Class is in session ... grab a fork
Cooking classes offer intimate, fun afternoon for food lovers of all experience levels
HILLSDALE, N.Y. — For almost four years, the small, immaculate kitchen store at HGS Home Chef — an off-shoot of the equally charming Hillsdale General Store just across the street on State Route 23 — has been attracting home chefs, foodies with specific tastes and James Beard award winners to its two teaching kitchens for intimate, educational and always tasty cooking classes.
"It's kind of amazing, the people we've attracted to Hillsdale," said Matthew White, proprietor of both the general store and the cooking school, during a telephone interview, just days after he had hosted a class with Justin Chapple, culinary editor at large of Food & Wine magazine.
Just a short, winding drive from Great Barrington over the New York border, the cooking school has offered more than 220 classes and that number keeps growing with each passing weekend.
"We've been doing classes since day one," White said. "It's a shocking number to me; I can't believe we've done that many."
To get the full picture of what's going on inside the gleaming kitchens with state-of-the-art appliances, this reporter recently sat in on a class with a "HGS favorite," Marisa McClellan, pickling expert and author of "Food in Jars."
Eleven students, including myself, sat around the large island, as McClellan held our attention with a stock pot of boiling water, giving mason jars a water bath before stuffing them with turmeric pickled onions that each student got to take home. Over the course of two hours, she explained the difference between a quick pickle and fermenting, shared recipes and ideas for pickling and somehow managed to take the fear of canning out of this self-proclaimed non-pickler.
"It will be good today," she said, as she passed around a bowl of the pickled onions. "In a week, it will be great."
Students, ranging in pickling expertise from newbies to fermenting converts, asked specific questions about what they were growing in their gardens, or what was the right vinegar to buy (anything with 5 percent acidity, if you're wondering). McClellan also stirred up a quick pickled radish dish, which was passed around the table with approving nods. "These are great for taco night or to dress up a grain bowl," she said.
This class was held in the smaller kitchen downstairs. Upstairs, according to White, the larger kitchen can accommodate demos with up to 25 spots for students, and has an attached dining room for private events, tastings and classes where a meal is served afterward. There is also a large television screen that shows the teachers' work space more closely so students can get a detailed look at the cooking process.
The classes range from meal-specific — such as the upcoming World of Waffles & Pancakes, with Olivia Krywucki on July 6 — to seasonally appropriate with a focus on things such as grilling, or pies and picnics on June 16.
"Our reputation is growing and we want to always to provide real quality experts," said White, who now fields requests from cookbook authors to come and teach. "The instructors have to have something special, unique about them. Some of our local chefs have a really interesting take on food, an interesting angle, or they truly know the topic."
McClellan, who has been visiting the cooking school for "three or four years now," hails from Philadelphia and stays with friends in Great Barrington when she comes to teach.
"I love helping people get over their fear of canning, to help them feel confident," she said after the class, as she packed up her belongings from teaching two classes that day (the first was in the morning, about preserving fruits and making jams).
It seems she did just that for most of the class, who during a short break were invited to peruse the HGS Home Chef kitchenware shop where every purchase was 10 percent off that day for students. White has arranged the store by techniques or cuisines — you can find high-end bundt pans and baking dishes alongside piping bags and beautiful cookbooks about cakes, pastries and desserts. And, it just so happens, there's a complete section of canning supplies alongside McClellan's four cookbooks. The store is a cook's dream with an interesting and perfectly curated selection of cookbooks that goes beyond anything you would find in a regular big box store.
"I'm an interior designer by trade, which is why these spaces are so welcoming," said White. "But also, really, I'm a great lover of a beautiful domestic life, not just pretty rooms but quality of life. Food is such an important part of a good home life."
The idea for the cooking classes, White said, came from giving people something to do, not just buy. The experience, not just the food lessons, seems to be a big part of the draw to the small store, where White said he has had people from as far as Canada and California come just to see specific chefs teach.
On this Saturday afternoon, HSG first-timers Sarah Bailey came from Connecticut and Pattie Brown from Clifton Park, N.Y., for a day of classes with McClellan.
"I loved it," Brown said after the class," It was a terrific, fun day."
Bailey had done some canning before, but was looking forward to taking home the recipes shared by McClellan with her new-found knowledge and confidence. When asked if she would come back again, she quickly replied, "definitely."
White is already booking up his August class schedule and is working on collaborations with the shop's next door neighbor, a flower shop.
"No matter who walks in, food is a great leveler," he said. "We all eat. We all have things we like, things we love to make ... it's been really fun."
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