ON a recent Thursday evening, Lisa Rigoglioso, 46, a stay-at-home mother, deviated from standard-issue suburban entertaining. Instead of inviting a group of people to her home for a book club meeting or a run-of-the-mill dinner party, she had nine friends over for a private cooking class.
While Lisa Pattman, who used to do prep work for Emeril Lagasses and Mario Batalis shows on the Food Network, held court with a sous chef on one side of Ms. Rigogliosos kitchen island, the guests sat rapt, wineglasses in hand, learning how to assemble the hearty fall meal they would later sit down to eat.
Any recipe that tells you to add the garlic in with the onion is terrible “you always do the garlic afterward,” said Ms. Pattman, 41, while preparing short ribs braised in red wine sauce with bacon, parsnips and pearl onions, part of a menu that included wilted and sautÃ©ed greens and bittersweet chocolate mousse cake.
Also among Ms. Pattmans edicts: Never use garlic from a jar (It tastes metallic). And dont keep fresh rosemary longer than a week.
Ms. Pattman, who operates a catering business based in Midland Park, started giving private cooking lessons this summer, joining a number of New Jersey chefs who take their skills” and their knives, pans and cutting boards” on the road. Another is Loryn Dagon, 49, owner of Chef Loryns Cafe and Catering in Madison, who started teaching in private homes in 2001 and has done so on scores of occasions, working throughout the state.
It starts out as a social thing for most people, Ms. Dagon said. Then they learn little tricks of the trade, and they really start getting interested.
Fees vary, and approaches differ. Ms. Pattman charges each guest (a minimum of six) $35 to $45, which includes food costs and cleanup but not wine; the host pays nothing. Ms. Dagon recently charged $80 a person for a beef tenderloin dinner at the home of Robert Pike, a real estate broker who lives in Harding. That fee included food, cleanup and wine.
And while guests at Ms. Rigogliosos house sat attentively as Ms. Pattman led her presentation, Mr. Pike and his guests did a good bit of the work.
â€œOne minute were all standing around talking about what are we going to do in this market to survive, the next minute shes orchestrating us through roasting pears for the salad,â€ said Mr. Pike, 52, who used the evening as an excuse to bring together 10 colleagues and clients.
The dinner, which obliged guests to stir, chop and measure, doubled as an exercise in team-building, Mr. Pike said.
But often chefs and those who hire them are less concerned with how an evening plays out socially than how it translates nutritionally.
Diane Henderiks, known as medietitian in the kitchen to viewers of News 12 New Jersey, for which she hosts a regular segment, said she was trying to raise the culinary bar for healthy cooking.
Since 2004, Ms. Henderiks, 43, a registered dietitian who lives in Ocean Township, has been leading parties throughout New Jersey (and around the country) several times a month. Her fee is $750 for 10 people, and $25 for each additional person; food and travel expenses are not included.
A dinner for 10 last month at the Colts Neck home of Avra Karakoglou, 50, featured citrus-rubbed salmon. â€œWe were all pleasantly surprised at how few calories were in everything, said Ms. Karakoglou, who owns a tile business in Red Bank.
For some at-home cooking students, learning to cook locally, not counting calories, is the chief motivator. Margaret Noon, 49, of Scotch Plains, who trained at the French Culinary Institute, travels within a 50-mile radius of her home teaching small groups, usually fewer than six, about the versatility, and flavor, of local foods.
Amanda Cook, 40, who works for a pharmaceutical company, recently hired Ms. Noon for a one-on-one session in her Summit apartment.
I moved here from the U.K. in February, and I have a farm share, Ms. Cook said. â€œBasically I didnt know what to do with all these vegetables Im not used to.
Squash, she said, was especially vexing, but Ms. Noon showed her how it can be used.
Ms. Noon, who is president of Slow Food Northern New Jersey, charges $100 an hour, not including the cost of food, to help people start changing their habits.
Sometimes the changes in question can be profound, as they were for Jamie Strait, 45, of Bloomingdale, who became a vegetarian three years ago.
When I stopped eating meat my weight went down, my cholesterol went down, said Ms. Strait, a part-time karate instructor. About a year into it, my husband decided to stop eating meat too.
But Ms. Strait found it challenging to concoct a variety of meatless dinners.
Enter Judy Mancini, of Morris Plains, a chef who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and gives private classes in vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free cooking. With a friend, Martine Marcus, she is also a partner in Burden Free Foods, a specialty-foods company based in Morristown.
Ms. Mancini mentored me, Ms. Strait said.
She taught me how to make homemade, wholesome things that actually taste good, so we dont miss meat, she said.
Though Ms. Mancini helped strengthen Ms. Straits commitment to vegetarianism, she said that she often had an even bigger impact on families with children who have food allergies or other dietary issues.
Ms. Mancini, 47, became aware of the needs of families struggling to feed gluten-intolerant children through her work at the Unity Charter School in Morristown, where she is the chef for the lunch program.
For private parties of up to six people, she charges $150 for three hours; the cost of food is extra.
Though the host and guests are generally focused on how to prepare easy entrees that can be enjoyed by those with or without dietary restrictions, Ms. Mancini said, the food-and-friends atmosphere tends to ensure a good time.
Which is typical of at-home cooking lessons.
This is just a great way to bring people together to learn, she said.