Written by Scott Jones
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Over the sound of knives rhythmically chopping and sauté pans sizzling away, an instructor can be heard encouraging students to prep all their ingredients before cooking and taste as they go. But this setting is far from the usual high-pressure teaching kitchen filled with young, budding cooks clad in starched chef’s jackets and sky-high toques. For starters, sounds of laughter, clanking wine glasses, and the occasional high five are interspersed with the instructor’s directions. What’s more, these students are casually dressed, in everything from jeans and running shoes to skirts and wedges. Not your typical culinary students.
In fact, this diverse mix of men and women is anything but typical. They’re grandparents, construction workers, high-powered execs, and newlyweds. Some are aficionados with a passion to cook like the pros, while others are newbies who simply want basic knife skills. But all share one thing in common: They’ve chosen to spend their Saturday under the tutelage of chef Angela Schmidt of Chef U. “Food is such a natural bonding experience, and my hands-on cooking classes give folks at all skill levels a chance to learn and ask questions in a comfortable environment,” says Schmidt, who hosts everything from interactive dinner parties to corporate team-building events, all centered around cooking.
Birmingham-area culinary programs—both at the high school and higher education levels—have experienced steady growth over the past several years, tracking right along with the state’s growing hospitality industry. However, for those who neither have the time nor inclination to earn a formal culinary arts degree, there are plenty of opportunities to participate in one of the many cooking classes happening around town.
Have a thing for Vietnamese or Indian cuisine? Long to make the perfect buttercream-filled macaroon? Nadia Ruiz, resident chef at Sur La Table at the Summit, has a class designed for you. “We aim to have a broad range of classes—from how to pull off a stress-free dinner party to making ravioli from scratch to unlocking the secrets of Spanish paella. There’s something for everyone,” assures Ruiz, who spent time cooking in Spain before settling in Birmingham three years ago.
Like fellow chef Schmidt, Ruiz has an easy-going demeanor that’s tailor-made for teaching. Forget the obscenity-spewing, pan-throwing tyrants popularized on TV; these women are more Julia Child than Gordon Ramsay. While cooking shows long ago morphed from instructional into pure entertainment, there’s no question food-based programming across a range of channels has helped drive interest in cooking classes. Schmidt says local interest in food and cooking has exploded in the last 10 years. “People aren’t just watching these shows anymore—they want to cook. They also want to know where their food comes from, how to cook for specific diets and health issues, and how to shop at local markets,” Ruiz says. She has also seen growing popularity in giving cooking classes as gifts, be it a birthday, holiday, or wedding present.
Maureen and Clif Holt, owners of Little Savannah Restaurant and Bar, picked up on their customers’ desire to make the market-to-kitchen connection several years back. In response, they created a series of classes that start with a visit to The Pepper Place Saturday Market to learn about local produce, meet the farmers, and shop for fresh ingredients. With the day’s bounty in hand, everyone heads back to the restaurant to prepare a series of recipes. “We do multiple courses in each class,” says Maureen. “Whether we’re making cheese- and herb-filled pasta or jalapeño-rubbed roasted chicken, we use recipes scaled for home cooks and stress knife and organization skills.” Sessions conclude with the group sitting down to enjoy a leisurely meal and glass of wine together.
Whatever your level of interest in cooking, whether upscale or downhome, the Magic City has ample opportunities to tap into your inner chef. Stay hungry, Birmingham.
Don’t miss Angela Schmidt’s Cajun-inspired “Crawfish Balls” recipe along with my wallet-friendly wines to match. Check out jonesisthirsty.com/
Call on these local chefs the next time you need a little hands-on tutoring.
Chef Angela Schmidt
Chef Nadia Ruiz
Sur La Table – The Summit
Chefs Maureen and Clif Holt
Little Savannah Restaurant & Bar