It’s Wednesday night at Berkeley’s Rocket Restaurant Resource, and, although the restaurant supply store is closed, the small demo kitchen is full of activity. Jen Knapp demonstrates how to fry tortillas until perfectly crisp, while another woman sautées chicken thighs, and yet another chars poblano peppers directly on a burner, watching the skin go from a deep forest green to mottled black.
Mexican cuisine is tonight’s theme at The Field Kitchen pop-up cooking school’s “Dinner Tonight” cooking class, and the participants, all of whom are women (including this reporter), have about two and a half hours to make eight dishes, give or take.
“Obviously we have a lot of American-Mexican food here, but real Mexican food and its flavors are quite complex,” says Knapp, by way of introduction.
Tonight’s dishes include a classic red snapper ceviche, a tortilla soup with shredded chard, chicken breasts with those charred poblanos, beer-braised carnitas, classic pot beans, rice with cilantro sauce, lime and chili cabbage slaw, and Mexican wedding cakes for dessert. Those with the cilantro-hating gene wouldn’t have fared well that night, but we all ate incredibly well.
Knapp and her teaching partner, Frances Wilson, both came to The Field Kitchen with years of experience in Bay Area kitchens. Knapp, who lives in Oakland, is a Cape Cod native, and worked in marketing in New York before moving to the Bay Area in 1994. During her stint in marketing, she quickly realized that her favorite part of the job was entertaining clients in restaurants, and began taking cooking classes on weekends.
Then she decided to take the leap and enrolled at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco. After graduating, she continued to help with classes there and eventually started her own catering business, Jennifer Knapp Catering. She is also a certified master taster at ChefsBest, where she tastes and evaluates new food and beverage products before they are put on the market.
Wilson grew up in Ireland and started her career teaching home economics. After moving to Berkeley, she became the head chef at Lalime’s, and held that position from 1990 to 2000. While there, she tapped into her teaching background by holding farmers market demos, and she realized how much she liked educating the community.
She especially loved that when she was commuting from Berkeley into the city, with bags full of produce in her car, passengers would ask her about the produce. “I realized then that I love to talk about food [with] people all day long,” she said. “It was like a dream job in a way, that I get to talk about it and turn people onto different ingredients that they might not know about.”
In 2005, she joined the staff at Tante Marie’s as an instructor in the professional cooking school. (She worked at the school until it closed in 2014.) There she met Knapp, who was teaching recreational cooking classes and leading private culinary events.
Knapp said that while she never envisioned a career as a teacher, she really loved it. “I just kind of fell into it … and had a knack for it,” she said. “It’s really wonderful to bring people together over food, and especially over cooking.”
The Field Kitchen has been offering cooking classes for about nine months. Upcoming classes include a primer on Spanish cuisine and a holiday boot camp spread across a few upcoming Saturdays: there will be a class on Thanksgiving sides — “everything but the bird” — Nov. 5, followed by a tutorial on pies and tarts on Nov. 19. Next month, The Field Kitchen will offer a class on the art of the cocktail party Dec. 3, and, finally, a class on making gifts from the kitchen Dec. 10. It also offers classes based around cookbooks as well as a few that take place on local farms. If that wasn’t enough, Knapp and Wilson also host occasional pop-up dinners.
While most of their classes take place at Rocket, Knapp and Wilson decided to name their cooking school The Field Kitchen because their favorite classes are those that take place on local farms. For those classes, Knapp and Wilson have participants meet them at a farm about an hour away, and there they cook a meal using whatever produce they harvest.
They also have a few ideas for new classes they’d like to offer. Wilson said she has in mind a series for the future where participants take a few ingredients (such as a whole chicken and an herb such as cilantro) and learn how to use them for three different weeknight meals. For example, they may make a roast chicken with cilantro pesto on night one, followed by tacos with leftover chicken the next evening, and an Asian-style soup made from the bones on the last.
“From those ingredients, there would be no waste,” said Wilson. “That’s beyond a lot of people’s planning ability.”
The women who showed up with me to the Mexican class seemed to be a mix of both pretty accomplished home cooks and some with little experience.
What immediately became clear was that there’s always more to learn. For example, when a recipe calls for sliced onions, I’d been slicing them into half moons. Wilson said she was taught to do it along the lines of the onion and at the angle of the onion for more even slices, and more even cooking.
I also noticed that, after years of teaching, Knapp has developed quite a following.
Denny Arar had come from San Francisco for the class, and had taken most of the Field Kitchen’s cookbook series as well. She said she is still making a sweet and sour shrimp soup from a Field Kitchen Thai class.
Arar said she preferred these classes to those offered by another outfit, where everyone makes the same thing. “Here we divide the labor and walk around and see what others are making and learn more,” she said. “Even though I cook a lot, with them, I always learn new things.”
“I’m terrible with dough,” Arar added. “In a previous class they showed a really easy way to just fold it over. Even I can do that.”
Matija Cale had also come from San Francisco, where she had taken a few classes with Knapp at Tante Marie’s. She called Knapp’s style “really approachable,” and said she enjoyed coming both “to learn new recipes and to meet new people.”
The evening ended with everyone sharing the meal together on a table set among the aisles of the store, next to the Hobart mixers, cake molds and knife carriers.
“We hope people are not just coming to have a fun evening, even though they will, but that they [will also] walk away with not just recipes but with skills [they] can apply to other recipes and then be more confident in the kitchen,” said Wilson. “These techniques can be applied to other things. … It’s not only about slavishly following recipes.”
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