The Secrets of Immigrant Cuisines Revealed at League of Kitchens Cooking Classes

[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

How would you like to learn to cook quabili pilau, the national dish of Afghanistan, from an Afghani immigrant who used to cook for 35 family members a day? Or make namul, seasoned vegetables, with a woman who makes her own doenjang, or fermented soy bean paste? The League of Kitchens can help you.

Founded last year by Lisa Gross as a social practice art project, League of Kitchens is part of a new wave of recreational cooking schools that double as social enterprises. Much like Global Kitchen, the League seeks to tap into New York's rich but often inaccessible ethnic tapestry. Unlike Global Kitchen, the League employs immigrant home cooks rather than first generation entrepreneurs.

Essential to that difference is where the classes are taught: in the instructors' homes.

Cleaning Rice

"When I was developing the concept, people would say, 'how are you going to prevent this from being a kind of poverty tourism?" Gross said. "When you go into our instructor's homes, they are the host, expert, and teacher. It's a reversal of the conventional power dynamic, where the immigrant is the one in the unfamiliar space. That makes the experience more powerful. We're very committed to this being a positive, meaningful, empowering, and well-paid experience for our instructors."

Paying her instructors well is a big reason why the League's classes run $200 a pop. Instructors are paid $25 an hour for three hours of prep, five-and-a-half hours of class, and an hour of follow up. In addition, they're paid for three months of intensive training, wherein they teach two practice workshops and attend two other instructor's workshops.

The League found their instructors by reaching out to, Gross told me, every language school and immigration and culturally specific nonprofit and community organization in the city. "Anything we could think of, really." From 100 interviewees and 25 auditions, they culled six instructors.

Cooking Lubiyeh

Gross knows the price is high, which is why she makes the argument for value. Competitor Haven's Kitchen, she says, offers two-hour classes with 13 students for $125. The International Culinary Center's classes are four hours, with 20 students, for $200. Neither offer the perks that League of Kitchens does, including two meals (Haven's classes have one), a shopping guide for hard-to-find ingredients, and a starter kit with all the specialty ingredients you need to cook the dishes you made in your class. The League's classes have a maximum of six students, making for a more intimate experience. It's not "more hands on"—you have no choice but to get your hands on.

Right now, there are six classes available: Greek, Bangladeshi, Afghani, Indian, Lebanese, and Korean cooking. More will be added as demand increases; Gross has just hired Trinidadian and Vietnamese instructors who will train with two other instructors and debut in the fall.

Into the Blender

As the company grows, the five-and-a-half hour class will remain their flagship. Other classes will be launched with time, including $100 two-and-a-half-hour sessions, to be tested in the next month, and, further down the line, "intensives," with singular focuses on, say, Indian pickles.

To get a sense of what League of Kitchens offers, Max, Robyn, and I joined a vegetarian class with Jeanette Chakwi, the League's Lebanese instructor. (Disclosure: our class was free of charge.)

Arriving at her Bay Ridge apartment, we gathered in her living room, decorated with Catholic iconography and family photos. A friend hung out nearby during the beginning; smiling family members wandered in and out throughout. Her husband watched a televised mass as we cooked, and her daughter joined us for dinner, alerting the ladies to a nearby makeup demo. Our afternoon's easygoing structure replicated the lazy Sundays she harkened back to when asked about memories of eating with her family.

Dinner Is Served

The afternoon kicked off with with a light lunch, like all League classes do. Our spread included spinach pie, labne, and flatbreads filled with cheese and kishk. After eating and talking casually, we listened to Jeanette share her story.

She was born in Zahle, the largest Christian city in the Middle East, and immigrated here in 2006. A French teacher back home, she didn't learn how to cook until after she got married. However, she quickly discovered a passion for it, telling us, "after I saw how happy my husband was eating my kofte, I wanted to do everything the best."

After sharing a little bit about ourselves, we broke for the kitchen. We spent the majority of our afternoon there, snapping green beans and shaping semolina dough. Our time in the kitchen was congenial and warm, as Jeanette fielded questions, teased students, and encouraged conversation. She talked about learning how to make penne alla vodka and showed us the kishk she brought from Zahle. Dinner began with a prayer and ended with a nightcap of cookies and Turkish coffee.

Seasoning the Baba Ganoush

At first glance, five-and-a-half hours might seem like a long time for a cooking class. But the length is actually the class's greatest asset. League of Kitchens offers much more than a cooking class where you leave with a fuzzy understanding of a cuisine and some recipes. The small size of the classes coupled with the leisurely length makes the experience more like spending an afternoon with your friend's favorite aunt or grandmother. It's an opportunity for deeply meaningful interactions with people who you might, otherwise, only pass on the street.

See snapshots from our class in the slideshow »