Nestled inconspicuously between a Roosters and a Petland in a Pickerington strip mall, Lomonico's is bustling on a Tuesday night at dinnertime, save a quiet oasis toward the back sectioned off from the rest of the restaurant by a transparent garage door.

Nestled inconspicuously between a Roosters and a Petland in a Pickerington strip mall, Lomonico's is bustling on a Tuesday night at dinnertime, save a quiet oasis toward the back sectioned off from the rest of the restaurant by a transparent garage door.

Behind the door is a teaching kitchen where 13 aspiring cooks sit around rectangular tables equipped with cutting boards, dish towels, knives and aprons. Playroom-colored stools and fresh veggies on the counter add a vibrant pop to the otherwise industrial space that matches the rest of the American-fare restaurant with exposed air ducts and dim lighting.

As the students find their seats, many with beer or wine in hand, owner and chef Craig Lomonico starts the cooking class by introducing himself, although many already know him from frequenting the restaurant. Lomonico keeps the intro class, the first in a series of six, light and casual. Students call him Craig as they shout out questions-like how long does it take to properly cook pork or chicken?

"We cook our pork medium here, because it's the way it should be cooked-it's not dry," Lomonico says as he paces across the room. "My aunt used to ask me the same question. She's like, 'Why is your chicken so flavorful?' I said, 'Aunt Judy, it's already dead. I don't try to kill it again.' "

Local chefs have recently started inviting diners into their kitchens to answer common questions like these, to debunk cooking myths ("Salt is a seasoning, not a flavor," Lomonico says. "It brings out the flavor.") and offer tips and tricks that translate to cooking at home. These new classes offer everyday cooks the chance not only to meet the chefs behind some of their favorite menus, but to learn in their kitchens.

Deciding to offer classes at his new restaurant was a no-brainer for Lomonico, who has both a culinary and teaching background-The Art Institute of Atlanta graduate taught a high school culinary arts class for five years at Eastland Career Center in Groveport before he became the assistant principal of Fairfield Career Center. So when Lomonico, who now teaches a food production class at Ohio State, opened Lomonico's last October, he had a teaching kitchen built into the restaurant.

Plate, which has two banquet rooms in addition to a large dining room, also opened with the intention of using the space for more than just standard dining. The New Albany restaurant will start offering hands-on classes for up to 20 students this spring, chef Phil Gulis says.

"We have a lot of space, so we'd like to start small and do [classes] weekly or semi-weekly and let it evolve a little bit," says Gulis, who will teach some of the classes that will focus on how to make easy dishes like pizza, soup and pasta. "It's mostly stuff that, theoretically, you could make in your house that's not too complicated. It's stuff that's universally accepted and popular-your kids will eat it."

As at Lomonico's, classes at Plate will give students the chance to make the dishes themselves with instruction from chefs. "Most people would rather be in a class, doing it and having fun than listening to a lecture about it," Gulis says.

Jen Lindsey and Anne Boninsegna had a similar idea-with a completely different take-when they opened The Kitchen in German Village last July. The two have been offering what they call participatory dining experiences ever since. "It's not really oriented around the structure of a cooking class," Lindsey says. "It's more about the idea of getting people together and doing something interesting over the act of making food."

Lindsey and Boninsegna choose a menu for each dining experience, set up the food prep area and stick around to answer questions or help with techniques as up to 40 people create the menu with the provided supplies. "It's sort of like cooking with training wheels," Lindsey says.

Established restaurants are looking to connect with diners in new ways, too. After receiving positive responses to their cooking classes at The Hills Market and North Market, the chefs at Barcelona decided to host classes in-house this year, chef Jacob Hough says.

"We're always looking to push the envelope here, to do different things and keep the guests' interests," says Hough, who, along with one of three sous-chefs and a pastry chef, will teach the monthly classes. Each one focuses on a different theme, like Vegetarian Ideas (March 26) or Cornish Game Hens (April 30), and includes a tapa, entree and dessert with wine pairings. The classes are held in the back of the restaurant, behind a curtain in a semi-private space with a mirror behind the workstation so students can see the chefs in action from multiple angles. Barcelona will supply the recipes demonstrated and a notebook for attendees so they can jot notes about techniques the chefs share.

Spagio co-owner and chef Hubert Seifert has been teaching cooking classes a few doors down from the restaurant at Aubergine Private Dining Club, which he also owns, for about 10 years. Through the years, he's developed different ways to share his experience with home cooks.

"The morning of the class, he goes to Giant Eagle or Kroger, a place that's accessible to all the students, and gets all the ingredients there so he can be sure that everyone in the class can get the items themselves," says public relations manager Nicole Dinsmoor.

Twelve students watch and take notes as Seifert prepares five dishes in classes with themes like All-American Meals and Scandinavian Cooking.

"I always tell people to come very hungry," says Dinsmoor, who adds that the classes are suitable for any experience level. "We have people that don't know how to boil water, and we have people who are more experienced cooks."

After opening a second space soley for production, The Angry Baker began baking classes in December, taking advantage of a large prep space with ovens and tables where students can spread out.

"We completely sold out in the first week," says bakery owner Vicki Hink, who began offering classes at her customers' behest. "The bakery and retail location is a completely open kitchen. I think people love watching us make the food in front of them [and wanted to learn]."

Classes at the Olde Towne East spot ran occasionally through the winter, including courses like vegan baking, cake decorating and a chocolate lovers workshop. Hink hopes to offer more come spring.

Regardless of the style-or the location-of the class, each offers the chance to gather with friends and make new ones, learn different cooking techniques and recipes in a restaurant environment and enjoy a meal at the end. Says Hough: "I think everyone can take home something from it."

Photos by Jodi Miller and Tessa Berg