Everyone knows New Orleans has an exhilarating food culture, but most tourists only visit the obvious destinations: oyster bars, beignet shops, po'boy joints. Indeed, locals can be secretive about their favorite spots. With the launch of the New Orleans Cooking Experience, an unorthodox hybrid of cooking school and cultural center, it's now simpler to feel like a Big Easy insider. Along with in-depth Creole cooking classes in a renovated 19th-century mansion with chef Frank Brigtsen—an F&W Best New Chef 1988—students can opt for intriguing excursions: a boat trip to the 150-year-old Madewood sugar plantation and a private dinner, or a bayou tour with an oyster fisherman, with stops at a boudin factory and a seafood-boil lunch. Programs range from half-day cooking classes to four-day packages ($200 to $1,800; 504-522-4955 or

—Salma Abdelnour