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My Issue with Cooking Schools—And Why I Opened My Own

Growing up, the kitchen was where I was my most creative and at ease—I still have the scar on my left palm from the evening I tried to “roast” corn over the stove with one of my parents’ fondue forks.

After college, I briefly considered culinary school, but I never ended up going. My dream was to open a little sandwich shop, something like my old favorite, The Silver Palate. That idea flew out the window when the umpteenth person told me that “retail is a nightmare,” and culinary school flew away with it. I had never seen myself cooking in a restaurant, that kind of food wasn’t my domain. So once I gave up my shop dream, it never occurred to me that serious professional training, or cooking school, would be in my future.

I always cooked, though. And I always taught other people how to cook. The more serious I got about teaching others, the more compelled I felt to learn some more serious techniques. I took a bunch of classes at a bunch of cooking schools, but, to me, those places felt intimidating and almost counter productive. It made sense: The classes weren’t created with the goals of a home cook in mind. People like me signed up for after hours and weekend classes, when the “real” students weren’t there. On top of that, for students who just want to be able to make a good dinner, the traditional cooking school model where you’re asked to sign up for weeks or months of classes felt like an endless uphill climb. Where was the inspiration?

In the classes I taught in my home, it was a home cook teaching home cooks: We could ask questions and admit insecurities, talk about how to make a meal—not just a recipe. Eventually, despite the warnings from years before about retail, I decided to build a school for the Home Cook. Somewhere that felt like my home kitchen but had the capacity to teach more. A place with a mission that could create a community around home cooking and a connection to the farmer’s market just a few blocks away. In 2012, I opened Haven’s Kitchen, a cooking school that also houses a café and private event space. This year, we came out with our first cookbook: The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School.

Our school—in real and book form—inspires people to want to cook more, and to trust their own instincts.  We teach them what to do with ingredients and how to source them well. In my opinion, any cooking class worth its salt should offer techniques and skills that students can apply to all sorts of dishes that they can replicate in their own kitchens. Dinner shouldn’t be a drama, and everybody can cook—if they know how.

To illustrate my point, I ask students how many of them ride a bike and the vast majority say they can. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until the ripe young age of 38, and as a consequence, I spent decades avoiding trips with friends where bike riding might be involved. I made excuses like “It just doesn’t come naturally to me,” or “I’m just not coordinated enough.”

Finally, out of sheer embarrassment and exhaustion from running alongside my kids as they rode theirs, I got on my son’s TREK one day and just started peddling. It wasn’t pretty: I swerved and wobbled. Several years later I still hold onto the handlebars tight and I try my best to avoid roads with cars. I won’t be spending a week riding through the Italian countryside anytime soon, but I can enjoy an occasional ride with my kids. The point is: Cooking and bike riding aren’t so different. I couldn’t ride a bike because I never learned how. That’s all. Even the most talented athletes and chefs need practice and repetition to reach their potential. Repetition is the key. But what makes you repeat doing something? Either because you have to, or because you love to.

When I opened Haven’s Kitchen, it was my goal to teach as many people possible how to cook because they love to. Cooking, like virtually everything else in life, can be a chore or a joy. There are nights it is far from a joy for me, but for the most part, finding pleasure in cooking all depends on how you feel about it and how confident you feel doing it.

Haven’s Kitchen doesn’t offer degrees or certification; we don’t even allow students to look at recipes in class (we send them afterwards). We’ve found that people learn best by mastering dishes like soups and grain salads that just so happen to teach you several key lessons in the process. That way, the student feels pride in what they’ve created and ownership of the skills they’ve picked up along the way. You can’t teach joy, but we do our best to set our students on the path of it.

The cooking school is the heart of our business, and guides everything else we create—even though it doesn’t bring in the most money or serve the most number of people (we also host 60 weddings a year). It’s why our book, The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School, was conceived: Students kept asking for one!

Some of the lessons in the book are tools I’ve been teaching for decades like, “Purpose: why am I doing what I am doing?”  I found over the years that simply taking a moment to explain that simmering water both softens grains and gets absorbed by them has eased some of my students’ anxiety around making rice. Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing in the kitchen goes a long way towards building a “can-do” approach. Other lessons in the book are techniques and skills I’ve picked up along the way from the talented team of chefs and teachers I work with. For example, I didn’t fully appreciate how to manage heat or mis en place until I worked with pros. And I had no idea how to butcher a chicken or poach a killer egg.

Julia Sullivan was the opening chef and head teacher at Haven’s for our first two years. She helped me build the kitchen and the curriculum and cooked all the food for our private events. She also taught me a whole new way to use garlic in a dish.

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Sautéed Green Beans with Garlic

By Alison Cayne

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There are three lessons to learn from this recipe:
1. Make sure garlic is minced evenly so as to avoid those tiny, bitter, burnt bits. 

2. Add the garlic after the string beans because it will burn before the beans have a chance to cook through. 

3. Add in raw garlic at the very end. It melts with the heat of the veggies, creating a creamy texture and a mellow garlic flavor.

Alison Cayne is the founder of Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School and author of a book by the same name.

What do you want to know about the inner workings of a cooking school? Tell us in the comments below!

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