Part cooking school, part house party, Tasting Places captures the flavors of Italy, England and Thailand

A good cooking school abroad satisfies two major cravings simultaneously: the hunger for new horizons and the desire to play with food. Tasting Places does a great job of accomplishing both. Programs are offered in the spring and fall at seven gorgeous locations in Italy, England and Thailand, with phenomenal teachers who make cooking fun and with plenty of opportunity for leisurely, wine-soaked meals.

Unlike conventional cooking schools, Tasting Places is something of a house party. Instructors and students convene at private villas that are off-limits to the ordinary traveler or at remarkable hotels with state-of-the-art kitchens. Many of the teachers are high-profile chefs taking a break from their restaurants, and they bring a decidedly unstuffy approach to the subject. Students, who number fewer than a dozen at a time, get to see a fascinating part of the world as an insider would, with forays into vineyards and hidden backstreets.

The culinary pedigrees of the four Tasting Places partners--Martin Saxon, Alastair Little, Sara Schwartz and Sarah Robson--are a tip-off as to why these cooking schools are so extraordinary. Saxon and Little are two of London's most influential chef-proprietors. Schwartz, Saxon's wife, was a caterer whose clients included the band Dire Straits and Mick Jagger until she founded Tasting Italy, a cooking school, in 1991. Robson teamed up with Little to open another Italian cooking school, La Cacciata, a year later.

"I suppose we were rivals, but it was nice not to be," Schwartz says, remembering how she and Robson--after meeting at a cooking class--would swap notes.

"Yes," Robson agrees, "it was great to have someone else understand what you do."

Still,the two took the obvious step of merging their schools only three years ago, to the benefit of all. Together, the Tasting Places team seems to know half the famous cooks in Europe and Australia. Chefs Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of London's River Café will be teaching Italian cooking at the Tasting Places center in Cornwall, England; chef Paul Blain, previously of the Chilli Jam Cafe in Noosa, Australia, will be leading classes on Koh Samui Island in Thailand;and in Italy,there's Little himself.

Little's irreverent spirit pervades Tasting Places. "Don't do this if you have children underfoot or you're drunk," is a typical instruction. "Making pizza," he says, "is as easy as making mud pies." Beginners are as welcome, and commonplace, as experts ("although there is a lot of competitive food chatter," Saxon reports).

Hands-on classes each morning are followed by a field trip--sometimes literally to a field or to a rice farm. "In Sicily," Robson says, "you only see tourists once--when you walk past the cathedral in Palermo." There are visits to Palermo's Ironmonger Row (from which one South African guest hauled six enormous trays home) and salt flats. Dinners are in restaurants tourists rarely find. One night the students cook, preparing such dishes as focaccia stuffed with figs, Gorgonzola and prosciutto, or Sicily's signature caponata.

Americans, Little guesses, are tired of a certain style of cooking class. "Our guests," he says, "are not staying at the Gritti Palace and watching someone else cook. These people want to get their hands dirty."

"After all," he continues, summing up the company's M.O., "cooking is the most fun you can have with your clothes on."