Chef Jerry Pellegrino’s Farmers Market cooking class begins with two passes around the produce stands at the Baltimore Farmers Market & Bazaar — once to check out the goods and the second time to buy: Romanesco broccoli, cranberry beans, fresh ginger, baby carrots, gnarly heirloom tomatoes, giant yellow Chicken of the Forest mushrooms.
“There’s no recipe … call out if you want something, and we’ll cook it,” he says. About a dozen people trail behind him like ducklings. One is now navigating the crowds with two giant stalks of Brussels sprouts. Others are marveling at the fresh Maryland pawpaw fruits that promise a banana custard surprise behind their green skin.
“Hey, Sunshine,” Pellegrino hollers to a bearded, big-bellied farmer at one of many stands that he frequented for years as chef with Corks and Waterfront Kitchen. He retired from the formal kitchen four years ago and opened up a cooking school called Schola with chef Amy von Lange to introduce home chefs to the art of cooking.
Out of a converted Mt. Vernon row house, they teach everything from soup to sushi, and even this impromptu breakfast culled from the farmers market.
They are one of several cooking schools in the area, offering everything from knife skills to how to cook Indian food, not to mention a smorgasbord of pop-up classes at restaurants, coffee shops and community centers that bring curious cooks together with experts to learn how to ferment veggies and mix the perfect cocktail.
It’s possible to learn the secret of unraveling proteins to make yogurt and cheese over a pot of steaming milk at the Maryland Science Center, decorate a set of succulent-themed cupcakes at Charm City Cakes, and hone oyster shucking skills by the water at the Chef Spike Gjerde’s Sand Lot, all in one week.
The classes are filled with eager students of all ages, from mother-daughter duos celebrating birthdays, office teams figuring out how to work together (with knives!), date night and even people who just want learn how to cook the perfect roux à la Julia Child.
“The advent of the cooking shows and the Food Network has gotten people not only interested in the food, but also interested in the process,” Pellegrino says.
Mix in a DIY movement that makes millennials curious about canning tomatoes. Stir in some mature diners who want to learn how to make the exotic foods they never learned to make at home with Mom. Add a dash of curious cats who just want to learn something new and wow their friends at a dinner party. Serve it all up with a helping of folks looking for a little bit of home comfort during uncertain times.
“It’s rare to get 20 people together to cook and eat a meal together,” Pellegrino says. “Fifty years ago, the average household spent two hours of meal prep time. Now it’s 15 minutes. It’s good to get people in the mood to cook.”
Usually Schola classes are more structured than this Sunday morning market raid, with recipes ready on the table and ingredients measured out for each student, techniques taught, meals plated and served. The art of pizza and ramen making are especially popular.
This morning it’s all creative with Pellegrino ordering folks to cube bacon, fry eggplant and chiffonade basil like temporary sous chefs. “Maybe let’s make a tomato frittata,” he says, as he hands a student a “hog knife” and has her cut off a giant hunk of parmesan cheese. The prep work ends in a giant feast that uses every morsel of the market take.
“They start out as strangers and end up having a great time,” says Schola partner Amy von Lange.
Cooking classes aren’t new to Baltimore: Chef Nancy Longo was an early pioneer offering classes for kids and adults. She taught at Baltimore Culinary College before opening Pierpont restaurant in Fells Point in 1989. Now she teaches classes every weekend — except for football season — and will readily shut down the restaurant to accommodate groups.
She limits classes to 12 people and they learn eight to 11 recipes in three hours. Each person gets a recipe and then the group watches as they prepare it step by step.
“People are living longer, they’ve traveled a bit. They’ve gone to Italy and Thailand, and are interested in those foods. They never knew how to make those things,” she says. “We also have generations that are younger that are so used to going to school that taking a class is something fun. They find that interesting and wanting to continuously learn things.”
A newcomer to the cooking class scene, Baltimore Chef Shop opened on the Avenue in Hampden three years ago and takes a slightly less formal approach to learning.
“We want take away anxiety of learning something new,” says chef Scott Ryan, who studied as a sculptor before going to cooking school. “Often there is reverence attached to the chef, but we rather approach it like you are coming to our home to hang out. We don’t want people to be intimidated. We want to empower them.”
He runs classes out of a cozy row house on the Avenue with rough brick walls, shelves lined with familiar kitchen appliances, as well as Moroccan earthenware tagines, bamboo steamers and racks and racks of spices.
“International cuisine is driver of the menu,” he says, with classes in Thai Street food, fresh pasta making and tapas being the most popular. “We have the best shu mai in Baltimore!”
The class is split into two cooking teams that each work to make a menu of four recipes (Korean street food is 10). There are demonstrations by the chef in technique. Then dinner is served family-style. Skills and technique classes, from gutting fish to breaking down chicken, are also taught by a faculty of professional educators and fine dining chefs.
Chef Nina Luv brings another angle to her community classes. A personal chef and certified holistic health practitioner, she calls herself a “soul chef” who believes that food is a powerful healing tool.
“It’s much more about using the food as a tool. It’s a lifestyle. That’s why people come to us, to help them create their own roadmap,” she says.
Sure, she teaches knife skills and rolling sushi, but all the cooking is geared toward healthier, often plant-based living options to get people comfortable with making decisions that are healthier for their lives. Her favorite class is how to use essential oils — lemon, ginger, rosemary.
“They are powerful healing agents and you can use them to cook,” she says. “And the room smells amazing.”
Could cooking be the great unifier? It’s food for thought. Everyone seems to be interested in learning something new — it’s near impossible to name all of the classes being offered — but keep your palate open as this trend won’t be ending any time soon. World peace may be coming to a cooking school near you.