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Wednesday, May 15, 2024

I Took a Zoom Cooking Class With a Roman Chef. It Was Awesome

On a Zoom call a couple months back, our friend Paulette casually mentioned to my wife Elisabeth and me that she was taking workout classes from a personal trainer named Jhamilton in Colombia. This sounded both a little highfalutin and technically challenging, but Paulette quickly dispatched the notion. "No, dude. It's cheap, I get a workout, and I can practice my Spanish."

I've stretched along with a few Yoga With Adriene videos and have been steadily meditating away with the Ten Percent Happier app for a couple of months, but this felt different.

Pretty soon, I noticed the Zoom cooking class versions of Abs of Steel with Jhamilton. Martha Stewart gave a class through Sur La Table. A tony grocery store chain here in Seattle called PCC Community Markets offered dozens: from pop-tarts and mochi to pot pie and Ukrainian dumplings. A local chef friend offered a class via her mailing list. Most importantly, our friend Jen mentioned how she'd signed up for Italian cooking classes with a chef in Rome, telling us about dishes like pumpkin ravioli with a butter sage sauce and a pistachio tiramisu, at which point I got hungry and decided to call Italy myself.

I checked out the Food Network Kitchen's cooking app a few months ago, which had a ton of searchable content—you could watch live and even (kinda uselessly) text in questions—but this felt more like a Covid-inspired evolution.

The Zoom class format felt different. Classes tended to be smaller and more intimate, something particularly nice when we're all stuck at home, craving a bit of contact. With many of the classes, you cook right along with the chef, and if you have a question, just wave your hand in front of the camera and ask.

Ciao Time

"Ciao!" said chef Andrea Consoli to a small group of us on a recent Saturday morning. I'd signed up for two separate classes with "Chef Andrea" in one day. The morning class was run by a setup called Cuiline, where Consoli is a contractor, and he ran the afternoon class independently with his wife, Erica.

The morning class was only really morning for me, on the West Coast of the United States; chef was well into his Roman evening. Together we made three dishes in less than three hours: saltimbocca, spaghetti carbonara, and tortino al cioccolato.

There's a lot to take in when this is new, like a range of attendee abilities over the course of the day, from the lady who excitedly said, "Chef! I got the Pecor … ano cheese you asked for!" to the guy in the semipro kitchen with a pizza oven. Some people were also fairly new to Zoom.

The son of Sicilians, Consoli ran a cooking school in Rome before Covid changed things. Decked out in a chef's coat and AirPods, he dove right in and set our goals, "We are here to make good food, and not make your kitchen too messy!"

The morning-class students had been furnished with a box of some dry goods and were in charge of shopping for the rest themselves. Consoli started with dessert first, getting everyone going on making a meringue and a zabaione riff—chocolate, egg yolks, and butter—then folding them together for batter.

It's pretty fun. We followed Consoli in real time, while pots and pans made international clinks and clunks as people worked to keep up. In Memphis, Tennessee, a mustachioed dude named RJ—on brand with the Coliseum as his virtual background—played mission controller, switching between a couple camera angles for the best shot, while keeping tabs on the students. At one point, chef's connection froze for a second and RJ jumped right in, guiding the class through the end of the step.

Using an incredibly beat-up nonstick pan, Consoli walked us through saltimbocca—typically pounded veal with a thin slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf on one side sautéed in a pan, then braised in a bit of white wine. I made mine with pork, which prompted chef to bark, "Do not exaggerate with your pork!" It was his way of getting me to pound it thin. Elsewhere, a student made a vegetarian version with zucchini. When that went sideways, chef took a look at the screen and, without skipping a beat, made a suggestion to allow her to turn her saltimbocca into an involtini, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, thanks to a delightfully persuasive sense that everything will be OK.

Distant Heat

A dog barked, someone took a call from what sounded like the adult child who purchased the class for them, and we started in on our carbonara. We were, perhaps, not in Rome, but our kitchens smelled nice, class was fun, and chef was charming. We took a short break and got ready for "fuoco time": firing our meals, a period of gently controlled chaos as chef guided us through sautéing the saltimbocca, whipping together the carbonara, and baking the little chocolate cakes. I realized that if you're cooking along at home, you'll occasionally have to let class roll on without you while you get a few things done. Thanks to one of these episodes, I completely missed the call to put the chocolate cakes in the oven. Toward the end, chef demonstrated a clever spaghetti twirling technique, spinning the pasta around a fork inside a large ladle before transferring it to a plate, giving it a beautiful swoop.

I hustled around, still in my own head, trying to watch the things I was cooking and clean up to get ready for the next class when I heard a gentle call.

"Joe! Hey Jooooe!" It was chef, calling me back to the group. "Stop! Sit! Enjoy!"

We all paused to enjoy the fruits of our labor and enjoy an afternoon glass of wine, a nice reminder to stop and relax before saying goodbye.

For the second class, Elisabeth cooked and I played backup. This group, the one with our friend Jen in it, had a much different vibe.

There's perhaps a spaghetti Western joke in here, but this was clearly not this gang's first online Italian cookery rodeo. Many, like Jen, had taken an actual, physical class with chef in Rome (nostalgic sigh), then followed him on Facebook and started taking both one-off classes and a regular series with him. With some gentle ribbing between classmates and a lady with a Christmas apron shushing her husband, it was easy to pick up on a sweetness to the group, a perk of having done this together for a while.

"I see everyone else is drinking, so I'll grab a glass," said chef Andrea's wife, Erica, a transplant from Michigan. During this class, she did something similar to what RJ in Memphis did, running cameras and keeping things moving.

In this class some people just watched, with the idea that they'd make the food from this class—white lasagna and beer-battered cod—at another time. Not everyone knew each other, but they had a "happy-to-be-together" feeling that you might get at a book club.

Andrea cheerfully shepherded us through the process, his hands a literal digital blur on our screen as he worked. Lasagna and fried fish aren't go-tos in our house, so it was fun to have a guide while we made it. He also knows when to chat for a bit to allow people to catch up to him.

"Chop mushrooms as thin as you can," he encouraged. "No fingertips."

He's good at working the room, using peoples' names, making us feel included in something larger. There's clever use of hand gestures which help keep people from interrupting each other: thumbs-up for good, hand in front of the screen for wait or I have a question, a forward rolling of the index finger for keep going. When Elisabeth and I tried to figure out if we had our batter thick enough, we looked at the screen and see a few students holding bowls right up to their cameras and lifting their whisks up so he could advise if they should add flour or water.

At one point, Jen brought chef to a halt when she mentioned her "trashy Midwestern lasagna" made with non-Italian ingredients.

"I swear the cottage cheese does something magical," she said.

As class wrapped up, and people said their goodbyes, I got a little sad to leave this group I'd just joined, and had a few realizations.

First off, I like this. Meeting new people and taking part in a group activity is a welcome change to my pandemic routine.

Like the experienced sages in the second class taught me, you don't have to cook everything on the menu in each class. You will, however, be well served to prep everything as much as possible before class starts. (Both classes I participated in had their versions of recipes sent out ahead of time.) Do this, and you'll be able to watch, talk, learn, and enjoy more, instead of struggling to keep up with everyone. I was half-prepped for both classes and felt like I spent a fair amount of time scrambling.

These classes would make a great gift. Taking them with a group of faraway friends or family would be a fun way to spend time together.

It would be nice to have more hangout time before or after class. I didn't necessarily want to watch a bunch of people eat on Zoom, but I would have enjoyed a bit more time to linger with everyone, especially our Italian hosts. After class, I certainly got a bit of mileage from telling friends that I took a cooking class with a chef in Rome.

Mostly though, as we get ready to go into a long, hard winter tinged with hope, it's nice to have  groups we can be a part of, with peoples' kitchens smelling like garlic, an animated Italian holding court, holding us together and teaching us how to make some good food.

Other Ways to Learn

If you're interested in taking some socially distanced cooking classes, try these other resources for online learning.

ChefsFeed. Take food and booze classes with restaurant chefs and bartenders across the country and around the world.

The Pantry. A calendar of classes from this Seattle outfit range from rough puff and biscuits to Persian classics and Korean bar food.

The Drinking Coach. Award-winning Atlanta bartender Tiffanie Barriere gives group and private cocktail courses to help you learn the basics, perfect your gimlet, or come up with your own drink.

Jax Cooking Studio. Dozens of recorded and live classes for adults, teens, and kids, are available from this small Florida outfit.

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