On a chilly Monday night in Depew, a dozen eager students, white aprons tied tight around their waists, hang on every word of Chef So Kimura as he explains the intricacies of a half dozen Asian dishes they are about to prepare.
Kimura is a chef at Bacchus Wine Bar & Restaurant in Buffalo, but on this night, he is a chef instructor at Auburn Watson Culinary Arts Center, imparting his kitchen wisdom on a class made up of couples, singles and seniors. For many, it’s their first cooking class.
“It’s fun to take people who don’t have any experience, and show them that cooking isn’t hard,” Kimura says, as he readies to teach “Asian New Year.” “You just have to enjoy it and have fun with it.”
Marcia Goldman is one of his students, and a veteran of more than 40 classes at Auburn Watson. She began taking classes as a way to reinvent herself after her youngest child left for college.
“Every chef brings something different to the classes, and I take something away from every class,” she says. “I’ve kept every booklet of recipes and I’ve remade my favorite recipes for my family for brunches and dinners.”
It’s a key to the success of cooking classes — creating a menu that students will be able to replicate once they are home in their own kitchens.
“I want people leaving happy and confident that they can do this on their own,” says Kimura.
Wayne Watson, the self-described “program architect” at the culinary center, says they launched the program in 2006 with two classes per month. Today, they average between three and six classes every week, driven by demand.
“Our intent was to create hands-on classes where the student is engaged,” Watson says. “We work with chefs from area restaurants, because we want you to be learning from true professionals.”
On this evening, Kimura’s students are creating a menu that includes Ginger Soy Glazed Beef Tenderloin, Vegetable Biryani Rice and Korean-Style BBQ Pork, and it is one of a wide-range of exotic menu choices offered through the culinary center.
“Many people see this as a form of recreation and relaxation,” Watson says. “It’s being creative, and social, and it’s more than just food.”
Every class at Auburn Watson ends with the students coming together around a beautifully appointed dinner table to enjoy the fruits of their labor, family-style.
“People often come to a class not knowing anyone,” he says, “and they leave with 12 new friends.”
Traditional apple strudel
Allen Street may be best-known for its nightlife, but it is also home to Sweet Temptations du Jour, where owners Barbara and Michael Keating have been hosting a specialized cooking class for a few years now.
A dozen times each winter, the Keatings pass along her grandmother’s Croatian Apple Strudel recipe.
“I learned to cook from the edge of the table from my grandmother,” Barbara Keating says. “I love to bake, but the strudel is what I am most proud of.”
Unlike the recipe, the class is far from traditional.
Each baker wears a colorful babushka, a headscarf that pays tribute to Keating’s Croatian heritage, and sips homemade wine (made by her 95-year-old father). They learn to make Phyllo dough from scratch. Once everyone has crafted their horseshoe-shaped strudel, it’s off to the kitchen table for more wine and stories, set to a soundtrack of authentic Croatian music playing on an old turntable as their masterpieces bake.
“We want this to be a special experience,” Keating says, the smell of warm strudel wafting through the air as she talks. “This is for [my grandmother]. This makes me so proud.”
Like at Auburn Watson, the class is about more than just cooking. In this case, participants gather and enjoy homemade pizza with their wine while they wait for their strudels to finish. Along the way, they swap tales of their own grandmothers, their best and worst cooking experiences, and whatever else strikes their fancy. It is, Barbara says, a throwback to the family table of generations ago.
Food by design
With the rise in popularity of television cooking shows, one thing has become abundantly clear — food isn’t just for eating anymore. Today, presentation is key. With every dish subject to an Instagram photo, today’s meals are equal parts delicious and designer.
That’s where Marleta Stansberry comes in.
Stansberry was educated as an artist, but has a passion for cooking. She decided to combine her two loves, and today teaches classes that focus as much on the art of a meal as the ingredients.
“There is a balance when it comes to food, so I start the class by sharing the elements of art and design as they tie in to food,” she says. “I want people to see how it all comes together in the culinary arts to create a more pleasing experience.”
Stansberry recently took her “Food by Design” class to a unique venue — Arts at the Bakery in West Falls — preparing deconstructed BLT’s that looked too pretty to eat. She also made Brussels sprout chips with pomegranates and a garnish of arbequina oil and fig vinegar, among other artful delicacies.
While she says the food should look good, so should the presentation.
“We talk about ‘food furniture,’ an idea that emphasizes how the plating is just as important as how it tastes,” she says. In this case, Stansberry has her students make colorful spring rolls placed on an inverted ceramic bowl with chopsticks rather than a traditional plate.
Whether learning how to make Thai Fried Coconut Shrimp with Chef Kimura, strudel from the old country with the Keatings, or mouth-watering (and beautiful) hors d’oeuvres with Marleta Stansberry, the common theme in every class we explored was, quite simply, having fun with food.
“The television cooking shows have made everyone think we are all Gordon Ramsey,” Kimura says, chuckling. “But I promise, we aren’t scary, we are here to have a good time too.”
Story topics: Food + Drink