Bring restaurant experience home with cooking lessons

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If you’re like many hard-driving, time-strapped New Yorkers, your kitchen is probably one of the most underutilized rooms in your home.

As the sluggish economy crawls on, it might be time to trade your trusty collection of take-out menus for those long-neglected cookbooks and brush up on your culinary skills for a health- and budget-conscious alternative to a steady diet of restaurant fare.

In May, Jackson Heights resident Hal Walker and his friend Pat Ainsworth, a resident of the East Village, took a cooking class in Walker’s apartment taught by Home Cooking New York chef-instructor John Scoff.

Walker, a public relations/creative director for Ketchum, was looking for a Christmas present that he and Ainsworth could participate in together, and discovered Home Cooking New York, an innovative company that offers in-home cooking classes throughout the Tri-State area, online.

“It just looked like a fun thing to do, and we were both interested in cooking,” he said.

Home Cooking New York was launched in 2002 by Jennifer Clair, a former elementary school teacher, cookbook editor, and food editor for Martha Stewart Living, after she was laid off from the online division of Martha Stewart Living.

Equipped with a small severance package, which enabled her to be selective in pursuing her next opportunity, Clair began teaching basic culinary classes at the New School. She also began amassing private clients, including a woman who wanted a chef to cook for her husband’s 50th birthday, who would become a repeat customer.

“I was hooked,” said Clair, a graduate of The Institute of Culinary Education, adding that she enjoyed having an attentive audience who wanted to learn more about food. “I had a wonderful experience with this couple, and they invited me back almost 25 times. I would develop menus based on them, and it was a lot of fine tuning on my part.”

Since then, the business has expanded to include classes at Clair’s home cooking studio in Beacon, New York, where she currently resides, as well as private parties and on-site corporate cooking classes.

Although Clair has some clients who can afford to purchase lessons with a private cooking instructor in their homes several days a week, most of her clients, like Walker and Ainsworth, take a lesson for a special occasion.

Many of Clair’s new clients have been laid off from their jobs, and with extra time on their hands, arrive at the realization that they’ve never learned to cook, she said. Home cooking lessons provide clients with valuable tools that they can employ in their daily routines.

“You leave with a lot more knowledge than you had,” she said. “It’s more personalized attention, and you’re choosing foods that you can replicate again. We’ll look at the pots and pans, and work with what you have.”

Lessons range from $300 for two people, up to $400 for four students. Students receive a list of all ingredients they will need to purchase in advance, which cost $50 on average, said Clair. The company also offers private parties, which start at $100 per person for five to 10 students, including all ingredients. More information is available on the Web site,

Students can choose from a medley of popular menus online, which include everything from Northern Italian cuisine and Spanish tapas to vegetarian Indian fare and a romantic dinner for two, or they can suggest their own menus, said Clair.

Walker and Ainsworth made a dinner including roasted pork tenderloin with chutney, roasted butternut squash risotto, and Brussels sprouts with bacon and pecans during their 3 1/2-hour lesson, said Ainsworth.

For Ainsworth, who said she likes to bake more than cook and considers herself a “6 or a 7” in the culinary skills department, the lesson taught her and Walker knife skills and such tips as how to parboil vegetables, so that they are done at the same time as the meat.

She has since incorporated the instructor’s tips on slicing onions and parboiling vegetables into her kitchen repertoire.

Walker, who moved to Jackson Heights from the Upper West Side for more space, said that his recently acquired cooking skills will come in handy when he’s entertaining. Prior to the lesson, Walker enjoyed cooking, but considered himself a “totally unskilled” chef.

“Now, it was finally saying there’s a proper way to do things,” he said.

Home cooking lessons are ideal for anybody who likes to cook, but hasn’t been trained and lacks the time to attend culinary school, said Walker. He also recommends the experience for families and groups of neighbors and friends.

“It’s a nice evening, as opposed to going out to the movies or dinner,” he said. It “gives you something of value to remember it by.”

Posted 6:32 pm, October 10, 2011
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