When people learn that I am a food writer and restaurant reviewer, the most frequent question they pose is, what’s your favorite restaurant in Princeton? To which I naturally plead the Fifth. But a question or request that has been popping up with increasing frequency these days is this: Where’s a good place to take cooking lessons?

Sometimes people ask on their own behalf; sometimes they want to give them as a gift. What both questions have in common — and what makes each (the favorite restaurant; the best place to take cooking classes) so difficult to answer succinctly — is that the ideal recommendation is highly dependent upon the person doing either the dining out or the donning of an apron.

So when it comes to cooking lessons, I want to know are they looking for hands-on instruction or does the thought of showing their lack of expertise in front of others intimidate them, making demonstrations more appreciated? Are they novices in the kitchen or accomplished home cooks? Are they adventurous foodies who want to learn from cutting-edge chefs or do they simply want to ramp up their weeknight dinner repertoire (perhaps one that even kids will enjoy)? Are they interested in a one-shot deal or can they commit to a series of classes? Would they prefer to be instructed in the privacy of their own kitchen? These are just some of the variables.

In answer to these considerations, we’ve rounded up some of the best options, including their many permutations and what each has to offer. Note that advance registration is required for just about all of them.

Restaurant Chef On-Site

Say you like a particular restaurant’s food, you like the chef who creates and executes it, and you want to replicate it at home. Here are three area chefs who are happy to show you how — in the very place they make the magic happen.

Chambers Walk Cafe. When Mario Mangone was in the design stage of planning his BYOB in Lawrenceville, now 10 years old, he knew from the start that he wanted to include a long dining bar facing the open kitchen. The idea was that not only could diners choose to eat there and watch the goings-on, but it would be an ideal set-up for this Culinary Institute of America-trained chef to conduct cooking demonstrations. So, on many Monday nights throughout the year (Chambers Walk does not serve dinner on Mondays), you will find 10 and 15 “guests” at the bar, watching and asking questions as Mangone talks through and prepares one appetizer, one entree, and one dessert, all taken from the cafe’s current seasonal menu. As each course is finished, the class gets to sample the dish.

On Monday, May 16, for example, Mangone plans to make arugula salad with Cherry Grove cheese, cracked black pepper, and balsamic vinaigrette; pan-seared skate wing with barley, sauteed arugula, and lemon butter; and banana peanut butter bouchee. Each class costs $40, runs from 7 to 9 p.m., and includes take-home recipes.

If hands-on instruction is what you have in mind, Mangone and his staff are happy to put together custom classes for groups as small as four or as large as 70. Big groups are broken into smaller groups, each responsible for preparing one dish, under the supervision of a chef. Food cost for these classes is $65 per person, plus a chef’s fee of $150 per chef, plus gratuities and taxes.

Chambers Walk Cafe, 2667 Main Street (Route 206) Lawrenceville, www.chamberswalk.com, 609-896-5995.

Jersey Girl Cafe. While Kathy Rana’s cafe won’t be opening up in Hamilton until June, this dynamo’s catering company and personal chef service, Madeline’s Table, has been well-regarded since its formation in 2004. (She is, for example, the preferred personal chef of American Express in Princeton and central New Jersey.) Rana also has been conducting hands-on group evening cooking classes in the commercial kitchens at high schools in West Windsor, South Brunswick, Monroe, and elsewhere — as well as offering customized classes in private homes.

She is known for her healthy takes on, for example, Chinese dishes, and her May line-up includes group classes on sushi making, easy summer salads, and quick breads. Private, personalized, hands-on classes for one to four participants can be arranged, either to be held in your own home or at Jersey Girl Cafe, once it’s up and running. The cost is $125 for a 90-minute session or $200 for one that lasts two and a half hours. By the way: Kathy Rana really is a Jersey girl. She grew up in New Egypt, where she learned to cook from her Hungarian grandmother and to bake from her mother, who was a professional baker.

Jersey Girl Cafe/Madeline’s Table, 731 Route 33, Hamilton, next to Hamilton Car Wash, madelinestable.com, 908-421-6434.

Brothers Moon. Chef Will Mooney mounts both hands-on and demonstration classes at his Hopewell restaurant for small groups (and only on demand). Usually, these can be arranged for a Wednesday or Thursday night. One particular appeal of his hands-on classes, which are restricted to a minimum of four students and a maximum of seven, is that students are not only working alongside a professional chef in his own kitchen, but they’re using professional appliances, cookware, and cutlery. (Closed-toed shoes are required, as in any restaurant kitchen.)

These hands-on classes are priced according to the menu selected, but generally start at $75 per person. Demonstration classes, which can be arranged for between 15 and 25 students, have Chef Will preparing a mutually pre-selected menu in a relaxed, interactive format while the class is comfortably seated. After watching the step-by-step preparation, students are given tastings, along with a beverage. Demo classes start at $45. In all cases, copies of the recipes are included, and classes last from two-and-a-half to three hours.

One sample menu comprises a selection of party appetizers, including tuna with sesame vegetables in wontons; plaintain chips with sweet-hot BBQ chicken; crab, jalapeno, cilantro, and lime in tortilla cups; molasses-glazed baby back ribs; and goat cheese, roasted peppers, and parsley.

Since Brothers Moon has from day one featured healthy options made from local ingredients, a vegetarian dinner menu is another class option. Students learn to make farro risotto with butternut squash and green beans; spicy chili tofu with marinated vegetables; Parmesan polenta with roasted tomato sauce and roasted vegetables; and five-minute chocolate cake.

Brothers Moon, 7 West Broad Street, Hopewell, www.brothersmoon.com, 609-333-1330.

Two other area restaurants where chefs hold classes onsite are Hamilton’s Grill Room and Rat’s at Grounds For Sculpture. And at both the classes are so popular they regularly sell out. Jim Hamilton, the proprietor of his eponymous Lambertville restaurant, long ago turned over the grill to his executive chef Mark Miller, but he does get behind it on occasion to conduct demo classes. Unfortunately, he won’t be scheduling any until the fall.

At Rat’s, last winter’s classes led by executive chef Shane Cash, who took over the stoves there late last year, sold out almost as soon as they were posted. Students signed on for a series of four classes, one each week for a month. Each week they learned to prepare a different four-course “farm to table” menu, which was presented along with tastings of matched wines. Cost was $300 for a series of four classes, which were held on Monday or Tuesday nights. Classes will start up again in January, 2012.

Hamilton’s Grill Room, 8 Coryell Street, Lambertville, www.hamiltonsgrillroom.com, 609-397-4343; Rat’s Restaurant, 16 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton, ratsrestaurant.org, 609-584-7800.

Restaurant Chef Off-Site

Some restaurants, especially those that are open seven days a week, simply can’t turn over their kitchen or dining room to a class. But that doesn’t mean their chefs aren’t willing to share their skills in other venues.

Eno Terra, Mediterra, Teresa Caffe, and Witherspoon Bread. Chris Albrecht can be found day-to-day in the kitchen of Eno Terra in Kingston, but he is also the executive chef overseeing all these Princeton properties of the Terra Momo Restaurant Group. Albrecht, who signed on in 2008 after working with famed chef/restaurateur Tom Colicchio in both New York and Las Vegas, has become a familiar fixture on the Princeton scene, in part for the popular — and free — cooking classes he conducts inside the Princeton Public Library in conjunction with the Thursday farmers markets held on the plaza outside during the growing season.

The upcoming series, called Princeton Eats: Cooking with Local Ingredients, will include three once-a-month sessions, each featuring a different Terra Momo chef demonstrating how to cook with local ingredients found at the Thursday market. On June 21, it will be Chris Albrecht; July 19 will feature Witherspoon Bread’s head baker, Denis Granarolo; and on August 1 expect Teresa’s Luis Martinez. All demos begin at 10 a.m. and registration is not required.

Princeton Eats: Cooking with Local Ingredients, Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street, princetonlibrary.org, 609-924-9529.

Blue Point Grill, Witherspoon Grill, Nassau Street Seafood. These Princeton properties are part of Jack Morrison’s JM Group. Chefs from all three just ended a highly successful series at the Princeton Adult School, under the title From Sea to Table: Exploring the World of Seafood. Chefs Edgar Urias, Christian Graciano, and Jose Lopez discussed and demonstrated how to purchase and prepare fresh fish — shellfish, ocean fish, and fresh water fish — while making a first course, salad, entree, and sandwich. The five-session series was held on sequential Tuesday evenings and cost $185. The course will be offered next January, and the JM Group may be doing a Latin Fusion course this fall.

FYI, every fall and spring, the Princeton Adult School offers an impressive variety of cooking classes led by local chefs and food professionals, including Kathy Rana of Madeline’s Table. Many are held at Dorothea’s House at 120 John Street in Princeton.

Princeton Adult School, princetonadultschool.org, 609-683-1101.

Cooking School

Brick-and-mortar, independent, hands-on cooking schools are much rarer these days than in the past, partly due to prohibitive insurance costs. Yet there still are a few places around where providing cooking lessons is the main or only business.

Mercer County Community College. Clearly, MCCC doesn’t exist solely to teach cooking, but its Culinary Center at Mercer on the West Windsor campus offers degreed professional programs. And the public can take noncredit courses throughout the year via the Center for Continuing Studies. These classes, which include demonstrations, hands-on practice, and sampling, are led by area veterans like Larry Frazer, who recently left Princeton University’s catering department to become culinary arts instructor at Eden Institute, and Wendy Jaeger, an accomplished French cook whose business, Bliss Travels, specializes in culinary and cultural trips to France. A recent addition to the line-up is Rita Bohlumbohm, former pastry chef for the Princeton Hyatt, who will teach a one-session class on decorating cakes with flair in August. Tuition and fees total $68. Other upcoming classes include knife skills, playing with pasta, Chinese cooking, and Provencal market meals.

MCCC Center for Continuing Studies, www.mccc.edu/ccs, 609-570-3311.

Cri Cooking. The name is an abbreviated version of Cristina’s Cooking. After a hiatus of a few years living in Mexico, Cristina Racchella (formerly Fratarcangeli), a native of Rome who has lived in Skillman for many years, has returned and resumed her weekly classes, which combine Italian home cooking with rudimentary Italian language lessons. She calls her Thursday sessions, which run from 10 a.m. to noon, “Quattro Chiacchiere in Cucina con Cristina,” or Chatting in the Kitchen with Cristina. Each hands-on class costs $35, and ends with eating the day’s work. This season, she has planned a virtual food tour of Italy, starting with recipes from the north and continuing southward. By May that should mean the quintessential dishes of the islands of Sardinia and Sicily.

CriCooking (Cristina Racchella), Cricooking@aol.com, 609-466-5766.

Ezekiel’s Table. Also returning — hopefully by this summer — after a hiatus, is this unique cooking school attached to a stately 300-year-old home on Mercer Road (U.S. 1, March 26, 2008). Marcia Willsie, a graduate of the Seattle Culinary Academy, started the school in 2008, naming it after Ezekiel Smith, an early owner of the house, where she lives with her husband, Bruce. Willsie, who became a Quaker at the age of 14, likes to relate that Ezekiel Smith was himself a Quaker and an avid host who enjoyed entertaining, which earned him the epithet, “fast-living Friend.”

When the school reopens it will reinstitute Willsie’s popular cooking class dinner parties, highly social affairs where a group cooks together in the spacious, well-equipped kitchen, then sits down to dine in the candlelit dining room, replete with roaring fire in the fireplace and handsome period furnishings. “There seems to be something magical that happens after people have spent two hours together cooking their meal,” Willsie says.

Ezekiel’s Table, 974 Mercer Road, Princeton, www.EzekielsTable.com, 609-240-7712.

Market or Food Shop

Almost every upscale supermarket and specialty food shop mounts classes for the public, and often these zoom in on their particular area of focus or expertise, such as cheese (Bon Appetit in the Princeton Shopping Center and Olsson’s Fine Foods, newly relocated from Trenton to Palmer Square in Princeton) or olive oil (Carter & Cavero, also in Palmer Square). The venues listed below have ongoing, regularly scheduled classes and programs.

Whole Foods. If you shop routinely at this store in the Windsor Green Shopping Center on Route 1 in West Windsor you know about the Whisk & The Spoon, the glassed-in space dedicated to cooking lessons.

And it’s about to get even more active. For one thing, authors Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hersheimer of Lambertville’s Canal House Cooking atelier (U.S. 1, August 5, 2009), will be conducting classes once a month starting in May. (Dates were still being determined at press time.) Ditto for Luis Martinez of Teresa’s Caffe, who will kick off planned monthly appearances on Wednesday, May 11, with a hands-on class on making trattoria-style pizza. On Wednesday, June 8, he will host a paella-making fiesta.

Cookbook author and Emmy Award-winning TV host Christina Perillo will present a Mother’s Day menu on Thursday, May 5, and on June 18, a class on hot weather cooking. Jim Weaver of Tre Piani in Forrestal Village will head a Slow Food spring celebration demo on Thursday, June 2. All classes run from 7 to 9 p.m., and the cost ranges from about $27 to $45.

Whole Foods Market, 3495 US Route 1 South, www.wholefoodsmarket.com/stores/princeton, 609-799-2919.

Whole Earth Center. Princeton’s original natural foods store, which just celebrated its 41st anniversary (on Earth Day, appropriately) has always been ahead of the curve in supporting issues like organic farming, school gardens, bicycling, recycling, and energy conservation. And the cooking classes, held in the organic cafe area, always bolster the store’s mission while also supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs.

Forthcoming classes include Thursday, May 5, when the Moonlight Bakers, Marilyn Besner and Piroska Toth (U.S. 1, February 10, 2010, cover story) will work with students to make sweet and savory strudels from scratch, and Thursday, May 12, when Linda Geren of North Hanover’s High View Farm holds a class on grilling with farm-fresh meats. In June, the same pair will focus on gluten-free baking. These classes run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. On Wednesday, June 15, Gabby Carbone of the wildly popular Bent Spoon in Princeton will — what else? — make ice cream and sorbet using fresh, local ingredients. Each class costs $15, and space is limited.

Whole Earth Center, 360 Nassau Street, www.wholeearthcenter.com, 609-924-7429.

Taste of Crete. Esther Psarakis’s Greek food emporium and restaurant in Hillsborough has been around since 2009, but cooking lessons got seriously underway over the last few months. Unfortunately, her “Make and Take” sessions on stuffed grape leaves, meze (appetizers), and pastisio have passed by, but on Thursday, May 5, there’s Mother’s Day orange cake in the works, followed by spinach pie on Thursday, May 19, and Greek halva on Thursday, June 2. All classes run from 7 to 9 p.m. at the shop, and most cost $35. As a bonus, 10 percent is taken off any purchases made at the shop the evenings classes are in session.

Taste of Crete, 400 Route 206, Hillsborough, www.tasteofcrete.com, 908-685-2035.

Learn in Your Own Home

For the ultimate in customization, privacy, and a fun time with friends and family, nothing beats bringing an accomplished chef-instructor into your own kitchen. In fact, many of these professionals, who years ago would have founded their own cooking schools, are using this paradigm instead. Many caterers, too, offer this option, as do some restaurant chefs, so it doesn’t hurt to approach your favorite ones and ask.

2 Moms & a Mixer. The two moms are young, Princeton-area mothers who each established their own specialty baked-goods company in the last few years: Nicole Bergman of Simply Nic’s Artisanal Shortbread and Jen Carson, who makes and sells her signature lillipies (i.e. “little pies”) through Jen’s Cakes & Pastries (both were profiled in our February 10, 2010, story on the Cooperative Kitchen on Route 206 in the Princeton North Shopping Center).

If you shop at any of the seasonal farmers markets around the area, or at the Whole Earth Center, you have probably come across their sweet treats. The pair recently debuted their joint effort: all-natural cooking and baking class parties for children, which can be held either at your home (or chosen venue), or at their commercial space, the Cooperative Kitchen. Some of the themes they offer include an ice cream social, cookie and cake decorating, sweet treats for teachers’ gifts — even making Sunday breakfast or brunch.

Their children’s parties have proven so successful that, by request, they have added child-with-an-adult classes. In honor of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, these include Mommy and Me, Auntie and Me, Grandma and Me, and Daddy and Me. Children’s parties last 90 minutes and are suitable for ages six and up. All paper supplies, cookies, cake, and drinks are supplied for $299 for 10 children ($25 for each additional child, up to a total of 18 children).

2 Moms & a Mixer, www.lillipies.com, 609-240-7738; www.simplynics.com, 609-423-8633, both located at the Cooperative Kitchen, Princeton North Shopping Center, Route 206, Rocky Hill.

Life Beyond Ramen Noodles. Holly Slepman of Princeton Junction offers classes “for beginners on a budget” for up to six guests in the recipient’s own kitchen for as little as $10 per person. Each 90-minute class can focus on a specific dish — say, Buffalo chicken cutlets with smashed potatoes and blue cheese dressing — or a theme, like 15 Meal Ideas from One Rotisserie Chicken. Says Slepman: “After we cook, I leave, and they eat. It makes for a low-key, fun evening.” The idea for her business germinated around the time her college-age daughter had moved to off-campus housing, and she and her friends began to complain about, as Slepman says, “subsisting on endless rounds of ramen, mac and cheese, and fast food.” It dawned on her that these youngsters could benefit from even the most basic cooking techniques.

These days, target audiences include, yes, students going off to college, but also young adults just out on their own, and — much to Slepman’s surprise — senior citizens, many of whom expressed interest when she conducted cooking demonstrations this past summer at the West Windsor Farmers Market. (She will be back there again this season.)

Life Beyond Ramen Noodles, www.beyondnoodles@gmail.com, 609-213-0329.

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