BELLEVUE, Wash. (FNS) -- Supermarket culinary programs have become more than just cooking schools to the shopping public. They've become centers of education on eating habits, health and diet, as well as a destination for social interaction. In consumer lingo, it's an "event."
Retailers have responded by expanding the scope of their curriculums, offering a greater variety of courses, ranging from cooking basics to the health properties of olive oils to wine-and-cheese pairing parties. In so doing, they not only boost their reputations as centers for reliable, useful information, they also open the door to new profit opportunities that accompany post-class "market tours" through the aisles, where the very ingredients and components used in the classes can be highlighted.
No matter what the subject matter, however, freshness is almost always a cornerstone of these events -- produce, gourmet cheese, meat and seafood in particular take center stage, according to operators.
Larry's Markets, Seattle, recently launched an initiative to increase the role played by its cooking school and educational program, which included re-assuming management of the program after five years of leasing the facility to an outside cooking school. The 30-seat facility -- appropriately called Culinary Lifestyles -- is located in the Bellevue unit here.
"Larry's focus is food as a lifestyle rather than food to sustain oneself," said Mark McKinney, the five-store independent's chief executive officer. "We also believe in educating our customers about how to use and prepare food. The best way to do that is through a cooking school and product demonstration."
The facility itself is outfitted much like a home kitchen. A sub-zero refrigerator/freezer, a microwave, a dishwasher, a six-burner gas cook-top, a double-oven set and a double-sink round out the equipment list. Traditional home-style platters, bowls, measuring devices, ladles and baking sheets are among the smallwares on the list. The work area looks deceptively like someone's own kitchen, albeit well-appointed.
The bulk of the courses at the Culinary Lifestyles school is led by local notable chefs and cookbook authors who make guest appearances and demonstrate the latest cooking methods. Additionally, the operator also employs the expertise of the chain's own specialists.
All instructors spend a significant amount of time introducing attendees to the types of food items used in the sessions. Over the course of the evening, attendees are directed to the various departments within the unit where they can find the ingredients used.
Another cornerstone of the retailer's growing culinary-education program is built around flexibility, according to officials for the chain.
"Our flexibility adds the excitement of impromptu exploration," said Camille Rohani, director of culinary events. "When shopping for the evening's ingredients I often spot something in the market that looks interesting, so I pick it up to be included in the cooking class."
This adventure-seeking approach has proven so popular with attendees that Larry's Markets has even dedicated one cooking-school event as a complete impromptu evening. Here, a well-known local chef specializing in Italian food takes his class on a market tour, showing them how to select perishables that are at peak freshness and how to prepare items available at the market that day.
While the tour is being conducted, store associates take copious notes that will be used to assemble an accurate shopping guide and ingredient list during the shopping. Recipes are also added during the preparation phase of the evening. The entire packet of materials is mailed to the participants after the class, since the "on-the-fly" approach doesn't permit traditional handouts of recipes usually available at the event.
On the night SN attended a Larry's Markets cooking class, the adventure started with appetizers of select cheeses along with a salami and crusty bread.
"With classes starting at 6:30 p.m., chances are our attendees have not had a bite to eat since lunch," said Rohani. "They are hungry and it's a perfect way to sample one of our 400 cheeses."
This focus on sampling continues throughout the classes, which cost attendees between $20 and $35. The evening SN attended, the focus was on fresh foods, as visiting chef for the evening John Howie demonstrated the art of plank cooking. Salmon, pork chops, chicken breasts, mixed vegetables and a mushroom mixture were all prepared in front of attendees and sampled. Potatoes, zucchini, garlic, bell peppers and a number of herbs, along with a myriad of mushrooms -- portobella, Cimini and tree oyster -- were each discussed in turn as they were prepared and added to the menu.
Howie is executive chef of local hot spot Palisade, a dockside restaurant with sweeping city and water vistas. He has been honored three times at the James Beard Foundation in New York City and recently appeared with Martha Stewart on Martha Stewart's Living television program, where he demonstrated the same plank cooking methods he brought to the Larry's Markets class.
Specifically, plank cooking is a time-honored Northwest Native-American method of roasting fish, meats and fowl on cedar wood -- literally, planks. While waiting for the finished dishes to come out of the oven, Howie explained what the Beard House was and why he was so honored being invited to cook there. He also gave attendees a behind-the-scenes notion of what Martha Stewart's operation is like.
During the course of the evening, produce, meat and seafood were given center-stage presence. The chef also talked about herbs, ranging from parsley and sage to rosemary and marjoram, and how each can complement the flavor of food. He described the differences between dry and fresh herbs, and talked about their storage and how they should be prepared, depending on their use as ingredients or rubs. Howie also demonstrated how to make pesto.
Other cooking skills were demonstrated. Howie showed the class how to bone and cut salmon for various cooking methods; how to roast nuts and garlic; how to slice vegetables; and how to zest a lemon.
In addition to the planks, he also introduced attendees to gadgets and equipment. He showed his insta-read thermometer, described how it can help the home cook and used the item as a springboard to talk about food safety., proper storage and handling of fresh foods and cooking temperatures.
Throughout the event, the chef directed attendees to the various Larry's Markets departments that could help them recreate the dishes prepared in the cooking class.
"There are these same beautiful chicken breasts downstairs in the meat department," he said at one point. "For this dish I recommend asking for the ones with the skin still on, but should you prefer skinless I'm sure that would work too."
At times, the unit was used as a big pantry, which helped to reinforce the availability of items in the store. Howie used the interruption as an educational opportunity, and talked about how substitutions can make a recipe even better, since it makes the most of seasonal items.
All this effort in arranging classes, sourcing experts and arranging for the classes does require a serious investment in a retailer's time and effort, according to Rohani. But, the payoff can be impressive, since it serves as a living billboard for the store and its fresh foods. The ability to sample spurs sales, since the store remains open following cooking-school events, she added. This timing allows participants the opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge and select items sampled that evening
"One evening a visiting chef demonstrated how to prepare scallops," said Rohani. "Scallops are wonderful, but they're pricey and most people are cautious. Following the cooking school there were quite a few scallops in shopping carts."
Indeed, the cedar planks featured during the event SN attended were available at the Larry's unit here for $39.99, and many attendees walking the sales floor after the classes picked one up to purchase.