Elbow-deep in fish guts, sawing away at the gills of a large mackerel, I wondered, “How the heck did I get here?”
“Here” was the Scuolo di Cucina, the Don Alfonso 1890 Cooking School, a celebrated Amalfi Coast Italian restaurant and luxury boutique hotel. For the past five summers, my Connecticut-based friend and gourmet guide Elinor Griffith has sent out a flier inviting people to join her for the Griffith Gourmet annual culinary and cultural week in May at this Relais & Châteaux property high up on the Sorrento peninsula overlooking the Bay of Naples.
And every year, I’ve said, “Nope, not for me.”
This year, however, I and eight other guests from the U.S. and Canada said, “Yep.” We’d decided to join the growing ranks of “food tourists,” people who seek unique food experiences exploring local markets and farms, taking classes, and interacting with chefs, sommeliers and other experts.
And so here we were deboning large fish, making tiny “potato gnocchi with smoked scamorza cheese,” tossing “tasty morsels of ricotta cheese and nettles” into egg-white baths, taking lots of notes and generally having a blast.
Nine ambitious recipes in three days
Our class-time at the Don Alfonso 1890 Cooking School would be centered around preparing seafood, vegetable, and pasta recipes – three dishes of each over three days – which we would then devour at leisurely late lunches.
Fish, veggies and pasta were exactly the kind of cooking I was interested in since my husband was put on a no-meat, heart-healthy diet last year. But nine recipes in three days? That’s a lot of cooking for me, who more often than not heats up a frozen Bertolli pasta skillet meal for two, tosses in some extra sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms, and declares, “Mangia!”
So I’ll admit now that the main thing that tempted me to go on this trip was the locale. I’d been to cities in northern and central Italy, but never to the famed southern or Campania part of the country, which boasts Naples, Capri, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast. Could the place live up to its famous photos?
If I had to sign up for a week of cooking lessons in order to find out, so be it. The sacrifices we make in life…
Takeaways from my whirlwind cooking week in Italy
I’m happy to report that the sunny region and beautiful hotel more than lived up to their reputation.
But to my surprise, it was the cooking classes that were the highlight of my trip. So if you’re wondering whether a cooking tour might (or might not) be enjoyable for you, read on to see if my experiences resonate with you.
Be sure you love food and wine (and are willing to temporarily give up any diet)
“Of course I love food and wine,” you may say. But I was unprepared for the intense food immersion. Yet I should have known: Over the decades, the two-Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 ristorante has been written up by the New York Times in articles such as 10 Restaurants Abroad that Would be Worth Boarding a Plane to Visit and 10 Restaurants Worth Leaving the Ship For.
Alfonso Iaccarino and his family are revered chefs and restaurateurs of the first order, specializing in an understated yet revolutionary organic Mediterranean cuisine, and they take their food and eating seriously. Heck, the whole bountiful southern Italian region takes food seriously.
Luckily for me, our dauntless tour leader, Elinor, balanced the cooking with culture. She lined up a varied and fascinating series of local day trips for our group (comprised of two couples traveling together and six women). Over the week we visited Naples, Mt. Vesuvius, Pompeii, Capri, Sorrento, Positano, a buffalo (mozzarella) ranch, Paestum (ancient local Greek & Roman ruins), some picturesque fishing towns and a boutique organic vineyard overlooking the Mediterranean. Whew!
Yes, there were cultural sights and vistas aplenty to see in the Campania region, but the real star of a cooking trip like this is – no surprise – the food.
We’re talking the growing, selecting, preparing, cooking and savoring of food. The food we prepared was fresh out of the sea or plucked from the twelve-acre Don Alfonso organic produce-and-livestock farm perched on a rocky, sunny cliff overlooking the Isle of Capri. (Our tour of this quiet, fragrant farm was one of the highlights of the week for me.)
In addition to the nine dishes we made in cooking school, our week was bracketed by two evening-long gourmet meals lovingly prepared and served by the pros of the Don Alfonso 1890 Cooking School.
Both meals boasted ten or so (who could keep track?) courses, each accompanied by its own wine, along with a full array of wonderful cheeses and desserts. The food at those special dinners was so beautiful that we all quickly abandoned good manners and began sneaking iPhone photos of the cavalcade of deliciously named dishes such as “Pumpkin Gnocchi with a Liquid Heart of Goat Cheese, Fruit Mustard, Pistachio and Crispy Potato Flavored with Sage” and “Tenderloin from Benevento in Bread Crust, Mozzarella and Pork Cheek with a Green Cream and Chili Tomato Purée.”
When I bemoaned the calories, I was told to carpe vacation diem.
Don’t worry if you’re not a practiced chef; everyone is learning at cooking school
I’ve watched many a TV food show, trying to figure out the tricks of the trade, but you really don’t learn something until you are forced to do it yourself. And kudos to the Don Alfonso classes, which emphasize both showing and doing.
Our charming Italian chef-teacher Nicola was wonderful about catching your eye and motioning you to his side, where he would demonstrate a certain knife action and then hand the sharp blade over to you. He’d move away to another person soon after, but keep a watchful eye on you and your slicing technique. Silvana, a member of the Iaccarino hotelier family (who doubled as Nicola’s sassy translator) and a number of junior chefs were around, too, always jumping in to keep you on track.
I also learned a lot from the folks standing alongside me, most of whom were indeed more practiced home chefs than I. Before the trip, I’d been afraid that my inexperience would show . . . and it did! As I struggled to devein a shrimp with one flick of the wrist or quickly quarter a shiny Vesuvio (plum) tomato rolling away from me, I would catch my compatriots glancing at my less-than-practiced motions with a small smile, sometimes followed by an offer to teach me a pointer or two.
But it was soon clear from the copious note-taking and tips and corrections that Chef Nicola was offering that everyone here was learning things, and they were all busy addressing their own challenges. (“Alora, mince those nettles even smaller, per favore.”)
Mostly, I was relieved that the classes weren’t too demanding or intimidating. Things moved along briskly, but you could step away at any time, as I often did to take photos, and the laughter was constant and contagious. Truth be told, it felt more like playing than school.
As we finished up each class session, the pro chef team would efficiently do most of the final plating, with us students helping and sometimes hindering, as when I crookedly placed a fragrant sprig of some flower on top of a spiral of pasta only to see one of the chefs later straightening it with a flick of a finger.
It helps to be a get-along person on a week-long tour
I’ve taken a few one-evening cooking classes over the years, and did little more than share smiles with the person standing next to me. On a multi-day culinary and cultural tour, you’ll come away from your week knowing your fellow travelers (and their habits and stories) very well. You’re eating almost all your meals together, as well as traveling together in comfortable SUVs on various excursions.
Luckily, we had a congenial group that mixed and matched well. We shared lots of laughs over food and shopping stories (I came away amazed by the zeal of the world-class shoppers in our group). And my hat is off to Elinor, who did a great job of scheduling a good mix of excursions, classes and free time while herding around her flock of cooking enthusiasts.
So, is it possible to become a better cook in one week?
I’m certainly a more confident and informed home chef after going through this experience. Watching everyone else closely, then trying out knife and cooking techniques myself under coaching, gave me a better sense of the methods behind the magic.
Will I attempt some of those fancy recipes we made under the supervision of Chef Nicola and his team? Well, I didn’t buy a Don Alfonso white cook’s apron – embroidered with the phrase Quando il cibo è amore (“When cooking is love”) – for nothing.
There were two dishes in particular I think I can make a facsimile of: the “Swirl of Tagliolini with Citrus and Shrimp” (pictured above in the dried-flower garnish photo) and the “Eggplant Parmesan Stacks” (see the recipe for Eggplant Parmesan alla Don Alfonso).
We were given printouts of all the recipes to make notes on, and if I can’t recreate them exactly without the Campania farm-fresh ingredients nor the finesse of the Don Alfonso chefs, my husband will never be the wiser!
A few cooking tips I picked up along the way
1) Curl your fingers under and rest the flat blade of the knife against your knuckles while slicing or chopping so you don’t inadvertently slice your fingers.
2) Taste and test often as you go along. Chef Nicola took little samples for temperature, taste and texture much more often than I would have.
3) Use white vinegar (lots of it) to clean and sanitize your workspace in between different food preparation.
4) This tip was from a fellow student: To undo the smell of cut garlic on your hands, rub your fingers against the flat blade of the steel chopping knife.
5) I asked the group if anyone had any good tips for not tearing up while cutting onions. Nobody really had an answer. The chef-teacher just looked puzzled at my question – either he chops onions so efficiently there’s no chance for tears, or he couldn’t understand my English. One of my fellow students did suggest lighting a candle, which sounded like praying for dry eyes!
Visual presentation? Don Alfonso 1890 Cooking School tips
At the Don Alfonso the look and design of the final dish is almost as important as the incredible flavor. Here are just a few of the tips they shared with us about presentation:
1) Lightly swipe a clean plate with a vinegar-moistened paper towel before arranging the food upon it so that any errant fingerprints are repelled.
2) Use squeeze bottles filled with emulsified sauces or spices to create an interesting pattern on a plate before arranging the main pieces. (And don’t be afraid to wipe off the plate and start again.)
3) Use the oven to dry arrays of edible farm-plucked flowers and spices for plate decoration and flavor.
4) Long-handled tweezers are a great go-to kitchen tool. Tweezers can turn over a slice of eggplant browning in a bath of olive oil, pluck a fava bean out of a broth for a texture test, or delicately place a garnish atop a tower of pasta. Many of the student chefs bought this versatile kitchen utensil to bring home with them after using it.
Overheard in the cucina:
“Mozzarella will never taste the same again!” (After our visit to the “buffalo spa” where we watched the massaging and milking of buffalo and the hand-made production of buffalo mozzarella.)
“It’s a miracle of God that I’m in the kitchen!” (From one of the wives of the couples – both of whose husbands do all the cooking at home.)
“What went wrong with THAT one?” (We all looked guilty.)
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- Even if you’re not the most avid cook, do you like to eat? Cooking classes are taught by people who love food, with only the freshest ingredients and most delicious recipes. And you get to eat what you make! A well-run class will be fun and illuminating, and learning the secrets of gourmet cooking and presentation will tickle your creative bone.
- Being able to stay at the place hosting the cooking classes allows you to get to know the owners and imparts a seamless ease to the whole experience.
- Having all the logistics (transportation and excursions, along with classes) arranged for you can be a blessing, especially in a foreign country.
- A small tour situation can be more accommodating to those folks who have mobility problems, such as knee or hip issues.
- If you’re prone to car sickness or fear of heights, the eye-popping, zigzagging, cliff-hugging Amalfi Coast roads might not sit well with you (even though our professional tour drivers handled the curves with careful expertise). Tour leader Elinor handed out preventive motion-sickness wristbands to those who needed them, and a local remedy – scratching and sniffing a lemon – also seemed to work.
- When researching a possible cooking excursion, look for one that offers an interplay between locale and cuisine so that you can come away with an informed appreciation of the heritage and significance of the food you’re learning to cook.
IF YOU GO
Griffith Gourmet videos from the 2017 trip to Don Alfonso 1890
- On More Time To Travel: A culinary tour leader dishes on: What travelers need to know about cooking tours
- In the New York Times: From the Vines of Vesuvius, The Gift of Summer in Winter
*All photo credits (except lead photo and where noted): Laura Kelly
Share GOT on Pinterest!