Now Is the Perfect Time to Take a Virtual Cooking Class

Erica Wides has been teaching culinary classes for more than 20 years -- 15 years at the Institute of Culinary Education, and for the last seven years, through Home Cooking NY. Her hands-on classes were limited to intimate groups of ten people maximum, who paid around $100 per ticket, and she taught them four to seven times a week. However, in the last week, as COVID-19 shut down all public gatherings, those classes have disappeared. So she’s planning to take her classes online.

“I'm still trying to figure it all out, as I'm not sure which is the best platform to use,” she says, realizing that her trade needs to move online somehow.

The age of social distancing has sparked a swift and passionate shift to online learning. Professionals of all kinds are turning their phones to themselves to share their skills -- and to meet the unique needs of the moment. Parents stuck at home with their kids are tuning into live Instagram videos from artists like Wendy MacNaughton for drawing classes. And people who are struggling to cook for themselves, perhaps for the first time, are turning to their favorite food personalities, like Kwame Onwuachi and Julia Turshen, for practical home cooking how-to through free and often live video streams.

That’s not even including the non-food professionals  who are also sharing cooking videos free of charge -- such as the actress Florence Pugh and the comedian Iliza Schlesinger, the latter of whom launched a quarantine cooking Instagram TV series called “Don’t Panic Pantry.” While they’re often announced in advance, these live videos tend to be made in the same scrappy, production-less way as any TikTok user’s, showing the teacher’s real home rather than a studio set replete with multiple cameras and prep bowls for every ingredient.

“I knew people's spirits were low so my top priority was offering something fun and useful”

Some food professionals who have just begun dipping their toes into live cooking videos say that it’s an outgrowth of their natural inclination towards hospitality — their way of taking care of others by doing what they do best.

“I'm doing my cooking videos because it makes me happy and because it feels useful to do them, because I can't become an EMT or a nurse or a tycoon with a big checkbook or a cook for a shelter,” says Nancie McDermott, a North Carolina-based cookbook author of more than a dozen titles, on her recent spate of Facebook live videos on topics such as how to make a lattice pie crust. She says that she’s been meaning to set up a YouTube channel that she hopes might generate ad revenue, though she wouldn’t charge for her video cooking lessons. In the meantime, the Facebook live videos give her practice.

“I knew that people's spirits were low so my top priority was offering something that would be both fun and useful — so I kept the financial barrier to entry as low as possible,” says Leah Koenig, a New York City-based cookbook author most recently of The Jewish Cookbook. She has lost income from many projects in the works due to COVID-19, but she has been offering a series of Instagram Live classes and workshops, such as a “Pared-down Passover” menu planning workshop, in exchange for donations.

“I'm thinking I might do more in the next couple of weeks, depending on how oversaturated people seem with online vids and Zoom at that point,” says Koenig.

“People were really engaged and I never thought that would be the case with online classes.”

That glut of free online culinary instruction is what’s preventing some culinary instructors from making the pivot to video. 

“How do I charge you for something you can get on YouTube?” asks Chef Naveen Sachar, owner of Naveen’s Cuisine, a recreational culinary school in Chicago that he has been hosting private and group classes out of for twelve years.

Sachar has been refocusing his efforts on providing healthy, homestyle Indian food that customers can pick up, which had been a small part of his business before the COVID-19 shutdowns. And he’s contemplating how to lead virtual classes.  

“It might make sense if they cook at the same time, they can ask questions like, hey, Naveen, is this ready? And they can put their phone to their pot,” he hypothesizes

Some established cooking schools are hoping that bringing an experienced culinary teacher virtually into your home is a perk worth paying for. And some culinary teachers have found unique benefits to the online format already.  

“I always thought online classes had to have high production value,” says Diana Kuan, a cookbook author who has been teaching group and private classes as her main source of income for the last several years in New York City. 

For the first class she’s ever livestreamed from her home kitchen, Kuan recently taught a two-hour “Stir-Fry on the Fly” class for $20 per participant. It was a bargain compared to her in-person classes at the Brooklyn Brainery, the school where she taught three to four times a week, for around  $50 - $75 per ticket. But ingredients were not provided by the school this time, and to accommodate both that and the need to be flexible when it comes to cooking while quarantined, Kuan geared the class around ingredients that students might find in their fridges already, to stir-fry with. 

“It was cool to get people from outside New York,” says Kuan. Also unique to the online classroom, hosted on Google Hangout, was that attendees could ask questions both aloud and by typing into the Hangout chat. Kuan thinks it allowed people who were perhaps more intimidated by the in-person setting to speak up more: “People were really engaged and I never thought that would be the case with online classes.”

“We’re flipping our iceberg”

Other brick-and-mortar cooking schools are making a quick pivot to virtual classes, and are eager to tease out the advantages of the format.

“We have completely changed our business model,” says Sarah Nelson, Executive Director of 18 Reasons, a nonprofit cooking school in San Francisco. “We’re not an online company, we’ve never wanted to do online classes -- the whole point is to bring people together through food,” she says. “It’s like, OK, we’re flipping our iceberg.”

Nelson says that she and her staff recently did a successful “dress rehearsal” for an online class via Zoom conference, which they plan to launch soon. Just like with their in-person classes, the instructor will be accompanied by a staff event manager, from different screens in their respective homes. But this time, they will deliver groceries needed for the class to attendees in advance -- or, attendees can opt to buy their own groceries. So there would be two price points for a class given that option. 

18 Reasons also performed a survey asking their past students what kinds of things they would like to learn, what time of the day classes should be, and other questions to get a better sense of how to run online classes. Other things, like class timing, may need to be tweaked as they go along. 18 Reasons’ classes typically last two hours or four hours long, depending on what’s taught, concluding with around 30-40 minutes of eating together, which Nelson says is a really important part of the class experience. 

“Our goal is to do the same number of classes as we usually do, and honestly, I think we can do more,” says Nelson. “We can’t have two classes at the same time in our classroom but you can have two Zoom classes [running simultaneously].”

“There’s such a need for compassion...teaching people to take care of each other.”

“In the beginning, I was like, Oh, we’re screwed,” says Jennifer Clair, founder of Home Cooking NY, the Soho-based cooking school where Wides and a handful of other chef-instructors had been teaching classes at. “But now, it’s not so crazy to connect with people in their home kitchen. We can do that affordably now,” says Clair, noting the potential for more one-on-one virtual classes. Private consultation with a chef had been a luxury offering previously -- but now that it’s shifted online, it can be arranged at a much more accessible price point. Home Cooking NY recently hosted its first two interactive virtual cooking classes, taught by Clair, and Wides plans to teach some of them soon.

“I’m a little excited about the new things we can do now,” says Clair, who has run the school for the last 18 years.

“I don’t know what that looks like now but I do know that we will continue to teach in this new world,” says Taylor Erkkinen, co-owner of The Brooklyn Kitchen, which hosted daily cooking classes in Brooklyn’s Industry City. She says that they were planning a renovation of their physical facilities before COVID-19 canceled all classes indefinitely, and put those plans on hold. “There’s such a need for compassion, and that’s one of the things we’ve done and have been doing, which is teaching people to take care of each other. That’s what we’ve done since 2006 and that’s where we’re going to continue to be involved.” 

Together, cookbook authors, chefs, celebrities, and cooking schools are offering a range of options for those seeking more culinary advice. From sporadic livestreams to private tutoring and everything in between, here are some options for cooking instruction by food professionals at different price points.

Super Affordable

Aya Forster: @aryas_table Previously, Aya had been teaching hands-on cooking classes out of her home kitchen in Fairfield, CT, often on Japanese cooking topics. Now that those are suspended indefinitely, she’s taken to Instagram to announce when online classes will stream, for a donation of just $8-10 (for now).
Yoshua Greenfield:@youenjoylife Musician and cooking television personality (formerly of The Brothers Green YouTube cooking show), Yoshua offers videos of cooking, stocking food and other lifestyle self-help free of charge. But he is also available for private cooking tutorials and coaching for an arranged price.


Brooklyn Brainery:@bkbrains This recreational school for adults, which has brick-and-mortar locations in Brooklyn, is now offering a full lineup of online classes -- and as with its physical locations, many of them are cooking-related. This is where you can find upcoming classes from food writers and other food professionals like a sourdough baking class with Cheryl Paswater (@contrabandferments) and dumpling-making class with cookbook author Diana Kuan (@dianakuan), for around $16 - $25, typically.

The Creative Cook: @creativecookco Edie Dourlejin has been a cooking coach offering both private and group lessons at The Creative Cook, her business in San Diego County. She is thinking that the right price for online classes, which she plans to launch soon, will be around $40, and she is still available for private classes and consultation, online.

Worth the Splurge

18 Reasons: @18reasons This San Francisco nonprofit hosts community and paid culinary programs as well as organizes volunteers for food pantry partners. It’s pivoting to online classes, which you can sign up for on their website, and they estimate tickets will cost around $75 to $100, depending on the class; you can also opt in to having groceries needed for the class delivered to you.

Home Cooking NY:@homecookingny This recreational cooking school has launched online classes, starting with gnocchi and dumplings. Group online classes are currently $40 and private classes with an instructor are $100, a steep discount from the in-person classes taught by chef-instructors.

Naveen’s Cuisine: @chefnaveen Naveen Sachar has hosted culinary classes and events for 12 years in Chicago, and he’s currently working with clients to arrange private group online classes. Contact him to arrange one for your group, and look out for updates on possible virtual classes to come.

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Cathy Erway is a James Beard Award-winning food writer and the author of The Food of Taiwan: Recipes from the Beautiful Island and The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She hosts the podcast Self Evident, on Asian America's stories, and Eat Your Words on Heritage Radio Network. She has written the blog Not Eating Out In New York since 2006.