Tuscan banquet

By Posted on Apr 25 2015 | By

Seeking your inner chef in Tuscany 

Linda and George Meyers

Linda and George Meyers

George and Linda Meyers love making friends; more than 150 a year. And their new found companions enjoy earning a graduate degree in Tuscan cooking while living la buona vita.

OK, an actual sheepskin might not convey after a week-long immersion in all things Tuscan. But their guests do take home a sheaf of Italian recipes and lots of memories.

Vacation doesn’t properly define these six days in paradise; ultimate experience does. Eight week-long cooking classes are held in the spring and eight in the fall.

The Haymarket based company Cooking in Tuscany was founded by the Meyers in 2007 and established itself as the rare vacation business that is both owned and operated by the proprietors. They are your hosts from the moment you check into your 13th century villa until you check out.

“We are there to meet them in the morning for breakfast and there to put them to bed at night. We have a translator and create a comfort level. The tour is very comforting to a lot of people. We take care of everything. These are our friends visiting us for a week.

“And it’s all inclusive. It’s not a fancy chef’s school. It’s a five-star luxury trip for people who don’t want to be tourists but want to be locals,” said Meyers.

As a retired Air Force pilot, George Meyers lived all over the United States and in Italy. When not tending to his cooking classes, Meyers heads up a business development firm headquartered in Washington, DC.

“Wherever we lived and had guests visit, we often became the tour guides,” said Meyers. This was particularly true in Tuscany where the couple has an apartment.

After a few years Meyers thought, “We could do this as a business. That’s where it started and that’s where it’s at now,” said Meyers.

Guests hail from around the world but 70 percent are from the United States or Canada; women predominate but couples are frequent participants. “At the end of the week the group has blended together.

“People are from all over, South Africa, India, England, Australia, everywhere; and after a week they haven’t just come to a cooking school. They’ve seen all of Tuscany,” said Meyers.

A day in the life
CIT2Cooking vacations in Tuscany are not hard to find. The legendary culture and stunning scenery attracts many who want to learn first-hand the secrets of Italian cuisine. Virtually all such plans have professional chefs that teach week-long classes. The focus is on the kitchen.

The Meyers have developed a unique alternative to such one-dimensional vacations. Total immersion in the Tuscan culture is the goal and the kitchen is integrated into the lifestyle of the region.

“We don’t have chefs teaching at our school. We know the local women. It’s like my Italian grandmother teaching you how to cook. We call them cooking events or cooking occasions,” said Meyers.

Guests arrive on a Sunday and check in to an historic villa in the hilltop village of Montefollonico. The next morning the group—ranging in size from eight to 16 people—drifts down the street to a little kitchen managed by an older Italian woman. The “chef” has decades of home cooking experience under her apron. Her tools may even include a pizza peel that’s been in use for decades.

For over two hours the group is introduced to the art of making pasta, sauces and more. There’s not an electric appliance in sight. This is down-home cooking at its best.

“The same recipes my grandmother used are used by these women. It’s amazing,” said Meyers. Guests do not have to participate in the classes if they simply want to sip wine and observe. “But everybody wants to learn Tuscan cooking.”

The morning’s efforts culminate in a lunch prepared by the students. There is no clock watching here. For more than two hours, wine and conversation freely flow as newly learned skills that just produced authentic Old World dishes are enjoyed in a leisurely fashion. The mind frame here is “When in Tuscany do as the Tuscans do.”

After lunch, the group retires back to the villa, freshens up and returns street-side to a waiting 16 passenger bus. It’s time to visit another nearby hilltop village.

Afternoons are the heart of becoming Tuscan. Each day a different village is on the agenda. One famous town is Cortona, home to author Frances Mayes who wrote “Under the Tuscan Sun”. The Meyers know Mayes.

The personally guided tours seek to take guests off the beaten path and enlarge their understanding of local life. Visits are conducted to ruins of Roman baths, winery tours and tastings, cheese making shops and more.

“We personally show them all of the things in Tuscany. It’s just like we’d do with a visiting friend or relative,” said Meyers.

One popular event is truffle hunting. A professional truffle guide takes the group out to the countryside and shows them how they hunt for truffles. After the tour, the chef wannabes learn how to cook with the tasty delicacy.

It would be a challenge to eat truffles again without recalling the unique experience.   

CIT3 (1)As evening falls, thoughts of dinner begin to crowd in on the now newly installed citizens of Tuscanland. Around 7:30 p.m., the Meyers’ take them to a local restaurant seldom scene by the tourist crowd. “They would never find these places on their own,” said Meyers.

The dinners extend the guests understanding of local cooking. Moreover, diners at nearby tables reinforce the truism “eat where the locals eat.”

The day comes to a close with a return trip to the villa and visions of yet more experiences awaiting them in the morning.

So what’s the price tag for all this tender loving care; an even $3,650 per person, not including airfare. It’s not cheap but the adventure is considered priceless among many of its graduates.

The cost is all inclusive. From the moment one arrives at the villa to departure to the airport, all classes, tours, wine and food are covered. Credit cards come out only when the souvenir shopping begins.

So what’s the future of Cooking in Tuscany? The Meyers have no plans to expand their current offering. “We are not a huge school and we’re not going to get to that point. It’s all about small classes, at most 16 people,” said Meyers.

“In February 2015, USA Today listed us in its bucket list of the top 20 cooking classes in the world. That was a pretty big deal for us. We are accepting bookings for 2017 classes now,” said Meyers.

What Meyers can envision is starting a similar business of cooking schools in France. He has proven “the concept works and it’s fun”.

Indeed it has, for George, Linda and all their new found friends. 

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For more information on Cooking in Tuscany and schedules for future classes visit: http://www.cookintuscany.com/program

Published in the Spring 2015 edition of The Business Journal.



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