By Betsy Vereckey -- AP Business Writer
Americans have some catching up to do in the kitchen. Take Eric Bonetti. The public relations worker from Fairfax, Va., spent the past few years working up to a four-night-a-week dining out habit. Now, like many Americans, he's trying to save money on food. The problem is, he lost touch with his inner chef.
So, he recently bartered his way into private cooking lessons, and now he's making sumptuous meals of turkey pot pie and chocolate souffle for half the cost.
"With the changing economy, it just seemed smarter to make dinner myself," says Bonetti, who traded writing and editing services for one series of classes and paid $80 for another.
Across the country, the recession is giving extra sizzle to cooking at home. But this isn't Mom's meatloaf or macaroni and cheese. People who grew accustomed to dining out every night still want to eat in style. Besides cooking lessons, they are poring over food magazines, snatching up cookbooks and replacing their dingy pots and pans in hopes of creating gourmet meals on the cheap.
Interest in cooking had already been growing, thanks in part to the appeal of reality cooking programs and the proliferation of celebrity chefs. An average of 2.9 million people watched the fifth season of Bravo's "Top Chef," up from 1.1 million when the show debuted in 2006, according to Nielsen Ratings.
Several major grocery stores say they've seen sales increase because people like Bonetti are cooking more and eating out less. And enrollment has spiked at New York's Institute of Culinary Education, which offers some 1,700 courses a year. Revenue is up 15 percent from a year ago.
The courses can cost hundreds of dollars — seemingly a tough sell at a time when so many people are scrutinizing nonessential expenses. But the school's president, Rick Smilow, says the investment pays off in the long run.
"Some of the classes are the same price as going to a nice restaurant. Plus, they have take-home value," he says.
Bonetti resorted to private tutoring because all the classes in his area were sold out, and he wanted to learn how to make Indian and French food. Other schools offer classes on how to make tapas, paella, pizza and lobster as well as cake decoration skills.
He's hardly alone in cutting back on eating out. Restaurant visits by parties including kids fell 3 percent in 2008 from the previous year, according to market researcher NPD Group. Visits by those 18 to 24 — the most lucrative restaurant market — dropped by 8 percent.
Elementary school teacher Anna Eller took free cooking classes at a Williams-Sonoma store in Tulsa, Okla., after cutting back from eating out several times a week to about once a month.
Eller, who's trying to save money to go back to school and buy a house, also watches the Food Network when she's on the treadmill. Her father bought her a crockpot after she complained how expensive it was to buy dinner every night.
"I got a cookbook on crockpot recipes," she says. "It's great. It cooks my food all day while I'm working. It smells good when I get home, and I'm not grumpy anymore."
There's much greater interest in cookbooks, too, particularly those about slow cookers, value meals, canning and preserving, says Mary Davis, a spokeswoman for book retailer Borders Group Inc. The number of cookbooks sold in the past year rose 9 percent, according to Nielsen BookScan.
Money saved by eating in has given some the means and justification to invest in kitchen tools.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, says sales of housewares, including cooking and dining items and small appliances, were strong in February.
High-end kitchen retailer Sur La Table says sales at its established stores have risen 4.9 percent this year. The company recently sent an e-mail advertising a set of three Chicago Metallic pans priced at $24.99, down from the usual $55, and sold almost 600 sets in one day, spokeswoman Susanna Linse says.
Food Web sites — which offer tens of thousands of recipes, most of them free — also are seeing more traffic.
At Conde Nast's culinary site, Epicurious.com, traffic in January was up 10 percent over a year ago to 4.4 million from 4 million visitors a year earlier.
Editor-in-chief Tanya Wenman Steel says Epicurious' efforts to draw readers with weekly menu planners and recipes to feed families for less have paid off.
"Whenever we wrote a post about cooking for your family for less, we got a large number of comments," she says.
Cooking magazines generally are doing well even as softer advertising revenue has inflicted pain elsewhere in publishing.
Saveur, a food, wine and travel magazine published by Bonnier Corp., saw subscription sales rise 11 percent in March from the same month a year ago. Food Network Magazine, which launched late last year, hopes to boost circulation to 600,000 by October, up from the 300,000 of its first issue.
"Bon Appetit" executive editor Victoria von Biel says circulation is at an all-time high of 1.4 million. The magazine's January issue offered ideas on how to eat better for less, including how to host an inexpensive dinner party and how to cook a week's worth of dinners for under $100.
"Times are tough. Even our affluent readers are going home and nesting a little bit at the moment," she says.
Samir A. Husni, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi whose focus is consumer magazines, estimates that there are between 70 and 90 new titles that appear every year, from magazines devoted entirely to cheese and others just about chicken.
"There's a big hunger out there, no pun intended, for do-it-yourself cooking," Husni says. "If you can't go to the restaurant, what better way is there to bring it to your home?"
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By Betsy Vereckey -- AP Business Writer