Joan Burkhardt followed the scent coming from the basement of the Cape May Court House branch of the county library.

But it wasn't the smell of old books she was after. Rather, it was the aroma of simmering crab dip and cinnamon-spiced apples wafting its way up the stairs and between the bookshelves.

A few times per month, the Cape May County Library's main branch in Cape May Court House hosts free adult cooking demonstrations presented by local professional chefs. The Ocean City Free Public Library also hosts bi-monthly cooking demonstrations as part of its adult programs.

Cape May Court House library's Adults Programming Assistant Jesse Ridge said the cooking demonstrations are one of the most popular adult programs at the library. Since its start in 2010, every cooking class has been filled to capacity.

"My advice to people is to look ahead on the website calendar to see what they like and register as soon as the class opens to save a seat," Ridge said.

Chef Mark Kalla, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and the head chef of Green Cuisine in Stone Harbor, proposed the idea of hosting the cooking demos to the library staff. Kalla, of Cape May Court House, said he isn't surprised by its popularity. He said he knew the program would be a hit, and he attributes it to what he calls the "food-TV craze" in America.

Over the past decade or so, the advent of TV networks devoted entirely to food and cooking has created a culinary reawakening, Kalla said.

"Today, we have three TV networks devoted solely to food, cooking shows airing 24 hours a day," he said. "People are interested in watching other people cook for both entertainment and education."

Chef Annmarie Chelius, host of Ocean City Library's cooking programs, said the cooking demo attendees are typically people who have an interest in learning more about cooking.

"They're not just a bunch of people who want to come in and eat free, yummy food," Chelius said. "They want to learn how to make it themselves. It's about the education."

Chelius agreed that food-focused TV channels such as the Food Network have helped to redefine the way mainstream Americans view food.

"Before the Food Network, food was seen as something that you just ate throughout the day and then moved on," she said. "The average person wasn't interested in whether the ingredients used were local. They weren't concerned about the presentation of their plate. They are now. People are also much more in tune about eating for the health benefits."

At the end of her demos, Chelius sets a table with all of the recipes she's made and goes over each one again. Then, the participants feast.

Burkhardt said being able to sample the recipes is a main perquisite of attending the local libraries' cooking demonstrations, as opposed to watching Rachael Ray chop vegetables on TV. The libraries' program participants also can ask the chefs questions and take home copies of all of the recipes.

Burkhardt said that during the last demonstration she attended at the Court House branch, Kalla made a black-bean soup. She said she didn't think she'd like it at first, but one taste and her mind was changed.

"It was amazing," she said.

Ocean City residents Stan and Judie Lewandowski, regular attendees of the Ocean City library's cooking demos, said Chelius' programs have been both educational and fun.

"We picked up a few good menu items from Annmarie," Stan said. "We tried making the baked kale chips, the cranberry muffins. Also, if we have something we want to add into the ingredients in a recipe, but we're not sure if it would work, we can ask her about it, and she'll give us her advice. She's great like that."

Chelius said the cooking demonstrations have allowed her to share her passion for food with her community. Because of the success of the library cooking demonstrations, the Ocean City library plans to host the programs twice per week this summer, as opposed to its current twice-per-month schedule.

"There's nothing better than hearing a recipe that was taught in class came out perfectly at home," she said.

Contact Elisa Lala:

609-463-6713

Upcoming cooking demonstrations

Theme: Mardi Gras

When: 1 p.m., Monday, Jan. 28

Where: Cape May Court House Library

Presented by Chef James Harris

Class currently full. Waiting list available.

* * *

Theme: Cape Cuisine - All Things Chocolate

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9

Where: Cape May Court House Library

Presented by Chef Mark Kalla

Class is currently full. Waiting list available.

* * *

Theme: Real Men Can Cook

When: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9

Where: Ocean City Free Public Library

Presented by Chef Annmarie Chelius

Spaces still available. Open to men only.

* * *

Theme: Time to Dine - Tapa, Meze and Dim Sun

When: 1 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19

Where:

Cape May Court House Library

Presented by Chef John Webersinn

Spaces still available.

* * *

Theme: Cape Cuisine- Bakes Bread

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Mar. 9

Where: Cape May Court House Library

Presented by Chef Mark Kalla

Spaces still available.

* ** 

Theme: Ode to the Potato

When: 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday, Mar. 9

Where: Ocean City Free Public Library

Presented by Chef Annmarie Chelius

Spaces still available.

The Cape May Court House Library Branch is located at 9 N. Mechanic St., Cape May Court House. To register for a class or to be added to the waiting list call 609-463-6350. Library card membership required. Programs are free.

The Ocean City Free Public Library is located at 1735 Simpson Ave., Ocean City. To register for a class or to be added to the waiting list call 609-399-2434. Library card membership not required. Programs are free.