When Donna Sakson, president and CEO of Sakson & Taylor, a technical communication and information design company, wanted to celebrate the culmination of an important business...

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When Donna Sakson, president and CEO of Sakson & Taylor, a technical communication and information design company, wanted to celebrate the culmination of an important business deal, she wanted something more meaningful than just dinner. So she hired chef Scott Samuel and invited the team who had worked on the project to her home for dinner. Before the guests sat down to eat, though, they first had to cook the meal.

Cooking parties like Sakson’s are putting a whole new spin on the conventional dinner party. Corporations use them for team-building and morale-boosting; brides and grooms use them for rehearsal dinners or bachelor and bachelorette parties. People celebrate anniversaries or birthdays by cooking together, or just invite a few friends over for a fun and interactive evening.

A private cooking party can be held in a home kitchen or at one of several area cooking schools. At either venue, a chef or instructor creates a menu and works out the logistics of putting many people with various skill levels to work preparing a meal. The host might pay for the whole event, or guests can share the cost of the session, which typically ranges from $50-$75 per person, depending on the menu and the chef.

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Sakson, an ardent cook who frequently hosts cooking parties for friends and colleagues, says, “Cooking in a group creates a very dynamic gathering. You’re not just limited to talking with the person on your right or left; there’s a web of communication going on. People bump into one another, make mistakes together. There’s an intimacy and closeness that evolves, a kind of relationship-building that just doesn’t happen at the dinner table.”

Curtis Pepin, who has held eight cooking parties in his Lake Sammamish home using various chefs, concurs. “It’s a unique way of doing a dinner party. It’s a fun, very social evening. The cost is equal to what you’d pay for a fine dinner out, plus you get the instruction and the recipes.”

Mike and Virginia Dupenthaler of Blue Ribbon Cooking School estimate that 80-90 percent of their business comes from corporate team-building events, and say at least half of those participants haven’t cooked much, if at all, previously. Many return with their own private groups. Demand has grown enough that this month, the Dupenthalers signed a lease to take over the Lake Union building that once housed Cafe Ambrosia.

Cooking as entertainment

Cooking has become glamorous thanks in large part to the Food Network. It’s entertainment, and for some it’s a task sufficiently divorced from their daily routine that cooking classes are viewed as enrichment, like joining a book club or doing Pilates.

PHOTO COURTESY OF DONNA SAKSON
Chef Scott Samuel says students tend to learn more at cooking parties. “There’s less inhibition in a private setting. There’s no rush, no time limit, no intimidation factor,” he says.

“It’s how many people choose to spend their leisure time,” says chef Gabriel Claycamp, who, with his wife, Heidi Kenyon, runs “a cooking school for foodies” called Culinary Communion out of their West Seattle home. In two years, they’ve attracted a core group of about 1,200 students ranging in age from 20 to more than 50.

Chef Scott Samuel teaches full-time, conducting classes in private homes, at Seattle Central Community College’s Culinary Academy and as a guest chef at other cooking schools. In public classes, he notices some people hold back and are inhibited from trying things. “There’s less inhibition in a private setting. There’s no rush, no time limit, no intimidation factor,” he says.

Sometimes, though, the party atmosphere intrudes on those who are serious about the lessons.

“Some people are there to learn, some are there for the party and the wine. Occasionally it’s a fiasco,” admits Erika Lamoureux, of Everyday Eats, a cooking school inside Third Place Books at Lake Forest Park Towne Center.

Both Claycamp and Samuel like to keep things low-key and let people work at their own level. “Everyone doesn’t have to be a good cook, and not everyone has to fully pitch in,” notes Claycamp. “A group of about 10 allows for some to just watch if they want to, and there are still enough hands to get the work done.”

The larger the group, the simpler the menu should be, advises chef Laura Dewell, who will teach classes and run the test kitchen at Dish It Up, a new cooking store opening this month in Magnolia. “That way, if the guests get too busy chatting and aren’t very hands-on, the chef isn’t stuck with a challenging, labor-intensive menu to execute.”

And if you live in an apartment with a four-burner electric stove, don’t despair. “You can do eight people anywhere,” insists Dewell, who knows about tiny kitchens — her now-closed restaurant, Pirosmani, was housed in an old Queen Anne house.

Cooking parties are also popular with kids. “They watch the Food Network too,” says former preschool teacher Jenna Kagan of Maple Valley. Kagan is a mom and a local representative for Little Cooks Ltd., a New York-based company that runs after-school programs and also offers kids’ party packages. The cost, $220 for up to 10 children, includes aprons, hats, ingredients, recipes, invitations and thank-you notes. The kids prepare and eat an entree — lasagna, pizza or chicken tenders are common — and make a take-home dessert, often cookies or apple pie.

Putting guests to work

As home entertaining has grown less formal, the kitchen is often the hub of the dinner party; it’s where guests like to hang out. So why not hand out knives and cutting boards and put everyone to work?

ROD MAR / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The best part of a cooking party: Enjoying the fruits of your labors. Here, chef J.J. Johnson displays Fresh Alaskan Halibut with Asparagus, Cherry Tomatoes, and a Warm Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette, which was prepared during a recent group session at Whole Foods.

That’s what Ami Samuels and Mark Zacharia of Edmonds did recently. The couple wanted to sharpen their knife skills, and thought it would be fun to make it a party. Samuels approached Michael Young and Strom Peterson, proprietors of Olives Gourmet Foods, whose Edmonds shop she frequents. They agreed to devise a menu and teach the class in her kitchen.

Guests pitched in $50 each; the hosts arranged for wine and covered the tip. An accomplished baker, Samuels made a chocolate cake for dessert.

Nine people convened at their home at 6 p.m. to sip wine, nibble hors d’oeuvres and watch Young demonstrate how to sharpen knives with a whetstone and how to slice, dice and chop a variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs. After that, the group broke into pairs and went to work whittling down a mountain of produce for the meal.

By 8 p.m. the group was gathered at the dining room table enjoying the fruits of their labors: crab-stuffed prawns with cucumber in a mango-studded hot-and-sour sauce; herb-crusted baked halibut with ratatouille and risotto; and candied ginger ice cream with the chocolate cake.

“Michael and Strom brought all the food and even their own dishes. They did all the cleaning up. All Mark and I had to do after everyone left was put the wine glasses in the dishwasher and go to bed,” Samuels says.

A less-pricey option than hiring a professional chef might be to lead a cooking party yourself, if you are a sufficiently accomplished cook. Or, enlist someone you know with a culinary specialty you’d like to learn. Perhaps your Korean neighbor might demonstrate how to make bulgogi, or Aunt Gertie would be willing to share her pie-crust secrets.

Providence Cicero: Providencecicero@aol.com