Interview with Lourdes Castro of Biltmore's Culinary Academy, Part I

Expect a different type of three-parter this time around. We'll start off with a brief interview about the cooking school with Lourdes Castro, the Biltmore Culinary Academy's founding director, followed by a simple recipe from her cookbook in Part Two, and we'll ice this cake with an overview of the Academy's three-day boot camp.

Don't be fooled by the title of her first cookbook, Simply Mexican: Lourdes Castro is Cuban, born and raised in Miami. (Her second book, a dictionary of Spanish and English culinary terms called, Eat, Drink, Think in Spanish, was just placed on shelves and Castro will return to her roots with a third cookbook, due in spring, focused on Latin grilling.)

Locals may recall Castro was the founder of the Ars Magirica Cooking School in Miami. But those who didn't know her well may not have realized she was also a part-time instructor at New York University's Food Studies department. In 2007, the Biltmore asked her to work magic in a 700-square-foot space formerly housing offices near the hotel's banquet catering kitchen. 

Before the Biltmore Culinary Academy launched in February 2009, she and her team set up a fully equipped, professional cooking environment suitable for classes. It;s there that eight to ten folks can slice, chop, boil and stir, then socialize and dine on their creations. The Academy instructs locals and Biltmore guests year-round, offering everything from three-hour signature classes ($110 per class) to kids programs and team-building events. All of the hotel's top toques teach at the Academy.

Some say Castro resembles a Latina Marisa Tomei. Others see Sandra Bullock. But her students see her mostly as the Rosetta Stone to all basic cooking's mysteries. If you don't believe that's possible, fork up the $450 and sacrifice three half-days (June 4-6), then get back to us. (We've already been through it.) Oh, and bring a plate of shredded pork stew with smoky chipotle tomato sauce, will ya?
Biltmore Culinary Academy
1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

New Times: Do you ever get bored teaching the basics over and over again?

Lourdes Castro: I've been doing this for over 15 years, but I still learn from the students. You're never too old to keep learning.

What types of students are in this class? People who don't know what the hell they're doing, or those who need a refresher?

People get in culinary ruts. They cook with the space spice, make the same rotation. Lots of people eat one type of cuisine all the time. This class gives exposure to the use of different ingredients. And with technique, there's always something to pick up.

I have to admit, I felt like an idiot for not knowing how to use a knife properly...

There are people who just don't have good dexterity. There are these young people who... aren't used to working with their hands because they are on the computer all day. Cooking is a craft. People aren't used to using their hands. The kitchen is completely based on dexterity. There's no intuition. 

When I told the editors about the class, they were taken aback at how expensive it was. 

Expensive? $450? Wow. However, when we first developed the course, it was all day, weeklong, from 9-5. If you were a local resident, it was $1,500. And the weekend one was $900. But the feedback from the students was that it was too intense.

I did a cost analysis of cooking schools throughout the country and we're on the lower scale of what cooking schools charge. Other places are not even hands on and they charge more. And our personnel has much more experience. I think it's a bargain, to be honest with you. Here we have almost a 1:1 ratio of students to teachers. And you get breakfast and lunch with wine, and an apron and binder. We're also not using cheapie ingredients. But I understand everybody has a point to where they won't and maybe can't spend $450 on a cooking class. 

What do you do with students who don't speak English?

We have a boot camp in Spanish. We call it Culinaria. We market it to people coming from Latin America. They're used to eating differently. 

How is it different, generally speaking?

There has to be rice. And you can't get very funky with it. 

Has Biltmore's Culinary Academy proven successful overall?

There have been adjustments, but we're pretty much on target. 

Have any groupies?

Philippe [Ruiz] sells out before people even know what they're making.  

And do you find that people who take either the Boot Camp or any of the signature classes return?

There are plenty of repeat people because it becomes sort of a social thing. It's entertainment. People come individually, so it's a way of socializing. They have a meal and are able to act in a safe environment.

I have to say, I was a little disappointed there were no desserts in the program...

That was a judgment call. You'll see them in Boot Camp Two in the fall. 


KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Riki Altman