Italy, 7160 Keating Avenue. Sebastopol, 707-824-9913, saiprograms.com/viva.

Tip: All classes are more fun with a big group of friends. Why not rent a stretch limo and whisk all your friends to a class together, followed by a party at a wine bar?

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