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The OH and I went to San Francisco for a mini-vacation. One of the things we did was take a day-long course at a cooking school. Although this school is apparently very well regarded, and there were some good things about the class, I had lots of problems with how the class worked out, and I'm writing them down in the hope that it will stop the cycle where I get mad every time I think about it. I'm not naming the school because my object is not to trash the school but to let off some steam. But if you are curious I will tell you.

Description of class: "Country Breads and Soups: The best tasting and longest lasting homemade breads are made with fermented natural starters. Each student in this class will receive their own sourdough starter to keep and nourish, and each student will also have their own loaf of crusty country bread to take home. In addition, [instructor] will lead you in making soups, salads, and desserts with leftover bread."


A few days before the class, we received an e-mail saying that the class would be held in a different location from the one on the web site. I have mobility issues and we had carefully planned how we would get to original location with some of my spoons intact. The new location was harder to get to by public transit and it was in a residential neighborhood so we worried that we wouldn't be able to hail a taxi from there. We e-mailed back asking about parking options near this location. We received e-mail and a phone call back with information that turned out to be accurate. We found parking within a block of the house.

When we arrived for the class, a large dog ran toward us barking as we walked into the house. I like dogs and am not afraid of large dogs and can tell a friendly barking dog from a threatened one, and this one was friendly. But I thought that students should have been warned in advance that a dog would be in the house.

A couple of other students brought a small dog to class in a dog carrier. The small dog was frightened of the large dog and growled whenever it came into the room, so there was a lot of dog management for a while. Eventually those students took their dog elsewhere.

When the class started, the woman whose house it was (who is the owner of the cooking school) said something about dog allergies and a couple of people said they were allergic to dogs. So she said that she would keep her dog outside. But she didn't, and the dog was in the kitchen for much of the class; occasionally she would yell at it to leave the kitchen, and it would leave for about five minutes. I guess the allergic people weren't allergic enough to have to leave, since they stayed to the end.

The room we learned in was a large combined kitchen/dining room with two cooking areas—one large with four ovens and a long island counter, and one small with two ovens, a shorter counter, and a rolling table. When we arrived, there were three stand mixers set up. There were not enough chairs to accommodate all the students. The chairs were uncomfortable for me. I sat on a bar stool.

The instructor talked for a while about flour, sourdough starter, and bread making and had us smell two vats of starter he had brought. He was obviously very knowledgeable. This part was fine.

We were told to divide into teams of two and each team would be assigned a bread recipe. There were seven teams. The school owner briefly explained where things were in the kitchen, but I immediately forgot everything she said. As soon as the teams started being assigned recipes, things became chaotic because there weren't enough mixers or bags of flour to go around. The OH found another mixer in a cupboard and then a dough hook had to be found for it.

It took about 20 minutes before the OH and I got assigned our recipe. We told the instructor we'd never made bread before and he seemed surprised but rolled with it and assigned us a simple recipe, which was fine. We were in the smaller kitchen area and all but one other team were in the large kitchen area, so we had to be very assertive to get the instructor's attention. We would say we'd like to have him look at our dough and he would say "just a minute" and then 10 minutes later he might get over to us. But eventually we got our dough prepared, except we forgot to add salt.

Then each team was assigned a salad, soup or dessert recipe to make for lunch. The OH and I were assigned to make Panzanella. Things got even more chaotic because everyone was competing for ingredients, bowls, utensils, and cooking space. We managed to put all the ingredients together and we put our bread cubes in one of the ovens to cook at 350 degrees like the recipe said. A few minutes later, we discovered that someone had moved our croutons to the top rack of the oven and set the oven to broil. The OH was very angry. He left the croutons on the table because he wanted them to be crispy. Eventually the owner began focusing on our salad and said that we should add the croutons now because in this salad they were supposed to be soggy. Then she added tuna fish to our salad. Then she wanted to add more salt but the OH refused.

It was a very good salad. But it was very easy to make and I don't feel like I learned anything.

The OH and I had chosen this class specifically because it mentioned soup (he isn't all that interested in bread baking, although I am, at least in theory), but our packet of recipes included only one soup. The owner kept saying throughout the afternoon that the class had made "two soups, two salads, and two desserts." In fact, it was one soup, two salads, one casserole, and two desserts. I think they shouldn't call the class "Country breads and soups" if there's only one soup recipe and multiple salad and dessert recipes.

We ate the salads outside on the patio, accompanied by some wine. A couple of teams stayed inside because they were still cooking.

We began going back inside and the owner was telling stories about her travel adventures and suggesting that we eat the casserole and soup, while the instructor was showing us how to manage our risen bread dough. Eventually the instructor won. He demonstrated the techniques of deflating the dough and shaping it into a round, but he was at a station in a corner of the room and with all the students crowded around, and I couldn't really see what he was doing. If he had used the long counter, everyone could have seen.

The OH had disappeared. Eventually I found him in the living room, reading a book. I understand why he did this—listening with a cochlear implant, in all that chaos, is very tiring for him. I wish he had told he where he was going, though. I had him come back into the kitchen and he expected me to be able to explain the techniques, but I couldn't. Again we had to wait 20 minutes for the instructor to get around to inspecting our dough. I did not feel I learned the techniques for this stage.

Everyone went outside again and ate casserole and drank more wine. We came back inside and the instructor fed his starter and then gave each of us a cup of starter to take home. The OH and I argued about whether we should take some—he thought we shouldn't because he believed we would not get around to using it or feeding it (and he's probably right), but we finally agreed that we would take some and that it was "my responsibility."

Then the instructor began showing us how to turn out and bake the bread. There were 13 loaves of bread (all the teams had made 2 loaves, except the OH and me—we made only one, on purpose) and 1 pizza stone. So he would put one loaf in the oven on the pizza stone, then when it was baked a bit he would move it into another oven where it could finish baking on the rack. It was impressive to watch him managing all those loaves of bread in different stages and also instructing people, but really I think there should have been more pizza stones so more loaves could bake at once. (He was using 3 of the 6 ovens.)

He was pointing at people and saying "Let's get your loaf now." The OH had disappeared again. I watched and waited for about half an hour. Then there were only two loaves left—one belonged to a team that had just finished putting one of their loaves in the second oven, and the other belonged to the OH and me. The instructor pointed to the team that was already working, and said "Get your other loaf now." I was furious. I should have been assertive and said "Hey, I'd like to do our loaf," but I had no energy for that, and I didn't want to wait around another hour for our bread. So I found the OH and said I wanted to leave. The owner seemed unhappy that we were leaving without our loaf and asked if we wanted to come back for it tomorrow, but we said no.

So I never got any practice in how to turn out and bake the bread. I did see it done a number of times so I could probably figure it out.

By the time we got back to the hotel, the starter had doubled in volume and was spilling out of the small plastic cup that it was in.

We paid $185 each for the class, which lasted 6 hours, but about half of that was waiting around or eating. I don't think it was a very good value. A couple of years ago we took a class on Greek food in San Carlos. There were also problems with that class, but it cost $40 each and was 3 hours long and I felt I learned more and got more hands-on cooking time doing stuff I actually wanted to practice.

I don't know whether this was the first time this class has been taught in this kitchen, and maybe the owner and instructor hadn't sorted out some of the issues. But I would have wanted at least for there to be a mixer and a bag of flour and a measuring cup already set up for each team, and one pizza stone per oven, and and for some thought to have been put into making the best use of the ovens. Having the ingredients for the other recipes set up in some kind of organized fashion would have been nice too. And I think it would be essential for techniques to be demonstrated in a location where everyone could see, especially if there were so many students that the instructor could not give individual attention to each team in a timely manner.

Comments

( 55 comments — Leave a comment )
karenkay
Sep. 15th, 2008 08:31 pm (UTC)
I certainly empathize with your feelings. The dog running around would have been enough to set me off--it's just NOT appropriate for a cooking class, and repeatedly yelling at it is disruptive.

And I agree that competition for basic resources is wearing. It sounds like a very disorganized class, and I'd be tempted to ask for my money back.

Edited at 2008-09-15 08:31 pm (UTC)
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:08 pm (UTC)
The dog was disruptive to me partly because every time I saw it, I wanted to play with it instead of cooking. (I really need to get back to doing dog volunteering at the animal shelter.)

I'm glad I'm not the only person who feels that the class was too disorganized. Everyone else seemed to be having a good time and I felt...excessively rigid or something.
(no subject) - karenkay - Sep. 15th, 2008 10:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Sep. 15th, 2008 10:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
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dr_brat
Sep. 15th, 2008 08:39 pm (UTC)
I, too, would be tempted to ask for my money back or at least to forward a version of this post to the owner as a kind of feedback.

DWH is bad about our dogs, too. Because he knows that they won't bother anyone, he tends to forget that other people don't know that. So he does things like not rein them in around a blind corner, so people coming in the other direction are suddenly confronted by two large dogs, who are on a leash and accompanied, but you can't see that at first. I wish he'd be more aware that not everyone likes big dogs.
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:11 pm (UTC)
I will consider forwarding some comments to the owner.

My parents tended to have difficult dogs when I was growing up, so I am used to keeping dogs I'm in charge of restrained, but a lot of people don't seem to think that way.
wordweaverlynn
Sep. 15th, 2008 08:56 pm (UTC)
God almighty, what a mess. Yes, I would forward this to the instructor and the owner of the cooking school. And I'm appalled at the dogs' presence -- I would have had to leave immediately, and I still might have had a bad asthma attack.

If you want to learn to bake bread, I can teach you. I've been baking bread since I was ten. And Alan's online tutorial on sourdough is one of the best resources available.
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks, I'll consider sending feedback to the instructor and owner. I was thinking of you (among other people I know) when I encountered surprise dogs.

Thanks for the offer - I might take you up on it. And I'll definitely check out Alan's sourdough tutorial.
eeyorerin
Sep. 15th, 2008 09:00 pm (UTC)
That sounds frustrating to me.

And breadmaking for me was/is one of those things where it was hard to learn from instructions and where I had to learn by experience. It was much easier when someone knowledgeable could show me or look at what I was doing and tell me if it was going all right, so I'm sad that you didn't really get that.

(Oh, now I want to make bread.)
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:14 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to know I'm not completely out of the ordinary in being frustrated by this sort of thing.

I need to learn physical techniques by copying someone else who is doing them. So I don't think I could learn bread baking from a book. Which is one reason I wanted to take the course. I will try to get some more instruction.

I hope you get to make bread!
(no subject) - karenkay - Sep. 15th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
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firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:15 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to know that you think my expectations were reasonable.
(Deleted comment)
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:17 pm (UTC)
I don't think I'm going to give up on bread-making just yet. Thanks for the link to your tutorial!

The instructor of the class made it sound like it was impossible to make good bread without a pizza stone or some other porous surface to bake it on. He said that the moisture coming out of the dough needs to go somewhere other than back into the dough, or else the crust will be soggy. Is your experience different?
(no subject) - karenkay - Sep. 15th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - firecat - Sep. 15th, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
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elissaann
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:50 pm (UTC)
I would have found that frustrating, too, and I would certainly have made noises about a refund, whether or not I got around to asking for it.

As an educator, I urge you to send the school the whole story, not an edited version. I'm sure they want to be good at what they do. Your feedback sounds fair and honest, and not mean in any way.
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 10:52 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to know I'm not alone in my frustration. And thanks for your comment that the writeup sounds fair, honest, and not mean.
(Deleted comment)
tedesson
Sep. 15th, 2008 11:19 pm (UTC)
That sounds awful, I'd definately demand a refund.

These days I'm making the sullivan bakery bread (google for sullivan no knead). No starter needed. It rests 12-18 hours to gain flavor. Baked half the time in a covered pot to develop a nice crust, half the time uncovered.

Extremely easy and very tasty.

What kind of soup does DH want to learn how to make?
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 11:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the recipe! That does indeed sound easy.

The OH is a very good cook and doesn't want to learn any particular soup but hoped to pick up some tips he didn't know about soup-making.
(Deleted comment)
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 11:49 pm (UTC)
I'll definitely consider sending the owner feedback. I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who expects a class to be different from this.

Thanks for the offer of instruction! I may take you up on it.
epi_lj
Sep. 15th, 2008 11:30 pm (UTC)
Wow. That sounds very frustrating. I think for $185 each, I would have expected to have my own tools, preferably set up in advance, and to get a lot more individual attention.
firecat
Sep. 15th, 2008 11:33 pm (UTC)
I felt the same way, especially about the tools. I'm glad to know my expectations aren't completely out of line.
fauxklore
Sep. 16th, 2008 12:51 am (UTC)
It sounds like a fiasco to me. Even if the dogs weren't in the kitchen, people with allergy issues could still react to dander in the air.

As for bread baking, you can certainly make perfectly good crusty bread without a stone in the oven. Just put a small pan of water in the bottom of the oven. My favorite bread baking trick is for pita. The way you get the pocket is, essentially, for the bread to rise too fast and collapse. You can do this by baking the pita directly on the floor of an electric oven (or on a baking sheet just above the flame in a gas oven.)

If I lived closer to you, I'd happily teach you some of what I know about bread baking. From the opposite coast, I can recommend three books. The easiest basic and foolproof instructions (but nothing very fancy) are in The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. Beard on Bread (by James Beard) has some good recipes, but less on technique than I might like. The absolute best ever book on bread baking is Elizabeth David's English Bread and Yeast Cookery.

As a final thought, pretty much every homemade bread "failure" is a hundred times better than most boughten bread.
firecat
Sep. 16th, 2008 01:01 am (UTC)
I agree about the dog allergy.

Thanks for the tips and the book recommendations!
ex_serenejo
Sep. 16th, 2008 05:02 am (UTC)
This would have been a NIGHTMARE for me. I wouldn't have been able to stay as long as you did, and I would have probably been in a puddle of tears by the end. If you have the energy for it, I think it'd be a good idea to write to them and let them know.
firecat
Sep. 16th, 2008 05:11 am (UTC)
Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone in finding that sort of environment difficult.

I did spend a few minutes crying in the car on the way back to the hotel - it's one of my responses to being overstimulated.

I'll definitely consider writing to them.
loracs
Sep. 16th, 2008 05:24 am (UTC)
As much as I love dogs (spent an hour playing with a possible adoptive dog today) I would hate, hate, hate the distraction from the class. He's just lucky no one had really bad allergies to dog dander. The information that a dog is on premise should have been included in those final change of venue notification.

Not having enough equipment for $185 each is wrong, wrong, wrong. Either get more equipment or better yet, make the class smaller to fit the room, tools and instructional needs of the students. I'd be spitting nails about halfway through the day. Do send a copy of this to the instructor/owner. I bet there were others who didn't have a great time, but kept quiet or maybe they'll be sending a letter too.
Even if you don't ask for a refund, they should send you one after hearing how miserably they failed two of their students.
firecat
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:39 am (UTC)
Ooh, possible adoptive dog!

As I mentioned in another comment, the dog was especially distracting to me precisely because I love dogs. Every time I saw it, I wanted to play with the dog instead of cooking.

I'm glad to know I'm not the only person who thinks the preparation was inadequate. I have written up a version of this post to send to the school; I'm waiting on the OH's edits.
mjlayman
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:49 am (UTC)
Yikes, they were definitely not prepared. You should ask for your money back.

Baking bread is not that difficult. There are a number of books that can talk you right through it. I used to make bread when I was well. And there's another method of deflating the dough other than punching it with your fist?
firecat
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:42 pm (UTC)
The instructor didn't punch the dough, he gently patted it until it was in a flat circle.

Then he did some complicated manipulation to shape it into a ball with a flat bottom. This was the part I didn't see very well.
(no subject) - mjlayman - Sep. 16th, 2008 10:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
kyubi
Sep. 16th, 2008 07:02 am (UTC)
Tsk! They call themselves professionals?!

For one thing, as you (and several other people) have noted, having equipment/workstations set up and available for all students is utterly basic. Supplies laid out beforehand, clear instructions about whose oven is whose (and if people have to share an oven, make sure that they're working with recipes with matching baking times/temperatures, perhaps?), and some sort of choreography worked out beforehand so everyone (of whatever species*) isn't tripping over one another, and everybody gets an equal chance at the resources.

I know I would have appreciated getting the instructions in written form, to reinforce/supplement the lectures. Some of us don't process vocal input all that well when learning something physical, some of us have hearing problems, and some of us just like to have a text to interrogate when memory fails or things are unclear. And if the instructor is going to be spread thin, it seems especially important. (and hey, a kitchen map!)

While it sounds as though they may have had to change venues unexpectedly and improvise, they should have planned better and adapted the class/workshop to the space/resources they had available.

So no, I don't think you're being unreasonable.

* -- dogs? wtf?
firecat
Sep. 16th, 2008 06:40 pm (UTC)
{smooch} Thanks for letting me know I'm not being unreasonable.

We did get some instructions in written form, which I also need. But when learning something physical that I'm not familiar with, it is often important for me to watch someone else do it.
pir_anha
Sep. 17th, 2008 12:33 am (UTC)
bad school experience
wow. that's ... terrible. i am fairly adaptable when things don't turn out to my expectations, but i would have given this class 3 thumbs down even if i had managed to fight the lousy organization instead of walking out (i would have been sorely tempted to walk out).

your expectations are completely reasonable: for that kind of money i would have expected work stations, tools, and materials ready for all teams, and i would have wanted there to be either fewer people or more instructors. having to wait around 10 min for aid while cooking is unhelpful. being able to see the techniques demonstrated clearly is definitely essential. heck, my cooking class in high school was better prepared, and that was 35 years ago.

and dogs in a professional cooking class? WTF? you know i love dogs to bits, but that's just not right.

i'd just edit the OH-specific stuff out, and send the rest as is; it sounds fair to me, and i think the school (and its future students) could use this type of feedback.

homemade bread is so yummy. i hope somebody from your flist who is local can give you hands-on instruction because i agree, it's much easier to learn that way.

oh -- re stone. i've baked bread for decades without one and have yet to "achieve" soggy crust. one of my favourite breads is baked with a pan of water in the bottom of the oven and gets sprayed with saltwater, and it comes out with the nicest crunchy crust.
firecat
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:38 am (UTC)
Re: bad school experience
I was sorely tempted to walk out, but I was unhappy with a recent experience of fleeing when I encountered chaos, so I stayed partly to challenge myself. I still don't think it should have turned into that sort of a challenge though.

Thanks for the tip about getting a crunchy crust.
leback
Sep. 17th, 2008 01:43 am (UTC)
I'm glad you're planning to share your feedback with the school. Your assessment of what went wrong (and how the problems could have been avoided) seems very insightful, and if they're interested in improving the experience, I think your comments should be very helpful to them.

I wonder whether most of their students are less interested in learning anything than in just having fun interacting with people in a food-oriented setting. This sounds like it was more an education-themed social activity than an actually educational activity, and I can believe that it was mostly adequately designed for the former purpose. (The last-minute change to a less accessible location, and the unannounced large dog, still not so much.) If so, maybe the school isn't interested in changing anything about the class itself, but you'd think they could at least make sure that they promoted themselves accordingly, so that people who actually wanted to learn something would go elsewhere.

Anyway, I'm very sorry you had such a crappy experience. I'm pretty sure I'd be fuming too, were I in your position. I get very frustrated when I feel I'm being shortchanged, and I don't have the opportunity or the spoons to prevent its happening.
firecat
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:36 am (UTC)
Thanks for letting me know you think my assessment might be useful to them.

I wonder whether most of their students are less interested in learning anything than in just having fun interacting with people in a food-oriented setting.

This is an impression I got, yes. I can't quite grok why people would pay so much money for such a thing -- tourists maybe, but almost everyone in the class was a local as far as I could tell. It seemed to me that most of the students had been to other classes, so either they liked the way this class was set up or the other classes were different.
selki
Sep. 17th, 2008 01:52 am (UTC)
On top of the issues with tools, layout, conflicts (resources, instructor attention), and allergens you describe, I'd be really mad at paying $185 for a class called Country Bread and Soups and only one soup being made. But, then, I like soup a lot.

firecat
Sep. 17th, 2008 06:29 am (UTC)
This criticism is going to figure prominently in my feedback. The OH and I love soups and so does my mom, and I expected to learn something about soup-making in general, not just get one recipe for soup.
prairierabbit
Sep. 17th, 2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
I think that the price was high enough the number of students should have been more like 4-6, which would have alleviated some of the issues. The dog and menu issues suggest to me a lack of planning that would definitely keep me from considering another course with these people. It sounds like what could have been a good experience became a day better spent another way. :-(

I've made french bread in a metal tube pan, and it came out lovely and crisp with a nice soft interior. (It was off of a recipe that came on the pan, and worked out just fine. (I use regular yeast or quick rise yeast though, because I don't want to have to care for the starter.)
baratron
Sep. 20th, 2008 12:11 am (UTC)
Woah. There should have been a warning about the dog before the class even arrived. Dog allergies and phobias can be pretty serious.

Personally, I love dogs, but I wouldn't be happy cooking food I was going to eat in someone I didn't know's kitchen with a dog present. Dogs can carry parasites that can get into humans, and I don't know what the other person's hygiene standards are. (Does the dog climb on the counter? Do they use the same bowls and utensils for people and animals? Where is the dog's toileting area in relation to the kitchen? etc.)

And what on earth were those other students doing bringing their dog to class? That's normal?

I'm surprised that you have cooking schools there that run in private homes. Fourteen people sounds like an awful lot in a domestic kitchen, even if it was enormous. I'd consider written instructions and labels on cupboards to be mandatory, and ideally the ingredients already available without having to rootle through other people's $stuff. (One bag of flour per group is hardly a stretch, especially if you decant the main bag into smaller ones.) I do think it's a useful exercise for you to measure the ingredients yourself so you can see how much volume "4 oz" of flour is, but the flour should be accessible.

Your expectations sound entirely reasonable, and I'm sorry this class was disappointing and a strain for you.
elisem
Nov. 17th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
Good grief. What a nightmare class! Put me in the "I'd ask for a refund" category.

The lack of individual attention, particularly for a student with a hearing impairment, would be completely unacceptable to me. Add what appears to be a lack of coordination between owner and instructor, the confusion (or lack of workable planning) about who got to use which oven when, the lack of planning for which recipes took how long and therefore what order people should be doing things in, and what sounds to me like the absence of anybody noticing that you two weren't getting the teaching that you needed, and I'd rate this class about as low as it could be rated, when considering things from the standpoint of a hearing-impaired student.

Grr.

And I imagine they may have thought the OH "didn't want to participate," rather than realizing "Hey, we made it damn near impossibly for the OH to participate."

Double grr.

(I know this is a late late comment, but I had to make it anyhow.)
firecat
Nov. 17th, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
Yeah, all that. Thanks, I'm sure the OH will appreciate knowing you back him up on this.
( 55 comments — Leave a comment )

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