In a city chock-full of restaurants fit for any craving, eating out is not just the cool thing to do, but the easiest thing to do. Going out to eat with friends or family is a social norm that doesn’t depend on age. Ann Arbor certainly doesn’t encourage home cooking for the most part, but some of its restaurants do offer cooking classes.

A bit of a contradiction, restaurant-sponsored cooking classes revive the fun of making something from scratch, in the comfort of a well-stocked kitchen. Why do these restaurants offer classes that could, in the long run, promote staying in? After all, people going out to eat keeps their bills paid.

Well, there’s something to be said about home cooking, even by the restaurant biz itself, and it may just go beyond the registration fee of the class.

My first cooking class in Ann Arbor was at Pilar’s Tamales, a family-owned Salvadorian restaurant. Ten people squeezed into the small shop and learned how to make horchata, a sweet drink made from ground-up rice and sugar. Pilar’s owner, Sylvia, didn’t push her products on the class, only her love for horchata and some of her opinions on mass food production in general. It was an experience nothing like eating out or going to class — the tutorial was more of a celebration of the art of making food.

It was hard to imagine why Sylvia would see fit to hold such a class. The process could have easily been YouTubed, the recipe could have been attained from a number of online sources or we could have walked in, grabbed one of Pilar’s homemade horchatas on the shelf and left in a Starbucks-esque frenzy.

Pilar’s horchata sells for about $4 a cup, and trying to show the class how easy it really is to make seems apt to make business dwindle. With a strictly bottom line-oriented mindset, cooking classes don’t add up. They seem like a portal into the magical world of the restaurant kitchen, offering advice on how to spice up life at home without paying the premium for the restaurant experience.

Before Sylvia’s class, I thought perhaps cooking classes were an easy way for restaurants to make a buck and expand on something I already knew. But the class felt more like a family get-together, where everyone shared ideas on extra things to add to horchata. I realized the $15 I paid probably bought merely the ingredients and Sylvia’s time — hardly indicating an entrepreneur looking for easy money. Sylvia is a catalyst, bringing together people who want to move beyond the typical tables, booths and appetizers.

In Ann Arbor, cooking classes are offered by nationwide chains like Whole Foods, which offers quick classes for as low as $5, and by local restaurants like Zingerman’s, which holds intensive “BAKE!cations” that can last up to a week. But classes don’t have to be taught by the big guys, and they don’t have to be expensive. Many small, family-owned restaurants near campus, like Pilar’s, hold affordable, intimate classes that reveal a true passion for food. Getting together to eat happens all the time, but getting together to cook, bake or learn is sadly a rarity in a busy city like A2.

So instead of just eating out, try a cooking class. It can be as high-class as Paesano’s, which schedules culinary tours to Italy every year, or it can be an occasion to bring out the kid inside who loved (and still loves) frosting with a cake decorating class at Dahlia’s Custom Cakes. Even the University holds classes through MHealthy, with themes ranging from Vegetarian Cuisine to Mother’s Day Brunch.

The truth is, cooking classes are about as unnecessary as restaurants themselves — all we need is a grocery store, a cookbook and some gumption. In a way, cooking classes rub against social norms, making home cooking a quasi-public event. But these classes help close the gap between the chef and the everyday restaurant connoisseur.

People may not realize that a love of food, not just profits, is a large part at a restaurateur’s motivation. It may be possible to judge a restaurant’s culinary passion based on the kinds of things they do outside of changing the menu and keeping the salt and pepper shakers clean. Pilar’s, for instance, held a benefit dinner for Haiti and offers seasonal specialties to take advantage of local harvests.

Sylvia told us she doesn’t make horchata for the money, but for the rich tradition it represents in Latin culture. Behind the cooking class itself was the practice of preparing foods together, an act that lies as the basis for many cultures. Even in a city as big as Ann Arbor, it’s possible to make cooking a more sociable and enjoyable event than dining out.

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