Mar. 4—Editor's note: Neighbor Spotlight is a monthly feature that aims to let our readers learn more about the people in their communities who are working to make them a better place, who have interesting stories to tell or who the community feels deserve "15 minutes of fame." If you would like to nominate someone as a Neighbor Spotlight, email Neighborhood News Network editor Katie Green at email@example.com.
When Sofya Stearns of Pine teaches a cooking class, students learn more than just how to use fresh ingredients to whip up a delicious dish.
In addition to the smells, taste and positive vibes of a group cooking experience, students get a healthy serving of the culture, history and art from the place where the dish originated.
Over the past five years, Stearns has turned her love for cooking and teaching into a business and charity named for her grandmother — Izabella's Gourmet Chow.
"I've always been fascinated by cooking and the creativity it allows," said Stearns, 51, who grew up in Russia and lived in Chicago, California and New York before moving to the Pittsburgh area a decade ago when her husband Jeff took a job here.
"Since my daughter, Izabella, was very young she loved when we taught her about music, languages, various artists and the masterpieces they created," Stearns said. "So when I started my business I decided that in addition to teaching people how to cook, I wanted them to have a little understanding about the history, geography, art, music, dance and even a few words in the language of the country where the dish comes from."
While following tried and true recipes is always good advice when cooking, Stearns also encourages students to learn how to express their creativity.
"I don't want kids to prepare something that's identical to what the person next to them is making," she said. "Just like an artist can draw a flower from different angles or interpret it in a different way, I want students to learn how to bring a different artistic element into the dishes they create."
But when the covid pandemic struck last spring, Stearns went from booking sold-out classes for school children, private parties and community groups to returning fees paid in advance for classes that had to be canceled.
Switching to online instruction has helped keep Stearns cooking, but the pause in the regular flow of business became a period of reflection about what her next step should be.
"I've always admired the people who helped me in some way or treated me with kindness during difficult times," Stearns said. "And through my life, I've met so many people who have treated others well. I felt that this is a time where I should use what I do best to help others in some way."
In the past year, Stearns turned her attention to hosting her signature mix of cooking and culture classes with a dash of fun for nursing home residents who have been isolated because of the pandemic.
She also connected with non-profit organizations in Chicago and Pittsburgh that advocate for people with Down Syndrome to do the classes for free.
"I discovered that I really love teaching classes for the kids and young adults with mental and physical challenges," she said.
"I truly believe that my skills and experience can help bring joy into their lives and build confidence."
Stearns said using her classes to support charitable organizations will remain on the menu when her business returns to a post-pandemic world.
"The pleasure, giggles and smiles I get from them are unexplainable," she said. "And before each class is over, my most favorite question always pops up: 'When is the next class?' "
Stearns recently entered the Favorite Chef competition in the hopes of winning the cash prize being offered so she can expand her charitable efforts.
"My goal is to spread my wings, travel the country, and rent facilities with a kitchen so I can teach cooking classes," she said.
"I'd like to help more families with kids and young adults who are suffering from various disabilities, as well as those who are isolated because of the pandemic and are having difficulty coping with the current situation."
Linda Smarto, who serves as director of the Chicago chapter of the National Association for Down Syndrome, said Stearns' classes have been a hit with the people her organization serves.
"Our community thrives on consistency and activities and events that bring them together, so when we were shut down in March because of covid, we had to find other ways to continue doing those things the best way we could," Smarto said.
"Sofya has done a wonderful job of merging her passions for cooking and teaching into a class that has helped provide the camaraderie and fun our community needs, which is really special," she said.
"Even the people who aren't necessarily interested in learning about cooking look forward to her program. So we decided to make it a regular monthly feature."
Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .