'It really took off again': Cooking classes are thriving as pandemic wanes
Everybody eats, and everyone can learn to cook.
We might not all become professional chefs, but plenty of professionals are willing to share their expertise and teach you a few tricks to get better in the kitchen.
Whatever your skill set, your age or your dietary needs, or whether you just want a fun night out with others, there is a class for you.
On Feb. 1, Chef Pam’s Kitchen in Waukesha marks its four-year anniversary. Owner Pam Dennis has seen continued growth, even moving a few doors down from her original location to add cooking stations and four commercial kitchen spaces last year.
Her most popular events include not only cooking classes, but also supper club evenings and pop-ups with local chefs. She teaches some skills and brings in others to teach making cake pops and cocoa bombs, for instance. The Chicago stuffed pizza class is consistently her bestseller, sometimes selling out within two hours of being posted online, and anything Italian is always popular.
Like several others in the area, she’s already booking classes into June and July.
“My audience is everyone. We just started in January bringing in people to teach 2- to 5-year-olds. We were doing 5- to 7-year-olds with a grownup, so this is earlier and more sensory,” Dennis said. “The other night we had French cuisine, and I had a 90-year-old woman in the audience. It is all over the place, and I think that is neat.”
More:Where to find cooking classes in the Milwaukee area
'I thought ... I was done'
Back in 1992, Staci Joers began hosting cooking classes as an advertising tool at the gourmet cooking store she managed. Over time, her classes continued to grow in popularity, and in 2002 she went full-time as a cooking instructor and runs Staci’s Cooking With Class.
“I teach one night, one-topic cooking classes, typically demonstration style, and mainly through park and recreation departments, community centers and the Milwaukee Public Market,” said Joers, who has seen the appetite for classes grow voraciously. “I thought after the pandemic I was done. I didn’t figure people would come back out, but it was the opposite. It really took off again. I now sell out almost every class.”
Over the years, cooking instructors have also seen a shift in where people go for recipes. Sourcing matters.
“I always ask where my students get their recipes, and the answer these days is always TikTok,” said Andrew Schneider, a pastry instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College. He’s also an owner of Le Reve Patisserie and Cafe and Troquet, a cooking school and event space, in Wauwatosa.
“You don’t know the sources, is what I tell students. These recipes (online) are not tested and structured. If you get a book from Lidia Bastianich, the recipes are usually bulletproof because she’s been doing it so long. If you get it off TikTok, it could be a 14-year-old.”
At Troquet, Schneider has built a slightly different cooking-school model, based on his own experiences and industry connections he’s built over the years. Chefs from around the world are brought in to showcase their skills.
"When I was in the industry coming up, you had to travel, whether to Chicago, Europe or New York, to learn good habits or techniques,” Schneider said. “A lot of people don’t have the time and money to travel. We wanted to bring that professionalism to Milwaukee. Using all the connections we’ve made, especially in pastry, we wanted to bring that. We bring great chocolatiers, pastry chefs, bread makers, chefs, to show people why we train our whole lives and try to get better.”
He continued, “I’m a pretty good chef and owner all around, but the people I bring in, these chefs are on another level. For instance, Josh Johnson" the Midwest pastry chef for chocolate company Guittard, "is so good with chocolate, a hundred times better than I will ever be. Eric Perez, he just sold his place in Singapore, and he’s moving to Chicago now. That’s where he was coming from to teach the past few years. We’ve got a few from Chicago and the French Pastry School, and Nicolas Botomisy, who worked for Valrhona. … It is to showcase our profession and also show stuff that is approachable.”
Classes are released in six-month blocks, and currently held only once or twice a month on weeknights, primarily Tuesdays, when Le Reve is closed for service.
Food prices are a challenge
Although classes are selling out just about everywhere in recent months, inflation and costs of ingredients, staffing and resources have provided an additional challenge. Budgeting and planning are something every cook faces. It is no different for the professionals.
Even as food prices rise, chef instructors are working to mitigate additional costs.
Joers faced raising the price of her classes for the first time in nearly a decade. “There’s no getting around rising food costs,” she said.
Based on her decades of experience, Joers built classes on what she’s learned about how most people cook. “I try to utilize ingredients that are available, not too much running to specialty stores. I try to design menus that people think, ‘I would make this.’”
'A yearning' to get out
Participants don’t leave cooking classes hungry. Instructors are well versed in educating, entertaining and feeding their audiences.
“As far as the sheer amount of classes that have been sold out, it has been pretty impressive and unlike things we’ve seen before,” said Paul Schwartz, executive director of the Milwaukee Public Market, where classes featuring local and nationally recognized chefs and cookbook authors are held in Madame Kuony’s Kitchen on the market's second floor.
Some events have proved so popular, the market has been using the entire second floor as event space.
“Last year, we started to see a lot of this, where classes would sell out months in advance. I think that was a yearning for people to get out to an in-person class structure,” Schwartz said.
“The cool part and what I like about our programming is that we’ll have the chefs that don’t own a restaurant but are really talented and are really captivating people, like Staci Joers, Ruta Kahate and Jenny Lee, and then the restaurant owners, like AJ Dixon, who is coming to teach a class here. That sold out, and it is timely because she is closing her restaurant.”
Schwartz continued, “A lot of chefs don’t have the venue or space to do the class. We want to be an asset and get them in front of a new audience.”
Kahate is one of those chefs. She operates her Ruta's Vibrant Indian Cafe from a vendor stall at Crossroads Collective food hall, but doesn't have the space to conduct classes.
Teaching around the world and back home
After five years opening restaurants overseas and amassing a collection of recipes from around the world, Michael Solovey realized he loves cooking, but teaching others to cook is even more fulfilling.
His first teaching role began a decade ago at Sur La Table. Just before the pandemic, he was at Boelter in a corporate role.
“I got laid off like so many did on March 13, 2020. My greatest client at Boelter was with an organization called Gilda’s Club in Madison,” Solovey said. “They called and said ‘We can’t do our yoga, our nature walks. Would you consider cooking classes online?’ ”
He invested in a camera and lighting, built a repertoire of online classes, and under his brand Sage Harvest taught to groups around the world.
Last year, Solovey joined Glorioso’s Appetito with Sage Harvest. Now he’s doing in-person classes five days a week at the Brady Street space affiliated with the Italian grocery. Interest in classes and catering has continued to grow, and meal prep will be added soon.
“This is not just a night out to learn a particular recipe,” Solovey said. “They're learning tips, tricks and science they can apply to 100 recipes. I’m not teaching you this dish, I’m teaching this genre. What are some swaps I can make?”
Taking fear out of the kitchen is an important element. Every instructor knows mistakes will be made, as does anyone who has tossed out a dinner or baking project gone awry. Teaching how to get past those mishaps is part of every good cooking class.
“We break down these barriers of trepidation and fear. I’ve even gone to the point where I will sort of sabotage things in class, so we have a learning moment and we can fix it,” Solovey said. “I want them to think like a chef, focusing on the 'why do we do this' rather than the recipe. And we have fun. That is the most important ingredient to the process.”
There’s a common thread for anyone who takes a cooking class, or teaches, no matter the skill level.
“The beautiful thing about food is you never run out of things to learn,” Solovey said.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee cooking classes are thriving as pandemic wanes