Denver cooking classes find new ways to teach cooking during pandemic

Zack Mance and his partner, Michelle Van Veen, watch as Assistant Chef Instructor Jamie Stein teaches them how to make the perfect French toast during a Bubbles and Brunch class at Cook Street Culinary School on Oct. 24, 2020 in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Denver Post)

Teaching clients how to navigate the kitchen and prepare food comes in many different forms, from professional cooking schools to group courses for beginners and still others for kids. Of course, they’re best done in person.

This year, that’s changed.

“If we were to look back at March and April, it was a low point and we had no idea what we were going to do and how we were going to make it,” said Katie Robbins, who owns Uncorked Kitchen with her husband, Eric. Before the pandemic, “our focus was truly on continuing to build in-person experiences.”

Once classes in the venue’s physical kitchens had to stop, Robbins worked out a way to bring them online and launch live-streaming courses. Their focus was offering a “date-night” class in which guests could pick up ingredients curbside and join the class from their own kitchens.

She started the classes on Friday nights, and the slots quickly sold out. Next, the team added sessions for kids, and then kits for corporate events.

“It’s super exciting reaching people all across the country, even internationally, with our brand and love of food, and not be tied to brick and mortar like we thought it would have to be,” said Robbins. “If you asked me a year ago, I wouldn’t have predicted growing in this way.”

Many schools and instructors found a way to bounce back from the drastic shutdown by using online video-conference platforms like Zoom to connect to students. Some restaurants added cooking classes as a way to bring more revenue into shuttered spaces, like Denver Sushi House and Colorado Sake Co.

What started with an in-house sushi rolling class by chef Taylor West turned into a digital date night complete with delivered food kits and sake from Denver Sushi House and Colorado Sake Co. (Linnea Covington, Special to The Denver Post)

What started with an in-house sushi rolling class by chef Taylor West turned into a digital date night complete with delivered food kits and sake.

“We realized we could deliver sake to individuals’ doorsteps and give people a date-night experience from the safety of their home,” said William Stuart, co-owner of Colorado Sake Co. “It was rewarding to see people on the other end of Zoom classes getting dressed up in suits and dresses to experience this class.”

The classes quickly took off, and West started hosting two courses, five nights a week. Now that things have opened up and the physical space can function again, the team has tapered it down to just two nights a week.

Of course, digital classes are a fun way to learn a new cooking skill, but they are nothing like taking a hands-on course in a more professional setting. The staff at Cook Street downtown teach traditional skills to professional chefs as well as offer classes for those who just want to have fun. During a two month closure early in the pandemic, owner Lindsey Reese and a couple of her chefs focused on developing menus that worked remotely.

“Because the guest is doing so much more of his or her own cooking, the recipes needed to be straightforward and done in under two hours,” said Reese. “It’s been an adjustment to teach in front of a camera; the chefs can’t see how the people are doing or correct what someone is doing.”

Sam Friedman, lead recreational chef instructor, talks technique with Michelle Van Veen and Zack Mance as he cuts a piece of fish during a Bubbles and Brunch class at Cook Street Culinary School on Oct. 24, 2020 in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Denver Post)

Before launching, Reese’s instructors practiced menus and classes with friends and family. And Reese sees something positive in the experience.

“It’s been a good way to branch into the online classes, something we always wanted to do but were too busy until the shutdown,” said Reese. “It’s been fun, and I think it’s really given us the opportunity to explore different offerings.”

On the actual chef school side, the 16-week intensive course is designed for people who are looking for a career change or want to hone kitchen skills. The interest there hasn’t changed since the coronavirus hit, said Reese. In fact, she added, when times are hard, trade schools tend to do well.

The next class starts in January, and right now there are about 20 students enrolled. Most instruction will be given at the facility.

“One thing this pandemic has proven: Working remotely isn’t the end of progress,” said Reese, who sees this method sticking around well past COVID-19.

Over at kids’ cooking school Sticky Fingers, owner Erin Fletter hadn’t planned on launching online offerings so quickly, but it became the only way to keep the venture going.

“We found ourselves unable to do what we do best, which is teach in person,” said Fletter.

Will Decorah pours maple syrup on a plate of French toast as his fiancé, Samantha Murray, looks on during a Bubbles and Brunch class at Cook Street Culinary School on Oct. 24, 2020 in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Denver Post)

Since opening the school about nine years ago from her kitchen table in Denver, Fletter had seen Sticky Fingers grow into a handful of schools in Boulder, Austin and Chicago. In that time, about 51,000 kids have taken courses. Fletter wanted to make sure that  could continue in some capacity.

It took six months to get an online program that worked for Sticky Fingers. Fletter and her team completely revamped the website, added Zoom into the company’s proprietary software, wrote recipes and created a course that kids could do at home, mostly on their own. All of this while making sure math, science, geography and other skills were mixed into the cooking lesson.

“We decided to embed Zoom into the software, which means it’s safe and secure for kids to log onto their Sticky Fingers cooking classes by themselves,” she said.

Sticky Fingers also created two new cooking class series, Kids In the Kitchen and Teens In the Kitchen, with 20 new recipes based on microwave cooking. These microwave cooking courses, dubbed Mug-tastic, are meant to help kids grow their independence in the kitchen, without having to use sharp knives or turn on the stove. Each class has around 10 kids or less.

Fletter said she is glad to have the online class option in place and will continue to offer it beyond the pandemic. This way, she added, not only can her chefs teach in the comfort of their own kitchens, but kids from all over the country can cook together, too.

Not every cooking school has been able to adapt, however. In June, the 106-year-old hospitality and culinary school Johnson & Wales announced it would be closing the Denver campus to restructure. Officials said the pandemic contributed to the decision.

Samantha Murray pulls a chunk of egg white from a pan of water as she poaches eggs with her fiancé Will Decorah during a Bubbles and Brunch class at Cook Street Culinary School on Oct. 24, 2020 in Denver. (Seth McConnell, Special to The Denver Post)

“I think that schools — not just cooking schools — will have to rethink the delivery and what kids actually get out of higher education,” said associate professor Sandra Dugan, who has been in the Johnson & Wales hospitality department for about 17 years. “I always believe students will get out of their education what they put into it, and the same goes with cooking and hospitality careers.”

Johnson & Wales’ students are in a traditional four-year program, learning math, science and the business side of the hospitality industry, as well as how to cook, manage a kitchen and other service skills. It’s good for many students, said Dugan, but she doesn’t believe it’s the only path to this type of education.

“Yes, knife cuts are wonderful and they need to understand it, but there’s more to it,” she said. “They need to learn to move on a dime, and if trends change, they need to be on top of that and go with the flow. I don’t know if traditional culinary schools teach that sort that thing.”

At Warren Tech Central, a career and technical high school in the Jeffco Public School district, head culinary instructor Chris Starkus focuses on teaching teenagers kitchen skills from the bottom up so they can go on to get jobs at a restaurant or hotel after graduation.

“In short, I have never been an advocate for anyone taking on debt getting into the culinary industry,” said Starkus, who has worked as a chef for years, most recently as the head chef of Urban Farmer downtown. “It’s a tough industry, and a stage or apprenticeship is the only way to truly understand if you want to be in it.”

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