Malé , Maldives - The European tourists watch attentively as Asian spices are tossed into a searing-hot frying pan, unleashing a fiery red chilli and basil aroma that burns the nostrils and foreshadows the upcoming delicious dish.
"We will change the whole kitchen around after this," says Iris Schmidt, a guest at the One&Only resort in the Maldives. Schmidt and five other well-healed guests from Germany and Switzerland are part of a class studying the finer points of gourmet Thai cooking.
"Asian food here is more authentic than in cooking schools in Germany," Schmidt says.
Hotel cooking classes have become the rage across Asia, offering guests the chance to learn how to concoct perfect green Thai curry, sultry Vietnamese soup, and delectable Maldivian-spiced fish. Utilising the talent of their top-notch chefs, the hotel cuisine schools promise to make you a better, more diverse cook when you arrive back home.
"Cooking schools have become very trendy. Every hotel wants one," says Sunny Chuang, food and beverage director for One&Only. "In the last 10 years, the concept of cooking schools has taken off. People are more aware of different cuisines and they want to learn the tricks of the trade, how to impress friends at the next dinner party."
One&Only's classes start at $100 and can top out at close to $200 per person. For a resort with villas that can cost as much as $10,000 per night, the revenue from the classes seems miniscule.
Hotel general managers and food and beverage directors are reluctant to state numbers on how much the schools pull in. Yet investments are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cooking Thai food with step-by-step instruction in Bangkok is an experience that touches all five senses: the feel of leafy greens, pungent odour of soy, bright red peppers, the crackle of frying prawns, and best of all - the unique taste of sweet, sour and spicy combined.
"People are more aware of different cuisines, and they want to learn the tricks of the trade, how to impress friends at the next dinner party."
- Sunny Chuang, One&Only in Maldives
Asian cuisine is hot. However, that doesn't mean Asian cooking schools are only offering Asian styles. The Le Cordon Bleu Dusit Culinary School - a tie up between Le Cordon Bleu chef school in France and the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok - shares the culinary secrets of French cuisine. Thais who want to learn how to make everything from macaroons to soufflés dominate the classes.
Jason Friedman is the general manager of the Siam Hotel in Bangkok, which recently opened a new cooking school on the shores of Thailand's mighty Chao Phraya River. Friedman says a great hotel cooking school must be experiential and driven by the local cuisine, customs and culture.
"The location of the class is as important as what you are cooking," Friedman says. "It does not matter if you are in a green market, rice field or under a Thai house - you must be in a place that looks, feels and smells like Thailand. And you must actually see the ingredients. Finally, the best part of a good cooking school is eating what you make."
Chuang in Malé agrees on the importance of immersing local customs into the cooking schools.
"We stress Maldivian culture. We show our clientele how to make Maldivian curry and how to use island spices and lots of fish," says Chuang. "During the high season, we run classes every day for five or six students. We do make some small profits."
Vanilla in Vietnam
As most of the general managers pointed out, cooking schools are more about the experience than the bottom line. For Westerners, learning to prepare authentic Asian dishes has proven popular.
"We offer our students both Vietnamese and Western. But no one wants to learn anything Western," says Patrick Both, general manager of Anantara in Mui Ne, Vietnam. "On the financial side, hotels make a little, but most don't make money at it. We are giving them an experience they will talk about."
The Anantara classes cost $80 per person, and most sign up as couples. The chefs run about eight classes per month, each lasting three hours, including a visit to a market for fresh produce. With a vanilla plantation in nearby Phan Thiet, cooking with vanilla is the theme for most recipes, including seafood and fish dishes.
"Guests can feel the passion for food and ingredients ... The key to being known as a top chef is to excite people."
- Chef Alain Nguyen
"We are using vanilla because of the uniqueness ... Using local products and materials in the kitchen are part of my cooking philosophy," says Anantara's chef Alain Nguyen.
Cooking classes also add a level of notoriety to hotel chefs, and it's an opportunity for them to showcase their skills wielding sharp knives and sizzling-hot frying pans.
"Teaching has generally been a positive experience. When I am in a cooking class it lets me interact personally with my guests," says Ian Kittichai, a chef and owner of Cuisine Concept in Bangkok. "It allows people to understand me and my food philosophy in a personal way."
Nguyen says a chef is only as good as his reputation. The classes allow him a personal platform to enhance his skills, he says.
"Guests can feel the passion for food and ingredients ... The key to being known as a top chef is to excite people, not only for cuisine but also to get people to be excited about him as a person. This is my recipe for success."