Kitchen on Fire during a film shoot. Photos: KoF

The two self-professed clowns behind Kitchen on Fire, who like to ham it up with kitchen utensils for the camera, are quite serious about their mission: they want to teach people to cook real food for themselves.

Chefs MikeC and Olivier Said launched the Gourmet Ghetto business in 2005, but it really took off during the economic downturn. That’s when a lot of folks realized they couldn’t afford to eat out as often as they wanted, and they set out to learn how to D.I.Y. dinner at home.

For those who lost their jobs, there was both a hunger and a need to learn their way around a kitchen; some hoped they might pick up skills that could lead to employment, and a cooking school seemed like a good place to do that.

Kitchen on Fire classes now regularly sell out. To meet the growing demand, this summer the kitchen classroom will expand to a second location in West Berkeley, which boasts an even bigger space.

The new kitchen will be housed in the Rocket Restaurant Resource supply store, where, this Sunday, Bay Wolf’s Louis Le Gassic and Corso Trattoria‘s Rodrigo Da Silva will battle it out in an Iron Chef culinary contest, part of a fundraiser for Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner.

Earlier this week I met with MikeC, 33, who lives in Central Berkeley, to find out what’s cooking at Kitchen on Fire.

Oliver Said (left) and MikeC, the Kitchen on Fire duo.

What’s in a name: both yours and the company’s?

That’s my real name, my parents were hippies, my siblings only have one name but I’m the only one with a capital “C”. Kitchen on Fire was the first name we came up with in English that Olivier could pronounce; if you know him you know he has a heavy Parisian accent.

Who takes your classes?

Everyone, we teach teens and seniors, and everything in between. Our couples classes are really popular. We teach slightly more women than men, but it’s close. We have a high lawyer conversion rate: People in their 30s and 40s who come in and want to follow their passion and become cooks. Our apprentice program draws people who want to test the waters in the culinary world.

Kitchen on Fire does knife classes, cooking series, and specialty cooking classes. What else do you do?

We’ve done TV shows, including the “Hungry Bytes Show” and “Hippy Gourmet Show“, and; that’s the best medium for getting our message out to the masses. We’ve done instructional videos and we have a step-by-step technique book coming out in November, based on our 12-week basics series, with more books in the works.

We’re committed to helping a diverse group of people learn how to cook, so we’re strong on community service. To that end, we work with different populations.

Olivier is on the board of Cooking Matters [formerly Operation Frontline] and we’ve held classes for people who are low income or on food stamps; one of our assistants ran into a homeless person cooking on a grill in a park after that class, there’s something powerful about passing on that knowledge.

I work with St. Vincent de Paul in Alameda as part of their Kitchen of Champions program. That population has dealt with things like incarceration, rehab, abuse, they do an intensive professional culinary training program, which gives them job-placement skills.

Dishes prepared by Kitchen on Fire.

And we work with the culinary academy over at Hercules High. I’m on the advisory board there — they had a need and we filled it.

We also do farmers’ market demos and mc events like the Spice of Life Festival.

Who else teaches at Kitchen on Fire?

Longtime Bay Area chef Chat Mingkwan teaches Asian cooking classes, cookbook author Jennie Schacht teaches farmers’ market desserts, and Richard Chapman, who used to run Sur La Table’s culinary program, is really versatile; he teaches everything from pastry to barbecue. And Kevin Hogan of The Spanish Table leads our San Francisco tapas tour.

How does your partnership with Olivier work?

We’re really different people and have different strengths, and we knew that going in and that’s why it works.  I’m all-American, more Rambo like, classically trained, and am very methodical. He’s European, artsy, more cavalier I guess. We delegate tasks between us; on our book I’m the writer and he’s the designer.

I gather you mostly cook, but when you do eat out, where do you go in town?

I like Sportivo, the new Italian sports bar downtown for pizzas and cannelloni, and they have a great cocktail list. Angeline’s for fried chicken. And 900 Grayson for their chicken and waffles.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.

Scouting Berkeley: Kitchen on Fire [01.29.110]
Operation Frontline: Teaching the needy to cook in Bay Area communities [06.22.10]