Breakfast, beach, lunch, beach... Caribbean vacations have a certain rhythm. But what if you change that rhythm by learning to cook the lunch yourself? Hotels and resorts are increasingly offering to teach their guests about the local cuisine, so I checked out three programs in the Yucatán Peninsula, where most people go for the gorgeous beach on the Maya Riviera -- Mexico's Caribbean coast, from Cancún south -- but also for the distinctive regional food, which mixes Maya, Mexican, and European flavors. These programs are worth leaving your lounge chair for.
At the Ritz-Carlton Cancún (tel. +52-998/881-0808; www.ritzcarlton.com), classes are held in its purpose-built Culinary Center, a gorgeous show kitchen featuring every Viking gadget imaginable, not to mention an amazing view of the turquoise sea. Aiming for classes that are both social and educational, personable Chef Rory Dunaway starts every class with a cocktail -- a margarita, naturally, for the two-hour Mexican Grilling with Flair class that I took. But the Ritz's program is unique in that it doesn't focus just on Mexican cuisine but also includes French, Italian and Japanese classes (with appropriate drinks). "We wanted to give people more things they would use at home," Chef Rory explained, and he follows through with emphasis on broad techniques and a packet of well-written recipes for each student to take home. And while those recipes are relatively simple, they also involve small touches that make a huge difference (lime zest in that margarita, for instance). As an experienced cook, I wasn't sure I'd learn much in a straightforward grilling class -- but I really appreciated Chef Rory's succinct review of knife skills, not to mention his big tip for planning big meals at home: "If you don't have your hand on an ingredient the day you want to use it," Dunaway warned, "it doesn't exist. Someone probably ate it." It was also a treat to work in such a spacious, well-equipped kitchen. At $115 for a two-hour class, with more skirt-steak tacos than I could eat and a steady stream of margaritas, this felt like the best open-bar deal in Cancún.
The Culinary Center also hosts wine classes ($65). In this, I was really a beginner, and sommelier Marcelo Mendoza was the perfect guide, first training our noses with roses, coffee, and other essential smells, then taking us step-by-step through wine evaluation. At the end, I could definitely taste the difference between a spicy Argentine wine and an earthier, more "vegetal" Chilean wine -- who knew? The final culinary experience is Dunaway's chef's table ($150), four courses prepared (by others) and served in the Viking kitchen. With Chef Rory's assistants occasionally demonstrating how to make a dish, I even learned something there (Mmmm, crab soup with epazote!).
Just down the coast at The Tides Riviera Maya (tel. +52-984/877-3000; www.tidesrivieramaya.com), Chef Cupertino Ortiz runs a very different cooking experience. His two-hour lunchtime class ($130) isn't set in a kitchen at all, but outdoors in a small clearing next to a traditional Maya-style hut -- and inside that hut is the pinnacle of Maya technology: a pib, or fire pit for roasting meat in banana leaves. Chef Cuper's assistants stoke the fire from early morning on, setting large lava rocks in the bottom. When students arrive, it's blazing hot. I was put to work immediately chopping up peppers, onions and tomatillos to throw in with the meat -- traditionally a suckling pig, but in my smaller class, we used fish -- in a heavy clay pot. That's doused in the magic Maya ingredient of achiote and lowered into the ground and covered. While the meat roasts, Chef Cuper cooked a traditional sopa de lima on a rigged-up burner, explaining the nuances of Yucatecan citrus that flavors the soup. A native of Acapulco, Chef Cuper has a convert's zeal for local foodways, some of the strongest in Mexico, and while we ate the lunch of soup, succulent roasted fish, red rice, and really good Mexican chardonnay, he happily showed off the habañero peppers he's growing, and explained how he'd collected his recipes from locals. This is not a class for pampered people -- you're out in the hot sun at noon, working on a rickety table, and you need to bring your own notebook and be ready to jump in with questions. But if you are fascinated by traditional, local culinary lore, this is an incomparable class -- by the end, I was mentally calculating where I could dig a pib when I got home. If you do want a little pampering, make reservations for the chef's seven-course tasting menu ($180), where Ortiz blends the occasional Yucatecan ingredient in with delectable Mediterranean dishes, matched with boutique Mexican wines.
If pib-cooking whets your appetite for Yucatecan food -- or if you just want to spend more than a couple hours cooking -- you'll have to head inland, to Mérida, four hours west of Cancún. This beautiful colonial city is known for its grand colonial-style homes, and the cooking school Los Dos (www.los-dos.com) is set in one of these mini-mansions. Chef David Sterling's kitchen is a work of art, trimmed in locally made tile, overlooking the lush courtyard and laid out for classes with a large central island. Students at his daylong Taste of Yucatán class ($75) first head out to Mérida's central meat and produce market, several halls of vendors where you see the real bounty of Mexico. Everyone at the market knows the American chef, so the shopping feels like a social outing as much as a practical one. Back at the house, and after a light snack, students get to work preparing a big afternoon meal, from cream of cilantro soup to pollo pibil -- chicken in the pib style, but cooked on the stovetop, in a technique I was very grateful to Chef David for devising. Chef David's knowledge of local food traditions is extensive, and he's backed up by two Maya women -- so you get the expertise of both a professional chef and home cooks who've been patting out tortillas their whole lives. Sterling assumes his students know the basics, and lets them focus on Yucatán-specific techniques, such as charring chilis on the stovetop, rather than chopping onions. Even so, this is by far the most intensive class of the three -- by the end, you'll be glad Sterling's grand home also has a swimming pool. It's almost like being at the beach.
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