Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Helen's Kitchen is 10 years old!

“You should teach a cooking class,” were the words that sealed my fate 15 years ago.  If you have taken a class with me in the last 10 years, you know more about cooking than I did when I taught my first class.  I couldn’t chop an onion, sharpen a knife, or cook a decent steak.  My whole cooking repertoire consisted of not overcooking fish and roasting vegetables.  

I was 23 years old, stuck in the hell known as the software company.  After the purgatory of a computer science degree, I thought that the industry would be easier and more fun.  No more abstract math classes or computer architecture.  I got a job as a usability engineer so that I wouldn’t need to code.  Little did I know that usability engineers spend 10% of their time designing and 90% of their time dealing with politics.  I remember pulling into the parking lot of Whole Foods after a full day of meetings, where yet again I failed to make the management recognize the needs of users, and crying my heart out.  I imagined my life stretching in front of me as a never ending stream of meetings.  Eventually, I would pull myself together and roam the Whole Foods isles which had a drug like effect on me.  Being presented with piles of raw materials, my brain immediately got to work figuring out what to make out of them.  But the best part was not needing to have a meeting to figure out what I can and can’t cook.  Jason was a very cooperative husband, who was happy to live in my benevolent dictatorship of food.  Anything I’d placed in front of him, he’d eat.  

Jason and I have taken a cooking class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Ed.  It was fun, but not particularly eye opening.  Seeing my tears dry up as soon as I got into the kitchen must have given Jason the idea that I should teach a cooking class.  He wasn’t trying to change my career.  He was just trying to distract me from my misery.  I thought the idea was ridiculous.  I had neither qualifications, nor the confidence to do this.  But Jason reminded me that the bar was set quite low and I could probably learn whatever it was our cooking instructor knew.  What’s the worst that would happen if I wrote a proposal to CCAE?  Since the only thing I knew how to cook was fish, I wrote a proposal for a class called “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” and “Measuring Cups are for Wimps.”  To my surprise, they asked for an interview.  I tried to make myself seem older and more sophisticated.  I desperately wished that my accent was French or at least Italian, not Russian.  In a last ditch attempt at sophistication, I wore a hat channeling my inner Julia Child in the 1950’s Paris.  It worked!  I got the job.  Now all I had to do was learn to cook, and learn to teach others.  My giddiness quickly turned to panic, but it was good panic -- the kind that invaded every fiber of my being and pushed out the misery of never ending meetings and difficult managers.  

I had to learn to talk while cooking.  It seemed easy until I tried it.  “First, we cook the onions nice and slowly.  You want them to get translucent and tender, but not brown.”  I was trying to narrate everything I did while cooking dinner.  “You stopped talking again,” Jason would say from the study.  “I thought I was talking,” I’d yell back.  “You haven’t said anything in over 2 minutes, you can’t do that in class.”  He was absolutely right.  If I did that in class, I’d be boring.  Boring was not an option.  I was such a chatterbox.  Who knew the day would come when I would have to learn to talk more, not less?  

Eventually, the day of the class came.  I didn’t just have butterflies in my stomach.  I think I had an army of birds flapping their wings inside of me and making me awfully nauseous.  I faced 16 strangers, swallowed hard, and started the class.  To give myself a few minutes to quiet those awful birds in my stomach, I asked everyone to tell me what brought them to the fish class.  What I got was a series of fabulous questions.  “How do you know if the fish is fresh?” “Can I buy fish on mondays?” “How do you know when it’s done?” “Do I have to cook it the same day.”  I knew about 50% of the answers.  A nagging voice inside me said, “If you got 50% of answers right on a test, that would be a big fat F.”  I told that voice to shut up and started cooking.  

I have never walked into anything in my life with proper preparation.  My life in the Soviet Union didn’t prepare me for an all-girl Orthodox Jewish high school in suburban Baltimore.  That school didn’t prepare me for a computer science curriculum at Carnegie Mellon.  Carnegie Mellon didn’t prepare me for the politics of the real software world.  All the professional experience I had so far didn’t prepare me for standing in front of 16 strangers narrating how to cook swordfish.  But for the first time in my life, I was in my element.  I was no longer fish trying to climb trees, or hike up mountains.  I was a fish learning to swim.  It didn’t matter that my knife was dull, that I forgot cream for one of the dishes, that I didn’t know how long the fish can stay in your fridge after you buy it.  I would learn it, and e-mail my students the answers I couldn’t give them in class.  

Everything I know about cooking, I owe to my students.  They are the ones who introduced me to the New Deal Fish Market, to Cook’s Illustrated, to CSAs, to farmer’s markets, to Tsukiji market in Tokyo, to ideas for classes, and to more questions than I could possibly think of myself.  I refused to let any questions go unanswered.  I got a restaurant internship.  I signed up for a week long boot camp at CIA.  I attended other instructors’ cooking classes.  Soon, I got good at teaching my fish class.  For the next 10 years I kept getting requests that went like this, “Can you do what you did for fish, but for meat.”  “Can you do what you did for fish, but for beans.”  Thus many classes were born.  As any expanding family, my classes needed a real home.  

As always, I had no confidence in my ability to take the next step.  I was sure that teaching at home was impossible.  What about the health department requiring a commercial kitchen?  How would I get students without CCAE’s catalog?  Where would I be without Jason!  Every time I hit a juncture in life and felt lost, Jason calmly pointed out that I should just ask my phone for directions.  After calling the town of Belmont, I found out that the health department didn’t require a commercial kitchen if I was selling an educational service, not a food product.  I built a website (here is the new version we just launched), and in 2006 taught the first class in my house.  

People sometimes ask me if 10 years later it’s just as fun.  Yes, I love my job and can’t imagine life without it.  There were many challenges along the way.  I had to learn to run my own business, wash insane amount of dishes, and constantly deal with changing technology, fluctuations in demand, competition, etc.  But no matter what difficulties arise, I keep reminding myself that the cooking class is just around the corner, and I’ll be a fish in water yet again.

Everything I know about myself, I owe to Jason.  How he knew what I was before I knew it?  It’s his gift, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for sharing it with me.  


Kake said...

Congratulations, Helen! I made a career change from programming around the same time, and like you am very happy doing what I do now.

Helen said...

That's so cool. What do you do?

Kake said...

Freelance copyediting, with a focus on academic texts. (On which note... is the spelling “artisinal” on the front page of your website on purpose, or is it a typo? It’s always “artisanal” in British English, but this may be regional variation.)

Helen said...


Thank you!!! That's a typo. Just fixed it. We were all so worried about the interactive components working that we didn't notice. Here is my contact info:


If you send me your e-mail address I can e-mail you a $10 gift certificate for a cooking class. I am offering it to anyone who finds a bug in my site :) I don't know where you are located, but if you are ever in the Boston area, it would be a pleasure to meet you.


Anonymous said...

Dear Helen, I found you today looking at Pasta Grannies. You are charming and enthusiastic! Good luck with your cooking and baking addiction. It will be a pleasure following you on your food journey. Best wishes, Jack from PA