Hungering for connection?

Try a virtual Jewish cooking class 

Virtual_Cooking image
Left: Chicago-based chef, restaurateur, and JUF News food columnist Laura Frankel. Right: Washington, D.C. area chef and baker Paula Shoyer.

"Home for the holidays" has taken on new resonance during the Age of COVID. Will extended family and friends gather around the menorah and munch on latkes and sufganiyot ?

Not likely. But that doesn't mean that there won't be a lot of cooking going on - for Chanukah, New Year's Eve, and other celebrations.

As people have hunkered down and become socially distant, many have been firing up their dormant culinary skills. And Jewish Americans, adaptive as ever, have taken the lead in society's renewed relationship with home-cooked meals and baking.

Helping those to muster up their inner chefs have been some of the country's finest cooking teachers, who themselves have had to pivot, moving from in-person to virtual instruction. Washington, D.C.-area chef and baker Paula Shoyer - author of The Kosher Baker and The Healthy Jewish Kitchen , among other cookbooks - is among those who quickly transitioned to onscreen learning. It demanded a dramatic shift in mindset, she said.

"My whole business model [until COVID] was traveling and selling books," Shoyer said.

But the Escoffier School-trained chef, who has appeared often on TV, has taken to online Zoom instruction as fish to water and meat to the grill. Over the last eight months or so, she has conducted more than 80 virtual cooking sessions, including summer baking classes for teens.

The recipe for success, Shoyer said, is maintaining a level of vigor.

"I have to perform in a way that brings all the energy to the screen," she said. "It's a whole different level of engagement. You have to be hyper on Zoom. Otherwise, it's a snoozefest."

Chicago-based chef, restaurateur, and JUF News food columnist Laura Frankel knows all about conveying vitality. After all, she had been running virtual classes well before COVID's onset.

"I'm the perfect person for this [type of instruction]," said Frankel, the author of Jewish Cooking for All Seasons , the founder of the Shallots restaurants, and the former exec­u­tive chef and head of food ser­vices at the Wolf­gang Puck Kosher Cater­ing and Cafe at the Sper­tus Insti­tute for Jew­ish Learn­ing. That's because, "my husband is an IT guy" who made sure that she is well poised to bring culinary tips to the screen - whether teaching kids how to make gnocchi or crème brûlée or helping their parents carve a turkey.

"There is a desire to brush up on skills," Frankel said, "while everyone's at home." Likewise, "people are hungering for connection, [and] food is a great way to get together," even when it's computer screen to computer screen.

The New York-based YIVO Institute for Jewish Research unwittingly helped Jewish chefs prepare for the virtual kitchen several years ago when it began creating "A Seat at the Table: A Journey into Food." An online, self-paced course, it includes demonstrations by some of the doyennes of Jewish fare, including Joan Nathan, Leah Koenig, and Adeena Sussman. It also discusses the development of Ashkenazic cuisine from writers and scholars, such as Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, who weighs in on the history of bagels.

YIVO's Director of Education Ben Kaplan took the lead in organizing the course, free until at least the end of December. When the pandemic hit, he and his team went into "high gear" to get it online, he said.

Liz Alpern, a YIVO online course instructor, has also been doing other virtual classes with her business partner, Jeffrey Yoskowitz. The two are the co-founders of The Gefilteria, an initiative to spread the joy of modern Jewish cooking to younger foodies, and the co-authors of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods .

"We got our feet wet pretty quickly" in response to the need to bring Jewish cooking online, said Alpern, who, with Yoskowitz, was part of the 2020 online Great Big Jewish Food Fest.

Learn more about Paula Shoyer at thekosherbaker.com.
Contact Laura Frankel at cheflaura2@gmail.com.
For more info on YIVO, visit yivo.org, and for more on The Gefilteria initiative, visit gefilteria.com.

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago. 



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