Steven Raichlen slices open a 3-pound hunk of pork and sprinkles it liberally with Jack Daniel's and a spice rub. Then he smears on Dijon mustard and brown sugar before wrapping it all up in bacon and tying it with a string.
As he works, a question comes from one of the 40 salivating students at his Barbecue University: "How many grills do you have at home?"
Raichlen, author of 26 books including "The Barbecue Bible," pauses only a second.
"More than 30," he says. "We have the Rule of Shoe: For every two pairs of shoes my wife buys, I get another grill. I can have as many as I want."
For five years, Raichlen has educated and entertained would-be grillmeisters at The Greenbrier, a posh and sprawling mountain resort that this year has a waiting list for every sold-out session of Barbecue University. Rated "Best BBQ Experience in the United States" by The Food Network, it is part cooking school, part vacation and, experts say, part of a growing trend.
More and more Americans are planning their travels around food, from lavish, 10-day trips to Europe and Asia to quick weekend getaways at U.S. cooking schools of every imaginable style and size. Lovable, laid-back celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rachael Ray have seized the power of television to strip the fear factor from food.
Today, food is an adventure, an avocation, an affair.
"We've traveled on our stomachs for years," says Lorna Hoffman of Boca Raton, Fla., who signed up with her husband and a group of friends. Together, they downed plates of Cajun beer-can chicken, Tennessee pork with sweet barbecue sauce and Filipino-style strip steak.
"Food is something that unites us and something we all have in common, and we all want to learn about it," says Michael Coon, director of the travel program for the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif., which offers chef-guided trips to Mexico, India, Vietnam, Spain and Italy.
"Adventure travel has also grown," he says. "People are tired of just sitting on the beach, so we bring that sense of adventure to the plate."
Many people heading to Europe now want a mission, says Barbara Pool Fenzl, cookbook author and founder of Les Gourmettes Cooking School in Phoenix.
"I'm sure there are just as many trips for art, but the nice thing is that when you go for cooking, you can bring that talent home," she says. "You can use that when you get back here to wow your friends."
Culinary travel is a growing industry, offering everything from community college courses and specialty cruises to Caribbean destinations such as the CuisinArt Resort and Spa on Anguilla. Along with a great meal, or several, travelers get an education.
"They eat out a lot, and they don't want to appear unknowledgeable when confronted with menu items," says Linda Smithson, co-founder of FoodWatch, a Minnesota company that studies food trends. "They want to find a way to gain a comfort level with food so they can order something with a degree of sophistication and knowledge."
Raichlen believes that for too long, America "went through this funny sort of Puritanical period where people didn't respect food, honor food, enjoy food."
That led to a sense of deprivation only now being overcome.
"In most parts of the world, food is an absolutely core part of the culture. It's something people spend two or three hours a day thinking about and planning," he says. "Americans have sort of found their rightful place in the world's community."
Rick Smilow, president of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, offers a huge selection of recreational cooking classes, from the simple ("Single Girls Cooking for Themselves") to the super-specific ("Medieval Persian Cooking" and "Let Them Eat Cake: French Dining at the Time of the Revolution.")
Americans are spending more time shopping for specialty foods, and Smilow says building their travel plans around food is the next logical step. The ICE has expanded twice in the last six years, now training some 20,000 people a year.
Its most popular classes focus on technique, the premise being that if you can braise beef, you can cook pork, chicken or lamb that way. The instruction is intense, the participation total.
"You learn more here than in a typical program in Tuscany or Provence," Smilow says. "Nothing against those programs; I'm sure we'd all like to go to one tomorrow. But we don't have 50 acres out our back door. We don't have a verandah where you can sit and sip some wine. It's serious. It's hands-on. It's not watching someone do it."
While many cooking schools target the high-end traveler with celebrity chefs (The Greenbrier's Barbecue University costs $2,300 for singles, $3,100 for couples), ICE keeps its prices low for the recreational cook, charging an average of about $100 for most one-day sessions.
And Smilow thinks changing demographics help keep the clients coming.
"The days when attention to good food and good eating were a coastal phenomenon are long gone," he says.
The Internet makes it simple to plan a cooking-school getaway. The International Association of Culinary Professionals, some 4,000 members strong, maintains a database searchable by specialty or by state. Away.com helps the novice figure out how to get started.
And prepare for thousands of choices, because Smilow predicts that culinary travel will only grow.
"Once you get used to good food," he says, "it's hard to go back the other way."
If you go:
Tips: Every city and region has its own culinary specialties. Read the food sections of local newspapers and magazines, or search the Web for a particular kind of cuisine. Choose a course that suits your style. Some are mainly demonstration classes, while others are complete participation. Some, such as Erick and Madeleine Vedel's French cooking school - www.cuisineprovencale.com/- begin with a trip to local markets to collect raw ingredients, offering the chance to sightsee and learn about local heritage as well as food. Check out celebrity chef courses online to develop an appreciation for that person's style.
Barbecue University: Offered at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., www.greenbrier.com/act_leis_cooking.asp or (800) 453-4858; $3,000 for couples, $2,300 for singles. Steve Raichlen's Web site - www.bbqu.net/ - lets readers list their favorite barbecue joints.
Cuisinart Resort & Spa: Located in Anguilla, British West Indies; www.cuisinartresort.com or (212) 972-0880.
Culinary Institute Of America: www.worldsofflavor.com/ or (866) 242-2433. Sponsors culinary tours of Mexico, the Mediterranean, India, Southeast Asia, and the American South.
International Association Of Culinary Professionals: Visit www.iacp.com/bizdir/school_search.php for a database searchable by state and specialty, or call (502) 581-9786.
Institute Of Culinary Education: Located in New York City; www.iceculinary.com/ or (212) 847-0770. Daylong programs average about $100.
Les Gourmettes Cooking School: Located in Phoenix, Ariz.; (602) 240-6767.