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Taking the Kids -- experiencing a culture by taking a cooking class

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency

Taking the Kids

1:00 AM EST, January 17, 2014

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Duck, fish or beef?

We're seven strangers from around the world ranging in age from 22 to 60-something standing in the drizzle at a Paris outdoor market trying to decide what we should eat for dinner -- after we've shopped for the ingredients and cooked the meal together.

How about rabbit?

"I've only done rabbit once," laughs Chef Eric Monteleon, who is leading our motley crew.

We've signed on for a cooking class with La Cuisine Paris (http://www.lacuisineparis.com), one of just a handful of places here that offer classes in English that are popular with young chefs and their parents, as well as adults, says Jane Bertch, the former Chicago banker who started and runs the school with her partner Olivier Pugliesi-Conti.

We're fans of including cooking classes in our travels, learning to make mole with our kids in Oaxaca, Mexico and pasta with other young travelers in Lucca, Italy. We learned to make crab cakes on a Windstar cruise ship, after following the chef to a local market in Croatia. Wherever we go, at the very least we make sure to visit local food markets. (Read about some of our other recent experiences in France in my trip diaries http://www.takingthekids.com/category/travel-diary/page/3/. Exploring foreign food is a different -- and fun -- way to experience a local culture, especially as more places offer classes for children.

Take a day off from the slopes with a Comfy in the Kitchen class at the iconic Little Nell in Aspen, Colo. (http://www.thelittlenell.com) where the first round of kids' classes proved so popular they are continuing all ski season.

"Although I like to cook, I don't always have the required patience to teach boisterous boys how to make much beyond a cake or a plate of brownies, so when the opportunity for them to be truly immersed in the cooking world came along, with some of the finest talent in the Western U.S, I jumped at the chance," wrote Aimee White Beazley about her family's experience at the Little Nell class (http://www.takingthekids.com/travel-diary/in-aspen-kids-playing-with-their-food-is-encouraged/).

"The food was great and it was more like art than I thought," 8-year-old Tanner reported.

These days, with junior chefs demonstrating their skill on TV cooking shows, blogs and in magazines, there are a growing number of kids' cooking classes -- everywhere from the Cavallo Point (http://www.cavallopoint.com) Cooking School in San Francisco's Cavallo Point Lodge to the Essex Resort & Spa in Vermont (http://www.essexresortspa.com/cooking-classes-vermont-en.html) to Blackberry Farm in Tennessee (http://www.blackberryfarm.com). Hotels like Hyatt (http://www.hyatt.com) have not only made their kids' menus healthier (bravo!), but have designed them so that kids can make their own culinary creations at the table (top your own breakfast taco, or build your own whole wheat sub for lunch).

But there's probably no where more fun to indulge your inner chef than in Paris, no matter what your age. Learn to make French macarons, eclairs, croissants or baguettes. (Classes start at 65 euros, just under $90 USD.)

While the minimum age for the group classes at La Cuisine Paris is 13, Bertch says a growing number of families with younger kids are signing up for a private class, despite the $370 euro (more than $500 USD tab.) (Kids suffering from life-threatening illnesses have been given trips to Paris and classes here under the auspices of the Make a Wish Foundation.)

"We get all levels of cooks," Bertch said at the school, which is around the corner from Paris' famous Hotel de Ville, the city hall and a short walk from Notre Dame. "This is about the experience," she said. "It should be fun, not intimidating."

We were joined by a young Australian couple in their 20s, Annalisse Gauci and Lloyd Burbage and fellow Aussies Simon and Karen Brock, celebrating Simon's 50th birthday, who hoped to spice up their everyday cooking for their kids.

Cathy Hendrickson, a CPA from Gainesville, Fla., rounded out the group.

The challenge: choose a menu, shop, cook and eat in a little more than four hours. My only regret is that the class isn't longer!

We've got to choose a menu, shop, cook and eat in a little more than four hours.

How about duck breasts? Chef Eric thinks that will work with a shallot, wine vinegar and honey sauce, accompanied by roasted vegetables and a kind of potato pancake made with very thin slices of potato. Yum!

We decide on pumpkin soup to start. Did you know there are 400 kinds of cheese in France? Of course, there will be a cheese course. And there must be chocolate! Chef Eric suggests mini molten chocolate cakes in a vanilla sauce for dessert.

We trail behind Chef Eric as he buys carrots, leeks, butternut squash and girelle mushrooms for the soup; onions, cauliflower -- at one place, varieties of cheese elsewhere. We go to a boucherie -- butcher -- to buy our duck breasts and a boulangerie to get our baguettes. This wouldn't be a French meal without lots of fresh bread.

We start our cooking with dessert because, as Chef Eric explains, we start with what takes longest. We crack eggs, melt chocolate and butter and strip the vanilla bean. If it doesn't bend, it isn't good, he tells us. When the chocolate cakes go into the oven, we start on the soup, in the process, getting a lesson in how to properly hold a knife and dice an onion. Even an experienced cook like me learns something new here!

We get a lesson in how to properly hold a knife. Even an experienced cook like me learns something new here!

The kitchen is a whirlwind of activity -- chopping, stirring, whisking. We prepare the duck breasts and make the sauce -- delicious with a bit of duck fat, chopped onions and a dash of red wine vinegar, nutmeg, ginger and honey. Chef Eric demonstrates how to flip the sizzling, pan-sized potato pancakes.

The soup and main course are delicious. Afterward, we serve ourselves the cheese and salad drizzled with our vinaigrette. As we eat our creations -- as pretty to look at as they are tasty -- we talk about what we've learned. "All the basics you thought you knew," said Annalisse Gauci -- how to crack an egg without getting shells in the bowl, how to chop an onion.

"Our goal is to teach something," said Chef Eric. But, he adds, the class is as much about enjoying yourselves.

Absolutely, we agree, as we dig into our chocolate cake.

(For more Taking the Kids, visit http://www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on http://www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. Look for her latest Kids City Guides to Los Angeles and Chicago from Globe Pequot and available from major booksellers)

(c) 2014 EILEEN OGINTZ DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.