As I walked up the stairs to Kitchen on Fire’s spacious Berkeley loft, an inviting aroma of toasting cumin laid out an olfactory welcome mat. Chefs Olivier Said and MikeC., co-owners and culinary over-achievers, have a book coming out and a second location opening behind Berkeley Bowl West (both in November). They keep their kitchen fires burning in daily classes ranging from globetrotting one-nighters to a 12-week series. Fun seems to be an essential ingredient in every recipe as the two irreverent pros blend nutrition tips, science facts and knife skills in their engaging, hands-on sessions.
The class I attended was entitled Moroccan Vegetarian Delights for Couples (though not all attendees came in couples and most were not vegetarians). The menu included couscous, sweet tomato salad and a pungent green leaf and herb jam that disappeared as soon as it was spooned into the serving bowl. After an introductory lecture and demo, students converged on various stations to chop and sauté elements of the 6-course meal we would enjoy together at evening’s end. Chef “Olive,” a wiry French charmer, scampered around the homey coral kitchen in a blur of motion, lending a hand with seeding tomatoes, modeling how to slice rather than slaughter the greens, and sprinkling nutritional tidbits along the way.
International evenings include menus from: Korea, Spain, France, Italy, Vietnam and more, some featuring guest instructors. (Upcoming: November 8 – North Indian, November 11 – Greek, December 3 – Thai Vegetarian).
The folks I’ve met at ethnic cooking classes come to recreate meals from their travels, enlarge their cooking repertoire or just spend a pleasurable couple of hours that culminate in digging into exotic dishes. If you are similarly inclined, here are 9 more places around the Bay to feed your passion. (Besides Berkeley and Oakland locations, I’ve included some classes in San Francisco, the North and South Bay, as well as chefs that are willing to come to your home. Because some things are worth driving for.)
Brundo — Ethiopian
Oakland’s Café Colucci is a consistent award winner for its authentic Ethiopian cuisine. Brundo, Café Colucci’s sister store, organizes traditional balemoyas (chefs) to share classic Ethiopian delights (both fiery and sublime) in three-hour Saturday classes that include a main dish and several salads. Meals may feature messer wot or kik alicha, (vegetarian stews with red lentils or yellow split peas), begue wot (spiced lamb stew) or doro wot (chicken stewed in red pepper paste). Brundo supplies the organic herbs, seeds, grains and spice mixtures (such as berbere, the essential red chili pepper blend), all imported from Ethiopia.
In early 2012, Brundo’s Ethiopian cooking classes move to a West Oakland warehouse, allowing for an expanded class size and schedule, including injera-making—those flat, spongy disks with a pleasantly sour-ish flavor that serve as plate, utensil, and sauce-mopping bread.
Ever wish you had an Indian auntie to teach you her chicken tikka masala? Or a Thai grandmother to tell tales about taking odiferous durian fruit on the bus while showing you how to whip up a tasty Thai lunch in a wok? That’s exactly the idea behind Culture Kitchen, a recently launched enterprise that realizes the rich potential in immigrant women who have been cooking authentic family meals from their native cuisines for years. Pair these self-taught cooks with eager students in various Peninsula and San Francisco locations for a warm, informal gathering that offers more than just new recipes. Small classes encourage an intimate experience—like being at someone’s home—and provide cultural understanding through shared stories.
Cuisines represented include Columbian, French, Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian, Peruvian, Ukrainian and Iraqi. (November 9 – Taiwanese)
This venerable San Francisco cooking school offers two-hour Wednesday afternoon demos or daylong weekend participatory classes on ethnic themes, such as regional cooking of Italy, Mexican chili peppers, a tour of the Mediterranean and Southeast Asian street-food. Respected author and teacher Joyce Jue leads several Chinese and Southeast Asian sessions.
San Francisco’s celebrated and inspiring “food-business incubator” offers technical support and commercial kitchen space for low-income immigrant women to grow their businesses as food entrepreneurs. The light-filled Mission kitchen space is also home to a smorgasbord of classes, such as Russian piroshkis and borscht, Ethiopian and Nigerian foods and Malaysian cooking. On December 14, the popular tamales class will return, featuring three of La Cocina’s graduates guiding students in the traditional, labor-intensive process of filling the masa and wrapping with corn husks before steaming.
Chat Mingkwan of Unusual Touch — Thai, Vietnamese
Born in Bangkok, this well-traveled author of a slew of cookbooks on regional Thai and Vietnamese cuisine teaches cooking classes all over the Bay Area (including Piedmont Adult School, Kitchen on Fire, Sausalito’s In the Kitchen) or at your private party.
A recent Vietnamese street food class I attended began with a demonstration of several uses for lemon grass, tips on choosing the best fish sauce, and a bit of historical explanation about why fresh herbs (including mint, cilantro, basil) are such an essential part of Vietnamese cuisine. After preparing all the ingredients, students rotated among four stations to assemble our own fresh bowls of chicken soup, plates of beef noodle salad, spring rolls and rice crepes, just like a street food vendor. Mingkwan also offers classes in dim sum, decorative fruit and vegetable carving, sushi and kaiseki, and leads culinary tours of Thailand.
Seafood paella has always been my favorite edible treasure hunt. Each forkful uncovers a prize of mussels, shrimp, clams or vegetables amidst a bed of saffron-scented rice. With the help of a Spanish chef and a gang of friends equally smitten with this glorious dish, we turned my kitchen into a classroom and created our own feast. Chef Raquel Hermosilla, made her culinary house call wearing chef whites, rolling in a cart laden with all the ingredients we would need to make, as she put it, “Spain’s gift to the world.” First, she set a festive tone, passing out Flamenco-inspired red and black polka-dotted aprons. Then she got serious and erected the crucial piece of equipment in the middle of my kitchen: a paellera, the wide shallow pan with its own ringed-gas burner that ensures the essential socarrat or crusty rice shell at the bottom of the pan.
Hermosilla, who grew up in Madrid, efficiently doled out tasks, and while my friends and I sliced red peppers, de-veined shrimp and squeezed out squid’s innards, she shared the history of her national dish along with her mother’s cooking tips. Finally, she guided us in fashioning a massive mosaic of shellfish and red peppers, with lemon wedges artfully perched on the pan’s rim.
While Hermosilla’s home base is the South Bay, she is willing to travel. Her business, Spain at Home, now in its tenth year, also includes catering for small to large groups. Seafood paella is her most requested offering, but other paella variations and a score of tapas are also available.
Flavor Explosions — cuisines of the Pacific Rim
Linda Tay Esposito grew up in Malaysia and treasures her native cuisine with its use of fresh herbs, such as galangal, fresh turmeric and lemon grass. She even incorporates the kaffir lime leaves from a potted plant growing on her San Francisco balcony. This self-taught cook leads classes all over the Bay Area, offering an extensive choice of menus, which either focus on a specific dish interpreted into several Pacific Rim culinary accents (Pan-Asian Noodle Bar) or an in-depth exploration of a single cuisine (East Coast of Malaysia).
Esposito teaches regularly at The Cooking School at Cavallo Point in Sausalito as well as privately in Bay Area home kitchens and weaves in a discussion of spices, regional vegetables and cooking traditions. No matter what the focus of the lesson in her private classes—from dim sum to Malaysian desserts—she supplies everything needed (traveling woks, steamer baskets and professional knives).
Route to India –– Ayurvedic Vegetarian Indian cooking
To Nalini Mehta, cooking is a spiritual journey that nurtures the mind, body and soul and a crucial element in the Ayurvedic tradition of creating balance. Mehta works as a cooking teacher and caterer and leads culinary tours to India.
In her San Francisco classes, she shares her wisdom as well as her recipes in an evening of mindful cooking and eating in accord with Ayurvedic principles. Her classes, single or 4-class series, focus on seasonings and techniques, always incorporating a palette of colorful spices.
One of Mehta’s most popular classes centers on dosas (fermented South Indian rice-flour and lentil crepes with savory fillings). Students make the batter and the filling (perhaps with potato, onions, cilantro and spices) and practice forming the dosa disks on a hot griddle. Other regional Indian cooking classes feature an entire menu with dal, pilaf, soup, vegetable and dessert.
For the ultimate indulgence, combine an Italian or Asian cooking class with a relaxing stay at Sausalito’s Cavallo Point Lodge. The 3-year old luxury hotel, at the former Fort Baker military site, features spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge and offers a choice of historic or modern rooms. Several cooking classes are held each week on a range of topics and while most attendees drive up for the day, a room discount is available for cooking students.
Classes are held in an airy, light-filled kitchen, with hardwood floors and retro glass cabinets. Italian cooking is taught by Viola Buitoni (yes, that Buitoni—whose family has been in the food business for generations). The former caterer and Italian food expert was born in Umbria and shares her culinary heritage, aiming to highlight authenticity, translated for the local market. In “Bitter is Better,” on November 17, Buitoni will explore the preparation of traditional greens and make handmade orecchiette.
Other ethnic cooking classes at Cavallo Point include Mexican Sauces from Scratch and The Asian Melting Pot series. On November 26, Linda Tay Esposito will showcase a menu of Spicy Sichuanese specialties.
Have I missed any great cooking teachers, classes or schools? What do you think makes for a satisfying cooking class?