"The meal was better than anything we ate in a Oaxacan restaurant."
When I told a good friend that I was heading to Oaxaca on vacation, he asked "will you be taking cooking classes?" Of course! While we aren't cooking school junkies, I'm a cooking school regular and my wife attends often enough. It was in itself, a very good reason to travel there.
We began our education at Seasons of My Heart, a large and almost charismatic school run by Susana Trilling, a former Manhattan chef, cookbook author, and television hostess. Susana greeted us in front of a hotel in Oaxaca city and loaded all 15 or 16 of us into a van.
Within minutes, we were experiencing Oaxaca's remarkable all-or-nothing road system. After flying down highways, we stopped in the market town of Etla where we were divided into two groups and toured the very large market. We visited all sorts of vendors—those selling ices, tamales, and miscellaneous prepared foods.
After, we went back to her school, located in the sort of lonely and remote desert spot you'd expect a secret agent to be held prisoner in. Instead, there was a cooking classroom, a corner book and souvenir shop, and a small inn. In the grand cooking school tradition, we were divided into teams and set to work.
Soon we were cooking away. I was making a chickpea soup (sopa de garbanzo) while my classmates made green salad with jicama, guava, and pumpkin seeds, arroz con Chepil (an herbed rice), Mexican-style chicken broth, a sauce called Manchamanteles Oaxaqueno or "Tablecloth Stainer," and for dessert, a chocolate pudding with Mezcal and local chocolate.
The meal was better than anything we ate in a Oaxacan restaurant, with its wide variety of deep flavors (and none of the heat many of the students feared).
Any complaints? Not really, although I found it strange that there were local crafts vendors selling sculptures and jewelry to students during the class. Imagine that at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York.
The following day, we were in another school, La Casa de los Sabores in Oaxaca city, where chef Pilar Cabrera presided over a similarly structured class with an entirely different vibe.
Instead of being transported by van to a remote location, we strolled a few blocks to a market that was totally off-the-tourist-trail. Here, we got a similar tour but unlike Susana (who always acted like a leader), Pilar just seemed like a regular customer.
Our menu included: cheese and mushroom quesadillas, squash blossom soup, yellow mole with chicken, a Oaxacan salsa, and a Mexican rice pudding. It was every bit as good as the meal we made at Seasons Of My Heart and because it was in the city, much easier.
All in all, these classes left me believing (correctly as it turns out) that I could do serious Mexican cooking back at home and got me wondering why so few restaurants in Oaxaca could cook as well as we could in class.
Full Disclosure: In addition to taking the class at Casa De Los Sabores, we also stayed in one of their bed and breakfast rooms, also an enjoyable experience.