These days, prospective residents have seen it all—an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a fitness facility in the basement, a freshly modernized lobby. Such amenities have gone from impressionable perks to expected standards. With many markets as competitive as ever, companies are always looking for a new hook, an alternative to the now-average amenity.

A select number of companies have found the answer in an unconventional place: the kitchen. For the past six years, Emeryville, Calif.-based Big City Chefs, a company founded on catering and private chef dining services, has started teaching monthly cooking classes and giving wine lectures to intimate groups of residents at apartment and condominium communities with demonstration kitchens on-site.

“It develops a real sense of unity amongst the communities,” says Tom Stieber, co-founder and CEO of Big City Chefs. “Any kind of amenity that enhances the overall quality of life for residents is a good concept in my book.”

Residents learn cooking basics and beyond through on-site classes run by firms such as Big City Chefs.
Residents learn cooking basics and beyond through on-site classes run by firms such as Big City Chefs.

With nearly 2,000 classes taught across the country to date, Stieber is definitely onto something. “It all started when I read an article about private chefs in an in-flight magazine while on vacation,” Stieber says. “Lots of resident communities had brand-new clubhouses with state-of-the-art kitchens, but the kitchens weren't getting used.” It was an open invitation to bring something new to multifamily communities. And Stieber, along with his chefs, took full advantage, creating one of the hottest trends in community living today.

WHAT'S COOKIN'? The cooking and wine classes are kept small, averaging between 15 and 20 people in order to maintain the close-knit neighborhood feel that Big City Chefs considers crucial. The cost is $20 per person (with a 15-person minimum), which includes cooking tools, recipe handouts, all ingredients, and serving dishes and utensils. Although participants can't run home with a new set of Ginsu knives, they do get to keep recipe handouts and enjoy a satiating meal. Classes are generally monthly, giving residents something to look forward to without over-complicating their schedules. They are booked primarily by property managers and run on a first-come, first-served basis, allowing anyone in the community to join in and cook.

And the chefs hail directly from the top of the food chain: All of them possess culinary degrees from top-ranked institutions, professional training, and gregarious personalities. “The personalities are key,” Stieber says. “We specifically pick chefs that have big personalities, because part of their job is to entertain. We want everyone to have a great time.”

Graham Zanow couldn't agree more. After working with Big City Chefs for over a year, Zanow believes he's finally found his perfect job. “It's absolutely great,” he says. “I get to teach the thing that I love the most to so many different people. I get to see how happy it makes them, and I get to be myself.”

After stints at California's French Laundry and Roy Yamaguchi's restaurant at Maui's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Zanow moved to Napa Valley to try his hand as a personal chef and discovered Big City Chefs. “Those restaurants were great, but it was incredibly demanding work,” Zanow recalls. “I wanted to have some balance in my life and have fun just cooking again. The cooking classes are what really make the job.”

MMM, MMM GOOD The classes are a relatively new company concept, and Big City Chefs focuses intently on the quality of its product. “We take a lot of pride in our job,” Zanow says. “If I'm doing the class, I'm going to go to three or four different stores to make sure I have the perfect ingredients. Other caterers [often] order in from Sysco and call it a day.”

That's no surprise to Judith Levy. When she started working four years ago as the concierge at the 1,257-unit Costa Verde Village, an apartment community in San Diego, she never imagined complimentary gourmet dinners would be included as a job perk. “Their food is fabulous, and the chefs always bring me out a taste,” Levy says. “They are extremely sensitive to people's needs, whether they're vegetarian, allergic to certain foods, or just picky.”

Big City Chefs has become a staple at the Costa Verde Village community. In an effort to unify their multiple locations, Levy has opened the cooking classes to Village residents and those of three nearby properties as well. “It's a huge selling point,” she says. “People come in and say, ‘Wow, you have cooking classes?'”

Along with the cooking and wine classes, Costa Verde Village offers gym classes, movie nights, kids clubs, and senior events. “Our residents like all of our amenity options, but the cooking classes are the most universal,” Levy says. “It's free food, free entertainment, and friendly neighbors. It's an ideal combination.”

ALL HANDS ON DECK Of course, Big City Chefs isn't the only company stirring up success in the kitchen. Cooking With the Best Chefs, a Roselle, Ill.-based company, has also picked up on the strength of cooking classes to pull communities together and increase residential sales. Offering both large demonstration programs and more intimate hands-on classes, Cooking With the Best Chefs provides multifamily developers with a variety of options to please both their current and prospective residents.