The New Age of Cooking Classes with a Mission
Despite New Yorkers' collective interest in all things food, quality options for recreational cooking classes have long been scant. Just ask Alison Schneider, founder of Haven's Kitchen, who wasn't satisfied with what the marketplace had to offer.
As she saw it, there were two options for curious cooks: night classes at culinary schools, taught by instructors who she felt were not invested in her, and what she called the "grandma model," classes taught by experienced cooks (but not experienced teachers). But in recent years, a flush of start-ups and small businesses—led by The Brooklyn Kitchen, Haven's Kitchen and Global Kitchen, as well as cooking class aggregators like CourseHorse—have emerged, motivated by missions that extend beyond their education programs.
At Haven's Kitchen, there are a core of courses on subjects like market-fresh cocktails, taught by in-house staff and a culinary team led by David Mawhinney. In addition to these, Haven's offers classes put on by chefs and culinary luminaries. While program director Allie Poindexter tries to achieve a balance between nationally recognized chefs like Floyd Cardoz and nascent entrepreneurs like NY Shuk, her foremost concern is finding good teachers.
"We have people who come in here who are really big names, and if I feel like they don't support the mission or are not really giving off the vibe we'd like to give off here, then we're not going to have them," Allie explained.
"We want to be supportive of the people who are doing really cool stuff in food, and there's so much good stuff going on in food that it should be given attention," Alison added.
Haven's Kitchen offers these chefs a chance to let their hair down. You can see this in their supper club with Hecho en DUMBO's Danny Mena, whose menu focused entirely on goat. Although goat is popular throughout much of Mexico, it's a much harder sell in New York. Chef-instructors are able to do something that speaks to them on a more personal level, and cook food that the economic burdens of New York might prohibit.
There's another, greater mission at work here, one that is rooted in the New Jersey pastures where the goat slaughtered for Mena's meal was raised. It can be found hiding in classes on innocent subjects like salads, making fresh pasta, and Thai street food. Think, "Here's a pasta class, and by the way you're cooking locally" instead of "this is what cooking locally is." Classes might cover the cooking of Mexico, like Mena's, or North Africa, but the produce is all local.
"Let's use Fish Tacos and Tequila as an example. Obviously the tequila isn't locally grown, but you're not going to see pineapple salsa in this class. You're going to see produce that you can use instead that also goes with fried fish," Allison explained. "We don't necessarily want to teach people how to use pineapple. Most of the people that work with us are really excited to find new ways to do that, to ask, 'How do we take local produce and make it fit these ethnic profiles of food?'"
For the team behind Haven's Kitchen, educating consumers on how to use ingredients is fundamental to empowering farmers and thereby increasing food's accessibility. But what do recreational cooking classes have to do with empowering farmers, and making local food more accessible?
"The only way we can empower farmers is by teaching people what the hell to do with kohlrabi—literally. If I'm getting kohlrabi but I'm from a place that has never seen these vegetables and don't know what to do with them, that doesn't apply to me in any way. Until we do that, the farmers aren't going to be able to grow enough to make money. We need them to grow more," Alison said.
Over in Williamsburg, the Brooklyn Kitchen is onto something similar. For five years they have been offering classes like easy weeknight meals, bread baking with East River Bread's Melissa Weller, making pizza with Roberta's, and whole-beef butchering. Program director Michelle Warner sees them as tapping into the Brooklyn culinary scene, and bringing its knowledge and resources into the home.
"I want to provide a program for you, not just offer classes that make me money." Warner requires potential teachers to teach her a class first and then work with her to develop it before it's offered to the public. "I want there to be something for everyone."
They're similarly subtle about sustainability, but are loud and clear about their mission to get people to start cooking at home. (Like Alison Schneider, Michelle believes this alone is a step forward.) Their approach is holistic, so when you take a class on making mozzarella, you start at the beginning—with milk, not pre-formed cheese curds like at other classes. It's all about teaching skills that can be applied directly at home.
"For example, once you taste a nigella seed you can start to think about using it in different ways. Talking about what those other uses are and learning the basic steps, is better, I think, then, 'Here's a recipe, now you know how to make pasta.'" But it's still an uphill battle to make the lessons taught in these classes stick.
"I teach a class on cast iron cooking. For me, I say, 'Oh you're going to learn how to make a roux and properly season a chicken or properly take care of a cast iron skillet, which is a lifetime investment,'" Michelle said. "But people are like, 'I just want to eat fried chicken.' Which is fine, but they'll take that knowledge and maybe put it to good use. I want people to have fun. This is a great way to spend an evening out that is different, and come away with a skill."
Keeping with their holistic approach, Brooklyn Kitchen will be introducing an after-school program in the fall, building on their current initiative wherein young students come in to take a class and get a tour of the butcher shop.
For Global Kitchen, founded in 2012 by Ryan Brown, Leah Selim, and Peter Freeman, the mission behind their cooking classes is tapping into the unrealized potential of New York's diverse communities and empowering immigrant entrepreneurs.
The Art Council of Staten Island's Ethnic Foodways, which has run programs on Liberian, Sri Lankan, and Mexican cooking this summer, is doing something similar on a smaller scale. For co-director Christopher Mulle, it's about exploring what goes on outside restaurants and off the menu, the traditional foods and preparations happening in homes." As is EatWith, the Tel Aviv-based social network that is Couch Surfing for curious eaters. Though the company is already established in Israel and Europe, they are debuting cooking classes in the New York market. A similar start-up, Kitchen Surfing, offers group dining experiences as well, but currently not cooking classes.
"We love to talk about how New York is the melting pot of the world," Ryan said, "but how often are people really making those deep connections across cultural boundaries? That's where we're trying to jump in, to facilitate that dialogue."
"Our goal is to serve as a connecting course between people who are really interested in sharing these recipes, food, stories and people who really want to hear it," Leah added.
After running test classes last fall, Global Kitchen formally launched with a fundraising party in January. They began by running classes once every 3 weeks, but are now running classes three times a month at locations throughout the city. At least one member of the team is always present.
These organizations are also interested in improving New York's stock of cultural immersion cooking classes. There's a widespread myth that the best way to learn about another culture's cuisine, whether it be Greek or Sichuanese, is to watch someone's grandmother who's been making that food all their lives. But that's exactly the problem—a grandma who's been making mapo tofu all her life may not have answers for you about why certain techniques are done a certain way—that's just the way it is. Cooking expertise doesn't always transform into teaching expertise.
"Part of what we're trying to say to our chef instructors is you have something really unique and really valuable that people will pay for. And they don't believe us. We have a hard time convincing them sometimes, you have this unique knowledge and people want to learn what you know," Ryan said.
In their pursuit of teachers, Global Kitchen has turned to local entrepreneurs. It's a mutually beneficial exchange, in that classes help prop those businesses up and the entrepreneur's success is free publicity. But not just anyone can teach a class at Global Kitchen. Potential instructors are vetted in a three-pronged process, beginning with a survey, then a follow-up phone call, and finally an in-person interview. English and storytelling abilities are key. After every class, a survey is sent out asking students about their experiences and the cuisines they're interested in. The team has not added some popularly demanded cuisines, such as Vietnamese, because of their inability to find the right teacher.
Global Kitchen's bent is very much towards home cooking, and like Haven's Kitchen, it offers teachers an opportunity to share something they can't at their business. Take, for example, an early class run by Raghab of Newark's The Falafel Factory. While he sells falafel and shawarma there, for his class, he cooked koshari, a starchy, eggy dish that originated as a worker's meal. Despite its wide popularity in Egypt, you won't find it in Astoria's Little Cairo.
"You have to distinguish between the things that people are going to want to pay money for at a restaurant and then the things that people are going to want to learn because its this dish that never gets served anywhere," Leah said. Classes like Raghab's offer access to foods that might be lost in the translation of immigration.
Part of Global Kitchen's initiative is compiling a database of all the recipes taught in class, which they'll eventually turn into a cookbook app.
Ryan envisioned all of this through the eyes of an outsider. The team found itself tapping into demographics it never intended to, like first generation Americans looking to reconnect with their roots. Three couples who recently adopted children from Ethiopia attended a recent class with Ethiopian pop-up Bunna Cafe so that they could better recreate those cultural experiences for their children. This phenomenon has since continued.
Countless times you've heard someone say that they live in New York because of all the diversity; but most of the time we're seldom more than voyeurs. Global Kitchen seeks to solve this, to connect our patchwork of disconnected communities and make the rich tapestry of our city accessible through the medium of cooking.
"What we're really trying to do is create this immersive experience where you're spending an evening with someone who is from that country. It's the smells and tastes of that country, of course, but its also the stories and the anecdotes and all the other things that go along with it," Leah said. "It's the full experience without having to travel to that country."
Where to Get Cooking
A recreational cooking school where chefs let their hair down, and sustainable, local produce is part and parcel of every class.
Address: 109 West 17th Street, New York, NY 10011
Availability: five courses a week
The Brooklyn Kitchen
Many classes are led by big names within the Brooklyn food scene.
Address: 100 Frost Street, New York, NY 11211
Price: $55 to $85
Start-up focusing on immigrant-led cooking classes.
Address: Locations throughout the city
Availability: three per month
Series of cooking classes put on Art Council of Staten Island.
Address: Locations throughout Staten Island
Availability: Last event on September 14th
Social network based in Tel Aviv, launching classes for the first time in New York.
Address: Locations throughout the city
Price: Determined by host
Availability: Pilot classes are currently bring tested
Selective aggregator of classes of all kinds, including food.
Address: Locations throught the city
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats and Anatomy of A Smorgasburg Pop Up columns. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.