Culinary schools are awesome, don't get me wrong. I have made acquaintances in the food community here and elsewhere who hail from such great places a Le Cordon Bleu, the Culinary Institute of America and the International Culinary School at the Art Institute. They're turning out excellent students. But they are not really tourist destinations, unless you're a chef or chef wannabe.
The idea of culinary tourism is rooted in the thought that any average Joe can appreciate the experience, no matter their level of cooking expertise. You can't get that with the university approach — at least, in most cases you can't. You can — with a cooking school. Folllow me on the jump so I can tell you about the Viking Cooking School.
Now, culinary tourists range all across the board. You might have folks with a lot of money to spend who might want to spend time in a kitchen with a top-notch chef, or you might have folks who are spending their hard-earned money and vacation time to learn a dish or two they can prepare at home to dazzle their family and friends. Hard-core culinary tourists are also often into enjoying the Farm to Table experience (I understand P. Allen Smith's folks are working on more of these) and many are kitchen gadget collectors. I wouldn't know anything about that at all, right? (whistles innocently).
It's a very hands-on experience. I took the Southern Cooking class, which included learning how to prepare fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens, cornbread and banana pudding. We started off at the table and sampled cheese straws — though, cheese straws in the form of biscuit-like cookies that first appeared to be peanut butter cookies, thanks to that crossed-fork top.
Prices range from $50 to $100 for a single three hour hands-on course all the way up to $600 for the six week courses... but you get to eat what you prepare and take the recipes home with you. That may be a bit much for some folks, sure, but I can tell you from what I experienced that the courses are pretty comprehensive.
So here's the rub. You can have a Viking Cooking School anywhere. It's a franchise operation. If someone wants to pony up the money to lease out a building, make appropriate modifications and agree to have a shop to sell Viking items, they can pretty much bring one right here to Little Rock. It wouldn't take all that much.
Could it bring culinary tourists to downtown Little Rock? I think it could... but it'd have to be well-handled. I think whoever might be interested in making this happen should be in contact with chefs across the spectrum here in town. It would be good to see our local chefs spotlighted in a cooking situation where they could share lessons with students informally.
However, eggshell kitchen company is already doing this to a degree in The Heights, and doing quite well with it. They have a wide array of local products as well as cooking gadgets out the yang, and they'll be hard to compete with.
Is it worth it to explore the option? I leave it to y'all. If you'd like more information about the Viking Cooking School, check out this link.