Students learn how to cook at the Biltmore’s Culinary Boot Camp

Anything you start off with a giant knife in your hand is bound to be intense. And that’s how the Biltmore Hotel’s new Culinary Boot Camp begins. Just minutes into the five-day, all-day crash cooking course, would-be chefs are chopping like fiends. Dice, slice, julienne, chiffonade. “Oh, my God,” says one Miami charity fundraiser, nailing the precise rock ’n’ roll cutting technique the teacher has outlined: “I’ve been cutting an onion wrong my whole life.”

The Biltmore opened its Culinary Academy, a big sun-drenched professional kitchen with blackboard walls, last year. It started small at first with kids’ classes and three-hour offerings like Italian Seafood Dinner. But when more than half the people who took a class signed up for another, the hotel launched the Fundamentals Boot Camp. (Boot camps on entertaining and healthy cooking are also in the works.)

The academy’s director is the supportive but exacting Lourdes Castro. Miami-born of Cuban parents, Castro is a cookbook author (Simply Mexican) and an NYU instructor of food studies. “A lot of cooking classes are demonstrationbased and dumbed down,” she says. This one, capped off by a Top Chef-style cooking competition, is emphatically not.

Boot-camp mornings begin with Castro talking about the day’s menu, flagging the most challenging part of each dish. Then, teams of students dive in, watched over by one of the camp’s trio of instructors. When each team hits the trickiest point in one of its recipes, the whole class is brought over to watch.

Such hotel cooking schools are common in Europe—Ritz Escoffier, Sorrento in Naples, etc.—but less so in the US. It was a good fit with the Biltmore, say executives, since the hotel needed an amenity that would set it apart without ripping up its historic property. No other Miami hotel features a recreational cooking school, brags Biltmore co-owner Gene Prescott. The decision was also made to court foodies because its veteran Palme d’Or restaurant received Zagat’s numberone ranking in Miami last year, he says, a win that flagged the hotel to more out-of-towners.

The last Boot Camp included a recent college grad, a retired Toronto banker, a German photographer, a working mom, a military chef and one DC blogger tweeting her course-by-course progress. For locals, the five-day Boot Camp is $1,500, the three-day version’s $900. An out-of towner’s package is $3,750 for a five-night stay and all meals, including two at Palme d’Or.

The final day of camp is brutal and thrilling. In a TV-style finale, students are given three hours to cook any four of the dishes they’ve learned. Then, the hotel’s chefs, including Palme d’Or’s Philippe Ruiz, arrive to critique. (A hint from this delighted winner: Risk the soufflé.)

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