Cooking Classes Improve Skills, Bring People Together
Mar 30, 2020 04:10PM
By Hilary Daninhirsch
Chop Wok & Talk
There are certain activities in life that seem to be more fun when you can do them with other people. Even if you don’t find joy in cooking—like you barely know how to boil water or you regularly burn toast—learning to cook in a group setting can alleviate your trepidation about your own abilities.
Dorothy Tague has owned and operated Chop Wok & Talk for the past 18 years. Based in Bloomfield, PA, the company offers cooking classes in 15 ethnic food groups including Mexican, Italian, Argentinian, Asian, Moroccan and more. Tague teaches about 25 classes per month as well as hosts private parties, and also offers many team-building events for up to 40 participants—called Camaraderie Through Cuisine—held at Vangura’s Kitchen in North Huntingdon.
Tague, who trained in Spain, Thailand and Italy, among other countries, said that her classes are completely hands on, and even children as young as 8 can participate with parental supervision. Participants learn to cook a full meal, from appetizer to dessert, and they can eat each dish as it is ready versus waiting until the end of the cooking process.
“My bestselling classes are Asian and Italian, and special classes like date night, which is just for couples,” said Tague. She also teaches themed classes celebrating certain holidays, such as Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo and Easter. All of her classes are BYOB.
A sample menu from her Hungarian-themed class includes mushroom soup; langos (fried bread with various toppings); cucumbers with sour cream; chicken paprikash with homemade dumplings; and an apple cake topped with warm cream.
Tague uses all fresh ingredients. “I don’t buy anything premade, ever, not even lemon juice,” she said.
Tague added that virtually everyone can learn to cook, though she said that proper knife technique may be the most challenging subject to teach.
Gaynor Grant owns Gaynor’s School of Cooking on the South Side. Grant, who trained with acclaimed chef Peter Kump, a protege of James Beard, established her first cooking school in Sewickley before later moving to her current location.
Grant offers a myriad of programs for cooks of all abilities, including the popular series, The Art of Fine Cooking. “Those classes are geared toward the cooking enthusiast; it is a technique-driven program,” she explained, adding that students may learn how to make chicken stock, bone a duck or make a souffle, for example.
Other classes can be taken on an individual basis. In the Pastry & Baking category, for example, offerings include Beginners Bread Baking, Strudel Making, and the ever-popular Macarons & Napoleons class. As part of Gaynor’s international programs, students make a full menu that changes out each month.
For example, participants can ‘travel’ to Greece by learning how to make hummus, spanakopita, moussaka, broiled salmon with citrus sauce and baklava for dessert, or perhaps some Cajun Soul Food, Foods of Brazil, and many other ethnic cuisines. There are even pierogi and sushi making classes for the truly adventurous.
“All of the teachers are classically trained, and all classes are hands-on, full participation,” said Grant. “A book won’t teach you to paint; you just have to do it. Also, you’re learning techniques, like beating egg whites until stiff—a book doesn’t say how or what it looks like or what the consistency should be. That is why it’s so important to be hands-on.”
Plus, she added, there’s the social element—cooking and eating bring people together. In the summer months, Grant also offers summer camps for kids ages 6-18 as well as birthday parties.
Enrico Biscotti in the Strip District offers breadmaking classes and Neapolitan pizza-making classes several times a month at their adjacent restaurant cafe. Marketing Director Trisha Merlina said that the classes draw a wide range of attendees, many of whom are looking for something different and fun to do in Pittsburgh.
“Plus, they really like our product. Or they are bakers that love everything about baking and want to know more about the science behind it,” she said, adding that as artisan bakers, they do everything by hand and use natural ingredients.
The bread classes—in which participants learn to make rustic Italian bread—are scheduled for Sunday mornings: a deliberate time of day, as the wood-fired brick oven imported from Italy needs to be cool when lit. “The bread is made in the morning after the oven was burning the day before,” said Merlina, who explained that bread can't be made in the lit oven because it would not bake evenly and get charred on the outside.
Participants start off with brunch, and while they’re eating, they learn about the breadmaking process in a storytelling fashion. The classes are often taught by the owner himself.
“He turns into a book of knowledge,” said Merlina, adding that he answers questions about everything from how to stretch the dough when it's cold to how to turn a home oven into a brick pizza oven.
Merlina said that they also do private parties, birthday parties and team-building events. Though the classes have been offered for about two decades, they are now more popular than ever.
“It’s very interactive, and you’re meeting people while you’re there, you’re mingling,” she said of the attraction. “Enrico and the pizza chef are fun and make everyone feel at home.”