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Cooking Classes in Florence, Review of Apicius Culinary Institute

Viktorija Todorovska (Vik)

In July 2006, I spent a month at Apicius, a professional culinary school in Florence, exploring the gastronomic pleasure Italy offers. I had been looking for a professional cooking school focusing on traditional Italian cuisine, but was unable to find one in Chicago (where I live). I am an experienced home cook, but I wanted to take professional cooking classes to learn more of the techniques that chefs use and master some Italian recipes. After researching several professional cooking schools in Italy, I settled on Apicius for three reasons: the extensive course offerings, the professional-looking website and print materials, and the location.

This is my review of the school based on my experiences.

Pasta with Broccoli

Pasta with Broccoli

The School and Curriculum

Apicius, a professional cooking school in Florence, located in the vicinity of the San Lorenzo market, offers two types of courses: courses that are part of the academic programs and courses for amateurs. Most courses are offered both in English and in Italian. The career programs focus on several areas: culinary arts, Master in Italian Cuisine, wine expertise, hospitality management, Italian baking and pastry, food communication, design and marketing for the food industry, and art production for the Food industry.

In the summer (June and July), there is a "Free Elective Program" for people who are not enrolled in the academic programs, but want to take professional cooking courses. The school also offers individual cooking and wine classes as well as two-week and monthly programs. The weekly and monthly programs are geared towards amateurs and home cooks and often combine Italian language courses, market tours, wine tastings, and lectures about Italian food and culture.

The course offerings in the professional programs are quite extensive and range from the basics of Italian cuisine and regional Italian cooking to more specialized courses such as vegetarian cooking, food serving and decoration, running a restaurant, and Tuscan wines.

Details on the school, the programs, and the course offerings are available on their website. You can also have a very nicely produced and professional-looking print package mailed: it includes brochures, schedules of classes, course descriptions, the school calendar, a price list, and other useful information about lodging and the city.

Ravioli with Beets

Ravioli with Beets

Staff and Logistics

The Apicius staff are quite helpful with any questions you might have before you arrive or during your stay. When I was trying to decide what courses to take, I corresponded by email with the Director of Admissions, but found that picking up the phone and talking to her and her staff worked a lot better. My questions were answered in detail and the staff were always courteous and helpful. This helped me feel more comfortable about giving them my credit card number for the first half of the tuition, especially since I had been unable to locate any reviews of the school or client testimonials.

Apicius works with several rental agencies that help students locate rooms or apartments for the duration of their stay in Florence. The school can also put you in touch with families that rent rooms to students. This sounded like a very appealing option since I wanted to experience the life of an Italian family and practice my Italian, but since my husband was coming with me for the first week, we decided to rent an apartment. Both school locations are located close to the San Lorenzo market, but Florence is a not a big city so even though my apartment was located in the Santa Croce area, I walked to class. There are, of course, busses and cabs and many students also bike to school.

On the Friday before the start of the Free Elective Program, there is a student orientation, including a tour of the two school locations (the Via San Gallo one and the Via Guelfa), paperwork, payment of tuition and lab fees, trying on jackets for size, etc. Because of flight schedules, I was late for the orientation and, in fact, missed most of it, but the staff were very helpful and provided me with the necessary information and materials before the start of class on Monday.

Squid Ink Pasta

Squid Ink Pasta

Courses

Even though the Apicius course catalog includes brief descriptions of the courses offered, it might be difficult to decide what level of course is appropriate for a student not enrolled in the academic programs. I am an experienced home cook and wasn't sure if the beginner level would be appropriate. The first five minutes of the first day of class made it clear that I had chosen wisely. The beginner courses are perfect for anyone who has no formal culinary training and has not worked in the restaurant industry. They teach the basic skills and techniques that most cookbooks and recreational cooking courses gloss over and it quickly became apparent that even though I had been cooking for years, I had a lot to learn.

All instructors are professional chefs with years of experience in the restaurant industry and solid teaching skills. The syllabi are detailed as are the packets of readings and recipes. The courses are rigorous (including a final written and practical exam), but the instructors show a great deal of patience and flexibility in dealing with students.

Each class period lasts two and a half hours Monday to Thursday and sometimes reading and research (outside of class) is required before the next class period. Students are expected to show up on time, wear a jacket and hat at all times while in the kitchen, and follow the rules of the school to ensure safety and maintain a professional learning environment.

Each class period began with a discussion of the topic or the region for the day, an explanation of the recipes, and a demo by the instructor. All this was followed by preparation of the recipes for that day (usually two dishes) either individually or in pairs. The class ended with a tasting of all the dishes and a critique by the instructor. The critiques and tasting were invaluable as they helped us see what we had done wrong and how the dish could be improved (or in some cases how it could simply be made differently).

I took three four-week courses: Traditions of Italian Food I, Cucina Regionale Italiana (in Italian), and Baking Techniques. All three were very useful as they presented techniques used in professional kitchens and even when we were taught recipes that might have sounded familiar (tiramisu, cannoli, caponata) we always learned something new and improved our cooking skills and knowledge.

Instruction

Overall, the quality of instruction is excellent. As mentioned earlier, the instructors are trained chefs with experience in the restaurant industry as well as good teaching skills. The fact that they are also very patient, helpful, and respectful makes taking courses at Apicius a real pleasure.

Bombolone con Crema

Bombolone con Crema

Room for improvement

Students not enrolled in the academic programs do not get a set of knives. Since the brochure and website had led me to believe I would get knives, I didn't even consider bringing my own set. This meant that we had to use whatever knives were available and they were almost always old and blunt. This makes it difficult to chop ingredients and makes preparing any kind of food more labor intensive and challenging.

Our requests for better knives led to some improvement, but even then often there weren't enough knives for everyone and we had to trade and wait for each other. Given the high level of service the school offers, better equipment is a must.

Resources

www.apicius.it: Apicius, Culinary Institute of Florence


For more details on the recipes and techniques, read my blog at www.viktorijacooks.blogspot.com.

© Viktorija Todorovska, 2006

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