Online classes and demonstrations help to sharpen your culinary skills in the comfort of your own kitchen.
By Ben McBee
We’ve all been there: It’s a Tuesday night, nothing sounds good for dinner and all that’s left in the fridge are the same boring leftovers. Normally, that sort of situation would call for a trip to the eatery down the street, but COVID-19 restrictions frequently mean that on-site dining isn’t allowed and there’s only so much takeout one can eat in a week. These days, more and more people are finding themselves in their own kitchens, trying to figure out how to break the monotony and spice up their home-cooked meals.
Even with off-and-on restaurant closures, Newport Beach remains a vibrant culinary ecosystem, and online cooking classes are flourishing in this socially distanced world. Though the pandemic’s health risks continue to keep us apart physically, nothing has the power to bring us back together again like preparing delicious food, and today’s technology means we can do so safely. Whether you’re looking to establish a new tradition, impress a date, or add to the skills already in your wheelhouse, a little bit of education and inspiration from professionals can do wonders.
A Chef’s Touch
Like most people, the pandemic came as quite the shock to Newport-based chef Stephanie Chinchilla, whose business was built on sharing her passion for culinary culture through in-person experiences. “I had to create something of an entirely new business around technology,” she says. “… COVID gave me the push I needed to be brave in the virtual world. I had no choice but to put myself out there.”
After building a full media studio in her home, Chinchilla has certainly hit her stride, with accessible and affordable online classes that emphasize the basics, touching on why things are done the way they are: How to make the perfect steak or break down and use a whole chicken, for example. “I teach our guests how to cook, not how to follow a recipe,” she says. Chinchilla offers one to two classes per month that are open to the public as well as private sessions.
Upcoming public classes include Healthy Meal Planning and Time Saving Techniques on March 27, a Cinco de Mayo menu on May 1 and a Father’s Day menu on June 12. For more information, go to chefchinchilla.com.
“[The public] classes, booked directly through our website, are held as a live webinar, so the number of guests who can join is endless,” Chinchilla says. During each sessions, guests can send questions using the chat function and she will address them in between teaching and then stay online at the end to make sure everything was answered. She also invites clients to text her pictures or see if she’s free to hop on FaceTime and guide them through a task.
Additionally, on her “Culinary Culture” podcast, she interviews local chefs, farmers, bartenders and winemakers, uniting the community of culinary professionals on a personal level and debunking some common food myths along the way. Her podcast can be found on major podcast platforms, such as iTunes, and with video on her YouTube channel (Chef Stephanie Chinchilla). About once a week, Chinchilla also goes live on her Instagram page, @chefstephaniechinchilla, and presents a one-hour demonstration. And Chinchilla offers virtual wine tastings, live music presentations, paint nights and candle-making sessions for those seeking other types of at-home entertainment.
Also based in Newport, former management consultant Alexis Rinaldi’s business, Gourmet Maisons, was only a few months old when lockdown began. “The original business concept was to teach private, in-home cooking classes here in Orange County,” Rinaldi explains. “When we first thought the pandemic would only be a few weeks, I began teaching Zoom classes to friends and family to raise money for Feeding America.”
Drawing on her training at OC’s CulinaryLab Cooking School and Studio at Montage Laguna Beach, Rinaldi’s one-woman show now reaches beyond Southern California to students in San Francisco, New York and even Berlin. Currently, she offers eight menus to choose from, but, she adds, “Because these classes are private, it’s very easy to customize the menu to exactly what the students want to make. My offerings range from Thai to Italian, plant-based to barbecue.”
Typically, her sessions include a main dish, two side dishes and a dessert; with her “Fancy Night In,” choose from honey dijon-roasted salmon or filet mignon with shallot pan sauce for the entree, roasted truffle potatoes and asparagus with lemon and Parmesan for sides and salted caramel budino to end the meal. Rinaldi can accommodate up to 25 computers. Everyone receives a recipe packet to follow along during the lesson and re-create the dishes in the future, too. For more details, go to gourmetmaisons.com.
“Cooking at home can be daunting, and the goal of the virtual classes is to make restaurant-quality food in the comfort of your own kitchen,” she says. “I work with all students to make sure they can create a delicious meal, no matter their skill level.”
Another culinary learning option is provided through videos by Newport resident Richard Boufford, chef and former owner of Black Sheep Bistro in Tustin, which was known for its paella, lamb, duck confit and other Mediterranean-influenced dishes. “After selling the restaurant in 2011, [the new owners changed the concept]. We were forced to set up something to appease the fury of our past patrons. After all, some had been with us for over 20 years,” Boufford explains.“So, I took a camera back into the kitchen and taped every dish we did.” Eventually, the footage culminated in a well-selling DVD.
Fast forward and those videos for hundreds of different recipes are available for free viewing on YouTube (BlackSheepCooking) and Vimeo (Rick Boufford channel, then click on showcases). Or go to justgoodfun.net for links to the various platforms. Boufford’s “hands and pans” videos are no nonsense and straight to the point, imparting expert knowledge on preparing vegetables, poultry, seafood, meats and even dessert. “I encourage people to post comments and questions under the videos,” he says. “I’ll answer as many as I can and will also post new videos of stuff people want to see and learn.”
On top of tantalizing your palate with something new, getting your creative juices flowing in the kitchen or behind the bar is an excellent form of escapism, where even for a few moments, the worries of the world can fade away. Early in the pandemic, Tommy Bahama, a brand that’s built on easy breezy island vibes, started bringing its customers a bit of comfort in a cup with its weekly Cocktail Club.
Every Thursday at 3 p.m., lifestyle expert Gretchen Connelie goes live on the restaurant’s Instagram account, @tommybahamarestaurant, to share a cocktail recipe with its followers; oftentimes, the approximately 40-minute demonstration will also feature an appetizer pairing or easy-to-assemble signature dish. Some past standouts include a grapefruit basil martini, seared scallop sliders and pineapple creme brulee. Interaction is the goal, so a list of ingredients is always posted a few days prior so viewers can prepare and participate at home.
Though Sur La Table may be best known for its high-quality skillets, saucepans, cutlery and other cookware, the company and its team of expert chefs also put on an array of virtual cooking classes. To sign up, go to surlatable.com. Starting at just $29 per household, guests will enjoy a fully interactive, password protected Zoom session, ranging from 90 to 120 minutes, and attendees are encouraged to ask questions at any point. The hands-on instructions cover all of the techniques you’ll need to master everything from chopping to plating.
“Our classes are a great way to share an experience with friends and loved ones who are all over the country and cook together while being apart during these times,” says Meredith Abbott, the company’s culinary content manager. Subjects are varied and changing, so there’s always something to fit your mood, schedule and skill level. Whether you sign up for Date Night: Cooking with Wine, French Dining at your Fingertips, or Sushi Basics, the prep packet will provide a shopping list and quick-start information so you can hit the ground running.
Williams Sonoma, another national kitchen supply retailer (williams-sonoma.com) with a Newport Beach location, presents online courses like The Williams Sonoma Baking School, a series of classes hosted by Brian Hart Hoffman, editor-in-chief of Bake from Scratch magazine. Every Monday through March 29, Hoffman, joined by guest bakers on some days, will tackle doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, Mardi Gras treats, bundt cakes and more confections, teaching tips and tricks to impress your family—and their taste buds.