Michael Bateman flew to Bali, booked into a chic hotel and ended up working in the kitchens ? well, that's the thrill of a cookery holiday. Here he reveals the joys of swapping suntan lotion for olive oil

The first dish of the day is rice. It is served on a folded square of banana leaf, an inch across, and garnished with colourful petals. Chef puts it outside the front door of the cooking school and, having fed the gods, we can now start our lessons.

The first dish of the day is rice. It is served on a folded square of banana leaf, an inch across, and garnished with colourful petals. Chef puts it outside the front door of the cooking school and, having fed the gods, we can now start our lessons.

This is Bali. And yes, part of the reason I'm here – like most Western visitors – is to relax in the heat. But the other is to try out the cooking school at the Four Seasons hotel in Jimbaran Bay. These resorts seem to have everything, but this one is the first of the firm's 51 sites worldwide to have a custom-built kitchen academy. Is this the start of a new trend, a new leisure activity for resorts, alongside the restaurant, pool and spa?

If it catches on, it won't be surprising. Cookery tourism is booming. Judith von Prockl-Palmer knows all about the appeal. She's managing director of Gourmet on Tour, a firm founded two years ago which already offers a choice of no fewer than 70 schools. As she says, "Cooking holidays can open a door to the real, living culture of a country and – through visiting food markets, meeting local cooks and coming to terms with their dishes – provide rare and exclusive insights." Just look at the recent crop of books that use food as a way to get under the skin of world cultures – from Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour to Hunger by Terry Durack, this magazine's restaurant critic.

Right now I'm in the right place for something exotic. Bali's food is not a magnet to the bulk of tourists, even though Indonesian home cooking is spicy and delicious. Most tourists come into contact only with restaurants offering pasta, imported steak and fish and chips. And although this absurdly beautiful island is home to every sort of fresh tropical fruit – mango, papaya, lychee and banana – here on the menu in the city of Ubud's top restaurant, Bebek Bengil ("The Dirty Duck Diner") the big-selling dessert is Black Forest gateau. Even though it is 90 degrees in the shade.

For someone who loves food, it's a sight that's sad beyond belief, because in the kitchen, three of the young chefs, at my request, have just been cooking an anthology of local dishes eaten by family and friends daily or on feast days, food which simply explodes with flavour: spicy coconut rice, crispy peanut salads, hot sambal sauces, chicken satays, curried beef; a balance of sweet, sour, salty, hot and crunchy. So it is much to the credit of Marc Miron, chef at The Four Seasons, that he is embracing real Balinese food and reinterpreting it for his hotel guests. Miron, a French-Canadian, has forged social and culinary links with his staff of 30 chefs, and in his restaurants, he reproduces traditional flavours.

The same goes for the schools, too. You can go to markets and gather produce on many cooking trips – in this case accompanying Miron as he shops from local fishermen down on the beach. Back in Miron's state-of-the-art kitchen, there's a microwave, three-deck bread oven, a barbecue grill on wheels, deep fryer, steamer, salamander and halogen cooking rings – which is a little odd in a land where many have not advanced from stone-age and iron-age kitchen implements.

The method of cooking in country areas is to wrap food, such as duck, in banana leaves and steam-cook it over hot stones in a pit covered with soil. Not the sort of thing a tourist is likely to do upon return to to leafy Surbiton, but Miron's keen for us to learn that some things are best done the traditional way. Soon we're chopping and cutting and grating ginger and galingale (a similar root to ginger, medicinal in flavour) and stepping out to the garden to pick pandanus (a perfumed grass smelling like sweet vanilla), stems of lemongrass and leaves of holy basil.

It takes 20 minutes to grind the spices to a paste with pestle and stone mortar. "Wouldn't it be quicker in a blender?" asks one of my classmates, a lady from Massachusetts. The question, it seems, does not impress Miron. His reply is short: "Yes."

We pound chicken with chillies and spices, fold it around lemongrass sticks, and grill it. We wrap red snapper in banana leaves and grill it. We make acur sayur, pickled raw vegetables. We make pumpkin custard. Then, perhaps best of all, we eat it. "Aren't we just fantastic?" we ask ourselves. Right now it certainly feels that way.

Going home is not the hardest part of a cooking holiday – it's making the choice of where to go in the first place. Take a look on the Internet and you'll see thousands of options, and the list is growing at an astonishing rate – the industry was born only 10 years ago, when Alastair Little, one of London's most innovative chefs, started the trend by offering trips from the UK to a school in Umbria, Italy (that enterprise soon gave birth to Tasting Places, one of the market's leading firms). On the previous page you'll find a guide to the best in the business. With almost all schools, you have to pay to get there first, so I've included a few less remote than Bali.

School dinners ­ your guide to the world's top courses

United Kingdom

Le Manoir Ecole de Cuisine, tel: 01844 277 201, www.manoir.com Raymond Blanc, the two-star Michelin chef, is an inspiration. So is his restaurant, Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, set in a 15th-century manor house in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, where there is also a cookery school. Tuition is from Stephen Bulmer, who used to work with Blanc. Courses run over either one, two or five days, and range from bite-sized guides on, say, nutrition or fusion, to a complete approach to food. Prices from £450 to £1,775 ­ including your stay in the wonderful house.


Ballymaloe Cookery School, tel: 00 353 21 4646 785, www.cookingisfun.ie The charismatic Darina Allen is the star of Irish cooking, and this is a great school for both professionals and amateurs. Courses generally run from April to July and last between one day (£110) and five (£420) ­ or five months, if you're really serious. The school is set in the apple store of a Regency house in County Cork, and accommodation (around £15 per night) is in farm cottages. Local produce is key but the courses are wide-ranging ­ including lessons on Thai and Vietnam cuisine.


La Varenne, tel: 00 333 8663 1834, www.lavarenne.com Cookery writer Anne Willan was born in Newcastle but has run this superior haute-cuisine school for 25 years, turning out top professionals but welcoming keen amateurs. You're picked up in Paris and whisked down to Burgundy to the magnificent 17th-century Château du Fëy, complete with swimming pool and tennis-court. Then it's five days of the region's food and wine ­ as authentic and serieux as you can get (Willan is on first-name terms with most of France's best chefs, some of whom work for her). Courses run in June and cost around £2,300.


Pata Negra, tel: 01732 750 174, www.patanegra.net User-friendly, warming introductions to the regional cooking of Spain. Pata Negra runs courses in San Sebastian (Spain's number-one gourmet city) and Seville. Spend a week in Andalucia learning some tricks from Sam Clark of London's famous Spanish restaurant, Moro (£1,330).


Tasting Places, tel: 020 7460 0077, www.tastingplaces.com Modern British cooking star Alastair Little is one of the forces behind this inspired group of cookery schools in Thailand, Greece and throughout Italy (Tuscany, Sicily, Umbria, Veneto). They retain star cooks such as Peter Gordon. A week in Tuscany costs £1,390.

Gourmet on Tour, tel: 020 7396 5550, www.gourmetontour.com Courses around the world. Try one of the bases in Tuscany, Umbria, Lombardy, Venice or Amalfi. Prices and durations vary, but a week in an Amalfi school costs around £1,600.United States

Santa Fe School of Cookery, tel: 001 505 983 4511 A tremendously efficient and friendly place to learn. Once poor people's food, based on beans, corn and pumpkin, the cooking of the South-West is now one of the most fashionable in the US, and there's no better way to learn than to go there yourself and trying these classes on South-Western, traditional New Mexican or Mexican food. Demonstration-based classes last around three hours and cost around £30 to £70. Santa Fe is a beautiful city.


Seasons of My Heart, Oaxaca, tel: 00 52 951 518 7726, www.seasonsofmyheart.comSusana Trilling, an American of Mexican descent, brought alive Mexican regional cooking in the US with a 13-part television series, and has written fascinating, authentic books too. The school is in a valley plain half an hour out of the town of Oaxaca, with everything from Aztec ruins to the fabulous Mercado de Abastos, which beats most other markets. A week-long course costs around £1,100.


Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, tel: 00 800 6488 6488, www.fourseasons.comThe school I visited most recently. Six nights of sheer luxury cost £2,400 per couple in a one-bedroom villa. One of you gets to go on the course of four three-to-four-hour modules (available individually for £62 each).