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COOKING UP A PLAN FOR RETIREMENT YEARS

When I signed up for a five-day vacation course on professional techniques for home cooks, my 54-year-old husband, Jack, asked if he could come along.

Many times during our 31-year marriage, Jack had expressed an interest in learning to cook. But his repertoire was limited to Sunday morning pancakes -- always following instructions on the box.

Much as I enjoy preparing meals, I hoped that one result of our learning vacation at Ecole de Cuisine at the American Club in Kohler, Wis., would be similar to that of Dorlene Kaplan, editor of "The Guide to Cooking Schools" (ShawGuides, $19.95).

"When I was signing up for one, my partner, Larry, a retired physician, said he thought it sounded intriguing and would like to come along," Kaplan says. "He's been in the kitchen ever since."

I haven't been so lucky yet. Jack is a workaholic and my office is at home, so it's still simpler for me to do the shopping and prepare dinner.

But after retirement, we're likely to become like many other senior couples interested in food and wines. We'll probably take more cooking classes and sign up for some of the growing number of food-and-wine-oriented tours, special-interest cruises and events at resorts and hotels. And he'll have more time to spend in the kitchen, sharing the masterminding of menus, food shopping and cooking.

Kaplan's guide lists 450 cooking hot spots in North America and abroad. They offer everything from half-day demonstration classes in restaurants and cookware and gourmet shops -- easily added to a sightseeing trip or resort visit -- to the high-intensity, total-immersion course that Jack and I attended in Wisconsin. Travelers will even find food-related walking and bicycling trips.

The guide also lists elaborate overseas tours, including excursions to markets, wineries and other food-related sites, sometimes with hands-on work in the kitchen, dining in fine restaurants and sightseeing on the itinerary as well.

The focus may be on ethnic and regional cuisine; styles of cooking such as grilling or diet foods; cooking for singles; or types of dishes, like crepes, breads, potatoes or desserts.

Instructors may range from an Italian grandma sharing generations-old recipes to a highly trained professional chef like Jill Prescott, whose PBS television series and companion book, "Professional Cooking for the Home Chef," are scheduled to appear this fall.

The kitchen may be relatively spacious and designed for teaching, like Prescott's, or a compact layout in a restaurant or home.

Prescott, who also offers weekend hands-on courses and half-day demonstration classes, now finds baby boomers joining older students. But senior Americans make up a solid majority of travelers taking overseas trips focusing on wine and cuisine.

"That's because they're often more expensive than regular group tours, and younger people are still sightseeing rather than taking special interest trips," Kaplan says.

Some senior food fanciers may join trips abroad led by U.S. chefs and instructors like Prescott. Or they may sign up for sessions endorsed by highly rated chefs like France's Paul Bocuse, or at renowned restaurants like that at Venice's Gritti Palace hotel.

Companies like Cuisine International, International Dining Adventures and the International Kitchen specialize in overseas cooking-school and cuisine-oriented trips. They find senior travelers are their main customers. Italy and France are the most popular destinations, though some are in Spain and other parts of Europe and the world.

Before choosing a cooking school or food-oriented vacation suitable for you, there are questions you should ask yourself and the operator.

First, define why you want to take a such a vacation. Do you want to learn beginning or classic techniques? Get to know a region and its cuisine? Entertain more successfully? Eat more healthfully? If it's a culinary tour, are you mainly interested in learning about and dining on the region's food and wine -- with some general sightseeing -- or learning to cook it? Or are you considering it just for the fun of it?

During the five-day participation course Jack and I chose, we spent four to six hours a day on our feet preparing dishes we would later devour. Additional time was spent on discussions of techniques, equipment and ingredients, and a half-day was used to explore markets, spice importers and other suppliers, and sample the recipes and presentation of a well respected local chef.

Ask about your instructor's culinary credentials, experience and teaching abilities. Find out if the kitchen was designed for instruction or if it is a home or restaurant kitchen. The ratio of students per instructor is particularly important in participation classes -- the smaller the group, the more personal attention you receive.

Find out what activities are scheduled outside cooking time, and what is included in the cost.

Ask for the names and phone numbers of two or three people who have taken the course or made the trip, and question them about how it was organized, how much time was spent in hands-on or demonstration sessions, and whether instructors were supportive or overbearing.

"Even though a lot of retirees tell me they are busier than ever, they still have reached a stage in life when they can do more things as couples," Prescott says. "Cooking at home is something they can do together, then sit down and enjoy with wine, a little candlelight and each other's company."

Travel information

Cuisine International, Judy Ebrey, P.O. Box 25228, Dallas, Texas 75225; (214) 373-1161;cuisineint@aol.com, offers weeklong vacation cooking programs at schools in Italy, France, England, Ireland and Brazil.

Ecole de Cuisine, 765H Woodlake Road, Kohler, Wis. 53044; (920) 451-9151;ecole@execpc.com, has five-day basic, intermediate and advanced classic cuisine courses, plus weekend participation and half-day demonstration classes. It also offers an annual food tour to France.

International Dining Adventures, 106 Lynn St., Seattle, Wash. 98109; (800) 784-6020;info@intldining.com; offers tours to France, India, Italy, Spain and Thailand that focus more on learning about the cuisine than hands-on classes.

The International Kitchen, No. 11N, 1209 N. Astor St., Chicago, Ill. 60610; (800) 945-8606;info@intl-kitchen.com; offers culinary trips to regions of Italy and France, including cooking and sampling during a bicycle tour in Bordeaux, and a spa vacation in Tuscany.

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