Sundri Behl takes a bite of the cornflakes-crumbed spicy paneer that executive sous chef Prem Kumar Pogakula has just prepared at The Imperial, New Delhi. Born in Karachi and brought up in Casablanca, Tangier and West Indies before she fell in love with an Indian serviceman in Pune five decades ago, the homemaker has been a regular at The Imperial’s Culinary Club for the past few years. Once a “super-cook” herself, the septuagenarian grandmother says, “I burn something every day now. Two days ago, I set fire to sugar while trying to melt it.”
Today she watches as Pogakula demonstrates seven “monsoon-inspired” recipes, while the hotel’s general manager, Vijay Wanchoo, keeps up a lively stage conversation on a hands-free mic. The action on the stove is projected on large screens for a feel of a live cookery show. It’s a deliberate strategy—Wanchoo hosted a cooking show Fat or Fit on Zee TV in the 1990s and was instrumental in launching the club at The Imperial in 2009. Having hosted 34 workshops so far, including ones featuring chefs and authors such as Tara Deshpande, Chandra Padmanabhan and Vikas Khanna, he now plans to set up a 2,000 sq. ft permanent kitchen display to seal The Imperial’s position in the culinary arts.
Later, the participants will have a buffet lunch and go home with gift vouchers for future lunches and dinners. Three hours and Rs 2,000 well-spent, they all agree.
In the past few years, five-star culinary workshops have become increasingly popular in the Capital. Women of a certain age would remember being sent to neighbourhood cooking classes at their mothers’ insistence. Whatever the regional cuisine being taught, this was one initiation to adulthood common to all neighbourhoods in all cities in India with a concentration of young women (and, once in a while, young men). Now, posh workshops, hosted by award-winning chefs from around the world, teach global cuisine in classes to which your mother would probably like to tag along.
Offering such workshops for the past two decades, the Oberoi New Delhi caters to small groups of hobby cooks round the year. “In a year, we conduct 10-12 pastry classes at the Patisserie, six to seven European cooking classes, six to seven sushi and about 12 Indian cooking classes at our show kitchen area,” says the hotel’s chef de cuisine and executive chef of The Oberoi Group, Soumya Goswami.
The workshops here, priced between Rs 3,500 and Rs 8,000, have a more hands-on approach. Participants include tourists, homemakers and children, who make four to 12 dishes each. Many classes are customized—they once held a workshop for a teenager who celebrated her birthday by engaging in a cooking class with her friends; the young guests even received printed certificates as memorabilia.
Other Oberoi properties also offer gastronomic rides: The Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur has a “Cooking Session with the Masters” in which guests can learn Rajasthani recipes like lal maas within 2 hours for Rs 4,500, plus taxes, per person. The Oberoi, Mumbai and Kolkata, offer a “Cook with the Chef” at Rs 5,000 and Rs 2,500 (plus taxes) respectively, for a 3-hour session followed by a meal. The Oberoi, Mumbai holds sushi-making classes at the Fenix for Rs 2,500 per head plus taxes—two to eight guests learn to make two-three types of rolls each, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian, followed by lunch or dinner. On the last Friday of every month (till December), you can attempt Japanese cuisine at the Hyatt Regency Delhi’s TK’s Oriental Grill for Rs 2,100 per head, followed by a meal. Master chef Achal Aggarwal, who has worked in Japan and the US, leads a group of about 25 women in these popular classes.
Customization plays a key part in luring new participants and keeping regulars hooked. “We once invited our two most regular attendees to host one session and share their favourite recipes,” says Deepak Bhatia, executive chef, The Westin Gurgaon and The Westin Sohna Resort and Spa, Haryana. Priced at Rs 1,500, each session of Westin Culinary Academy trains about 12 guests, followed by a lunch. Bhatia explains the relatively low price point, “The idea originated when guests started requesting chefs for recipes. We thought the platform could be a culinary exchange and raise awareness about what goes on in the kitchens. We are not looking at earning profits from the amount we charge; it’s about creating an experience.”
Launched in February, 70 people have already attended the monthly workshops, including expats, homemakers, and husbands dragged along by their wives, mostly residents of Gurgaon and south Delhi.
Those with a sweet tooth could go for a chocolate-making workshop at the same price at The Chocolate Box, the patisserie and boulangerie at the Radisson Blu MBD, Noida. Conducted by Santosh Reddy, pastry chef, these workshops for groups of 10-12 persons teach you to create the right chocolate mix and make interesting flavours with nuts, spices, and so on. What’s the most difficult part of the process? “People often struggle to get the chocolate shapes right,” says Reddy, laughing.
Gourmet rewards are, of course, subjective. Four nutrition-enthusiasts from Denver, US, signed up to take tips on Indian cuisine at a Korporate Kurry class at Taj West End, Bangalore, but ended up with surprising insights into the versatility and health benefits of Indian food. The Masala Klub, which has conducted over 100 lessons so far, having taught over 300 people a variety of cuisines, is the most active five-star culinary workshop in the city. The sous chef not only shares cooking secrets at a studio kitchen, but also gives tips on healthier cooking styles and ingredients. Targeted as a corporate activity and as a way for colleagues to bond over cooking, the classes, priced Rs 1,200-3,000, have nevertheless attracted people of all ages and backgrounds, including gym instructors, dieticians and microbiologists.
Such culinary experiences have been the hallmark of some of the leading luxury hotels in the world. For the past 20 years, the Oriental Thai Cookery School at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok has been an institution for fine Thai cuisine. Hotel guests can participate in any of their daily workshops for instructions in four Thai dishes, such as crab-meat dumplings and curried fish mousse, followed by lunch, for Baht 3,800, or around Rs 7,645, per head (plus taxes). The hotel chain’s Miami resort offers private cooking classes with award-winning chef Jacob Anaya, who teaches guests how to prepare a gourmet, three-course meal in a stunning open kitchen. The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge in Alberta, Canada, has been offering wholesome “Christmas in November” workshops for 25 years. Besides cooking, the three-day packages include lessons in mixology, festive decor, crafts and champagne tastings, and are priced Canadian $849-999 (around Rs 51,875-61,040) per person.
Closer home, the JW Marriott in Mumbai held a “blind-tasting food session” in April. Based on chef Sergi Arola’s belief that “you do not taste food, you experience it”, the session (Rs 1,800 plus taxes per person) had guests entering the restaurant blind-folded, being served a three-course meal with wine pairing for each.
The idea was to bring alive the flavours of the food and wine, and take away visual distractions. Chef Arola also conducted a 3-hour “masterclass” in late June, demonstrating his star dishes to a small group of guests, who had a tasting session later.
Meanwhile, back at the Imperial hotel, Behl and her table-mates, two fashionable girls in their early 20s, gingerly take pieces of the masala onion patti samosa they’ve just watched being cooked. Behl goes into flashback mode: “Once, I used to cook a hundred of these in Casablanca for pot-luck parties, just like that,” she snaps her fingers.
She samples the professional cook’s take on her age-old specialty. “Mine were better,” she announces, but savours it down to the last bite.
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Cooking lessons in luxury
Duration: 2-4 hours
Number of items prepared per workshop: 4-12
Ingredients: Supplied by the hotel as per the cuisine
Takeaways: Recipes, notebooks, souvenirs such as dinner vouchers and aprons
Price per head: Rs.1,500-8,000 (plus taxes), including a meal
First published in Mint Lounge newspaper