The Salt
3:58 am
Sat March 24, 2012

Cooking School Spreads Immigrants' Skills And Ethnic Recipes

Originally published on Sat March 24, 2012 7:41 am

If you want to learn how to make Vietnamese egg rolls, you can always check out a cookbook, a food blog, or perhaps a site like Epicurious.

But Linh Nguyen — who is teaching a cooking class here in San Francisco — says that that's not really the way to do it. In fact, her family doesn't even own a cookbook.

"In a Vietnamese house, there are no measuring spoons or measuring cups," says Nguyen. "Everything is sort of just done by the handful, or the bowlful. And the recipes are all sort of passed down from one person to another."

Nguyen teaches for Culture Kitchen, a company that hires first-generation immigrants as cooking instructors. Unlike Nguyen's family, Culture Kitchen teachers do write down recipes.

But they also focus on that person-to-person tradition — showing how a dish should really taste or look when it's done, and answering all the little questions that come up along the way. Like whether egg rolls are rolled properly.

Jennifer Lopez co-founded Culture Kitchen a year and a half ago, as part of a graduate school project. She tried to find people who were amazing cooks but wouldn't normally be teaching because of a language barrier or lack of formal training. Lopez reached out to community groups, and also got help from a surprising source.

"A lot of our cooks that we've had ... it's their sons or daughters who have emailed us and said my mother or my grandmother makes the best food," says Lopez.

Culture Kitchen has held dozens of classes, with cuisines ranging from Bengali to Peruvian to Afghan, for $60 a session. It's also expanding beyond the Bay Area, sending out ingredient boxes to people who don't necessarily have a Vietnamese grocery nearby.

But the connections between people are really the heart of it.

Student Laurie Mun came to learn Vietnamese cooking firsthand in part because that's how she picked up her family's Cantonese recipes — this same sort of one-on-one instruction.

"We actually started having family dinners, where my grandfather would say 'Oh, you know, this is like a B minus, because it's one pinch too much sugar, one pinch too much salt, a little bit too much soy sauce.' And we're like, 'B minus? You need to have grade inflation! This is too hard,' " says Mun.

Despite the harsh grading, Mun was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to be a better cook — then, and now.

"It's a way I think for us to connect the generations," says Mun.

Culture Kitchen classes don't just keep recipes from dying out. Co-founder Lopez says they change the way the instructors value themselves.

"A lot of the women we work with don't have that many friends outside of their own culture," says Lopez. "So the opportunity to share their cuisine with a larger group of people is huge. It's been phenomenal watching some of our cooks transform."

They're transforming into teachers with an important body of knowledge to share with students who are hungry to learn.

Deena Prichep is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

These days, learning something about cooking can be as easy as an Internet search. Not long ago, it meant standing at the stove next to your grandmother. In San Francisco, a new company is trying to revive home cooking and pass it on to a new generation of students. Deena Prichep reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah, I really like it.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: If you want to learn how to make Vietnamese egg rolls, you can always check out a cookbook. But Linh Nguyen, who's teaching a cooking class here in San Francisco, says that that's not really the way to do it. In fact, her family doesn't even own a cookbook.

LINH NGUYEN: In a Vietnamese house, there are no measuring spoons or measuring cups. Everything is sort of just done by like the handful or the bowlful. And the recipes are all sort of passed down from one person to another.

PRICHEP: Nguyen teaches for Culture Kitchen, a company that hires first-generation immigrants as cooking instructors. Unlike Nguyen's family, Culture Kitchen teachers do write down recipes.

NGUYEN: We're going to dice up two shallots.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Small?

NGUYEN: Yes, very fine. And four cloves of garlic.

PRICHEP: But they also focus on that person-to-person tradition, showing how a dish should really taste or look when it's done, and answering all the little questions that come up along the way - like whether egg rolls are rolled properly.

NGUYEN: Oh, pretty good. It could be - like if you feel mine, it's a lot tighter, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's tightly packed, that's correct.

NGUYEN: Yeah, so you want it to be packed.

JENNIFER LOPEZ: You're connecting people that never would have been connected otherwise.

PRICHEP: Jennifer Lopez co-founded Culture Kitchen a year and a half ago. She tried to find people who were amazing cooks, but wouldn't normally be teaching because of a language barrier, or a lack of formal training. Lopez reached out to community groups and also got help from a surprising source.

LOPEZ: A lot of our cooks that we've had, it's not necessarily them that have reached out to us, it's their sons or daughters who have emailed us and said my mother or my grandmother makes the best food. She's a little scared. I told her she needed to do this, this is so important. And those are the moments that are so special.

PRICHEP: Culture Kitchen has held dozens of classes, with cuisines ranging from Bengali to Peruvian to Afghani - $60 a session. The connections between people are really the heart of it. Student Laurie Mun came to learn Vietnamese cooking firsthand. In part, because that's how she picked up her family's Cantonese recipes - the same sort of one-on-one instruction.

LAURIE MUN: We actually started having family dinners, where my grandfather would say oh, you know, this is like a B-minus, because it's one pinch too much sugar, or one pinch too much salt, a little bit too much soy sauce. And we're like B-minus? You need to have grade inflation. This is too hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PRICHEP: Despite the harsh grading, Mun was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to be a better cook - then and now.

MUN: It's a way I think for us to connect the generations. Like my mom would say, my grandmother, I remember watching her do it this way. So even though I didn't have a relationship with her, because I was so much younger, she was in the room.

PRICHEP: At Culture Kitchen, classes don't just keep recipes from dying out. Co-founder Jennifer Lopez says they change how the instructors value themselves.

LOPEZ: A lot of the women we work with don't have that many friends outside of their own culture. So the opportunity to share their cuisines with a larger group of people is huge. It's been phenomenal watching some of our cooks transform.

PRICHEP: Transform into teachers - people with an important body of knowledge to share with students who are hungry to learn.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.