Bonus: Your kids can boost their skills, too.

By Leah Koenig
May 13, 2020
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Photo: Kate Kunz/Corbis/Getty Images

In mid-March, shortly before New York City shut down for social distancing, Dana Bowen and Sara Kate Gillingham realized that things would have to change. As co-founders of The Dynamite Shop, a culinary school for teens and tweens they opened in 2017, they had grown fond of the bright, chaotic buzz inside their Brooklyn-based kitchen workshop.

But, like all businesses deemed “non-essential,” they were forced to close up shop and consider how they might translate their classes’ trademark energy and instruction to a virtual platform. With three weeks left of their winter semester and a spring semester about to begin, they completely shifted gears, filming lessons to share with students online and teaching classes live over Zoom.

“I found it helpful to have experience in the restaurant industry,” said Bowen who, long before opening The Dynamite Shop (and serving as Executive Editor at several food magazines, including Food & Wine), spent years working front of house at restaurants. “You have to be super nimble to deal with whatever crisis comes at you during dinner service.”

They also completely rewrote the spring curriculum, shifting the focus from specific recipes to flexible, improvisation-friendly dishes that students could make with ingredients they had on hand. Their first class featured a “choose your own adventure” vegetable soup with an “any herb” pesto. Each student learned how to dice vegetables for a mirepoix and how to build flavor in the pan, but their soups all ended up a little bit different.

The Dynamite Shop is one of many cooking schools across the country that have been forced to transform themselves practically overnight - swapping intimate, hands-on classes for distance learning. Needless to say, the whiplash has been real. “Our whole business model and philosophy was based on being together,” said Sarah Nelson, Executive Director of the San Francisco-based non-profit cooking school 18 Reasons. “We like to joke that we are a tech company now.” (All of their current classes, from cooking with tinned fish to a traditional Spanish brunch, are run over Zoom.)

“This was definitely not something we had ever planned on doing,” echoed Alison Cayne of Haven’s Kitchen in New York City. “We have always prided ourselves in being an IRL community.” But after taking a two week pause to close up their Union Square-centered facility and beta test an online class with some regular attendees, they launched a series of online classes that focus largely on comfort foods (think: pot pie, fried chicken and biscuits, steak frites). Practicality is central—students can log off the computer, turn around, and serve the dishes to their families for dinner.

Brianna Coleman

Some schools, like Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street in Boston, already had robust online courses as part of their curriculum before the coronavirus hit. But even they had to make adjustments as they added livestream options to their archive of pre-recorded lessons. “We run our in-person classes with lots of experimentation and different groups making different variations on the same recipe,” said Director of Education Rosemary Gill. “Those things are harder to do remotely, so we had to find different tactics.”

Still, despite the steep learning curve, these schools realized they had an important role to play in helping their students weather the storm. “Cooking dinner is this great normalizing thing,” Bowen said. “You forget for a moment what is going on out there and come together with this simple, singular mission.”

And while there is no replacement for chopping and chatting in physical proximity to fellow students, enthusiasm for cooking with others seems to translate through the screen. “I attended my first virtual class last week with my family, and when we all went around the room introducing ourselves, it felt close to the real thing,” Nelson said. “We are seeing bridal showers and high school reunions sign up for online classes together,” Cayne said. “People still want to bond the same way they used to—even if it's now on Zoom.”

There are also unexpected benefits to the online shift—particularly accessibility. The majority of online classes are being offered for a fraction of the in-person cost, making attendance possible for a wider cross-section of students. In response to the coronavirus, Milk Street made all of their online content free through May 31. Gill said they typically have about 1,000 students a month logging on, but in the last month a staggering 25,000 people signed up for online classes. “These classes are an asset we were sitting on, and it feels great to share them,” she said.

Online classes are also neither geography nor time-bound, which is a boon to both students and teachers. Dynamite Shop typically serves teens that can physically attend classes in Brooklyn. But Bowen said a recent online class had “a gaggle of students from Minnesota, some from Denver, and others cooking in Berkeley.” And Nelson said, “If you have young kids and making it to a class in our kitchen wasn’t realistic for you before, this is your chance!”

Perhaps most surprisingly, being forced to go virtual has helped many of the cooking schools get to the heart of their missions: helping students become more confident cooks. In an online class there are no teacher assistants there to help students hold a knife properly or organize the mise en place. But by joining classes in their own kitchens and using their own equipment, students gain a deeper familiarity with what it actually feels like to cook well at home.

The path forward with COVID-19— and the timeline for lifting social distancing restrictions—is uncertain. But for many of these cooking schools, one thing feels obvious: online instruction is here to stay. “I think it is clear we are going to be doing virtual classes in some capacity forever,” said Cayne. “They might just be a part of who we are.”

Public Virtual Classes (Livestream)

Sample class: Sourdough Starter Magic, $65 for a 2-hour session

Sample class: Fresh One-Pan Dishes, $15 for a 1-hour session

Sample class: Charcuterie, $60 for a 90-minute session

Sample class: Steak Frites, $40 for a 90-minute session

Sample class: Scallion Pancakes, $15 for a 1-hour session

Sample class: Handmade Gnocchi Dinner, $40 for a 90-minute session

Sample class: Apartment Grilling, $30 for a 90-minute session

Sample class: Asparagus Pesto Pizza, $15 for a 1-hour session

Sample class: Uzbek Cooking With Damira, $60 for a 2 1/2-hour session

Sample class: Cooking in Quarantine, pay as you will per session

Sample class: Interactive Hand-Pulled Noodles, sessions start at $20 

Sample class: Dynamite Dinner Club: Cheesy baked pasta with garlicky sauteed greens, $30 per 90-minute session

Private Virtual Classes

Sample class menu: Homemade corn tortillas, guacamole, soft tacos with two fillings, Mexican chocolate torte. $150 per 90-minute session

Sample class: Night in Provence. $95 per private session.

Sample class: Tea party. $40 per private session.

Sample class: Homemade orecchiette, $299 per private session with chef from country of dish's origin.

Pre-Recorded Video Courses

Sample course: The Art of Kitchen Improv, free of charge through May 31st, 2020.

Sample class: Gnocchi Demonstration by Lidia Bastianich, available to members of DISH. Monthly membership starts at $7.98.

Sample course: Bread Camp, 11-part Youtube series, free of charge.