Any home cook worth their salt invariably has an aspiration to take a cooking class. The chance to sharpen your skills with the masters and being given the tools, the ingredients and in-person knowledge at a cookery school is a dream day for most keen cooks.
But as with many things in 2020, those Saturday sushi demos with lunch after or sourdough and foraging weekends away are not really viable options. Covid restrictions have meant in situ teaching for many cookery schools has either been taken away completely or greatly minimised meaning the move to virtual teaching for many is inevitable. But how exactly do you swap a real life kitchen for a keyboard?
One of the places many cooking fans long to escape to, of course, is Ballymaloe. The cookery school headed up by Darina Allen is one of the most well regarded and part of the appeal has always been the magic of visiting the school and grounds itself. While they have managed to keep some of their courses running at the school, albeit at very reduced numbers, they have also launched an online offering with access to their coveted classes from anywhere.
I joined in for One Pot Wonders with Darina on a Saturday morning. It was an intense live four hours of watching Allen whip together dish after dish, not designed to cook along with, but to arm the participants with the knowledge and recipes to recreate the dishes themselves at home.
I was surprised to learn that Allen had only two people sitting in front of her as she meticulously taught the recipes packing every minute with useful tips and hints for the home cook, from organising your freezer to peeling tomatoes.
Allen admits it has been strange to switch to teaching like this – “I do miss the people, catching someone’s eye, taking questions.” But she and the whole cookery school team are keen to embrace the new changes for practical reasons too. “We had to keep the show on the road because we still have the same number of staff but half the number of students. And quite long waiting lists.”
For some though the reality of keeping the doors open while moving online just wasn't an option. Lisa Halpenny, co-owner of Kids Cook school, made the decision to stop in-person classes completely and concentrate on the virtual version.
“Working with children and food would be fairly tricky with Covid. We could not see a future in the cookery school. By the end of April we made the heartbreaking decision to close, looked at our options, took some advice and decided to go for a digital subscription business model.” And while there may be less washing up with virtual classes, the workload increases in plenty of other ways. “It has been a massive learning curve as we are thrown into the online world. Other than creating the content and teaching live classes, my other main job is now marketing and promotion.”
No stranger to being in front of the camera, TV chef and owner and teacher at Ballyknocken Cookery School Catherine Fulvio has also launched a website to cater for the online demands and admits it's a whole different beast than running the cookery school.
I can see everyone in their kitchens, they can see me of course, it makes it feel really wholesome, it's lovely, it's great fun
“We have a wealth of recipes that have built up over the past 16 years of operating the school and then suddenly you’re picking the best of them, the highlights of the recipes, and building them into interesting and fun courses for people and then you’ve to turn around and video them all and it’s a lot of work.”
But she sees plenty of appetite for this new era of online learning that didn’t exist a year ago. “I’m 100 per cent sure that if I put it to a corporate group last year that I could do this online, a cook-along, I would never have got any bookings.” But now the corporates are champing at the bit to get booked in before Christmas with plenty of the cookery schools offering corporate packages. Shopping lists and instructions are sent out beforehand and then your team joins in to cook along live with the teacher. Fulvio tells me she enjoys these sessions: “I can see everyone in their kitchens, they can see me of course, it makes it feel really wholesome, it’s lovely, it’s great fun.”
Vanessa Greenwood of Cooks Academy has the same outlook. "The virtual cook-alongs seem to be very successful as a team-bonding exercise. I did one recently with a global tech firm. We made Irish soda bread and the 20 participants were dialling in from locations including Mexico, Spain and Japan.
“Sometimes I stream live from my home kitchen and what nobody sees is the dog walking around my feet, the doorbell ringing, or a family member trying to make a cup of tea while staying out of shot. It’s a great buzz.”
At Cooks Academy, they have been juggling moving online while still running the classes they can, at reduced capacity, in their Dublin kitchens. As with Ballymaloe and Catherine Fulvio, this involved setting up a new website, Cooking Class Online.
“We’re learning all the time, and mostly we’re adapting to what the customers are asking for. I’m always in ideas creation mode and we have to create menus that have simple ingredients so that people can buy them easily.”
The beauty of the online courses is that you can pick up and drop off whenever you want and it will actually fit into your lifestyle
Kevin Dundon of Dunbrody House Cookery School began daily Facebook and Instagram lives and, from the start of lockdown and instead of building a website to host his videos, he's embraced these social media platforms for teaching. Once you sign up to do one of Kevin's courses, you're given access to a private Instagram page specific to the course you choose where your course content will be shared during the week. Kevin sees online teaching as part of the future of what they are doing at Dunbrody. "Our whole approach to life has changed because of what we're all going through globally and the beauty of the online courses is that you can pick up and drop off whenever you want and it will actually fit into your lifestyle."
Probably the most 2020 cookery course I came across was Karen Coakley's WhatsApp version. Karen, also known as Kenmare Foodie, usually runs food tours around Kenmare along with sharing her recipes and food knowledge at cookery demos and on TV. But when that all came to a halt, she asked her online followers if they would be interested in taking part in a cooking course with her via WhatsApp.
“I was really surprised with the reaction I got from people saying they loved the idea and wanted to sign up.” The course runs for four weeks and you’re added to a WhatsApp group with Karen and the rest of the members. Karen then shares meal plans, recipes and cooking advice with the group daily. “I’m there, on hand, all day to answer any questions they have relating to cooking techniques, recipes, sourcing products, leftovers and anything else.”
It’s hard for anyone to predict what lies ahead for our cookery schools and teachers but for now it seems the action continues to be online and at home.
Here are some of the great Irish offerings available:
Ballymaloe Cookery School ballymaloecookeryschool.online
Online cookery classes, wine workshops, fireside chats and live recipe demonstrations. From €60
Catherine Fulvio's The Curious Foodie catherinefulvio.com
Catherine Fulvio offers a comprehensive, interactive in most parts, suites of recipes and learning courses. From €29
Aniar Cookery School aniarrestaurant.ie/cookery-school
Chef JP McMahon offers one-on-one online cook-along classes or for groups of up to six people. From €275
Dunbrody House Cookery School dunbrodyhouse.com/dunbrody-cookery-school.html
Week-long cookery courses on Instagram with Kevin Dundon. From €70
Cooks Academy cookingclassonline.com
Hone your skills at home with Cooks Academy's tutorials for sushi, bread, baking and lots more. From €15
Kenmare Foodie instagram.com/kenmarefoodie/
Four-week home cooking groups run via WhatsApp designed to revamp your recipe repertoire. €42 for four weeks
Multyfarnham Cookery School multyfarnhamcookeryschool.ie
This award-winning Westmeath school offers various classes including bread making, Mexican, Asian and Thai cookery. From €60
Watch & Learn Cookery Experiences instagram.com/garmullins/
Interactive Zoom cookery classes from chef Gar Mullins including family favourites and Christmas classics. From €15
Kids Cook kidscookcookingclub.com
Keep the kids busy in the kitchen by joining this online subscription website for kids' cooking classes. From €9.99 per month
East Coast Cookery eastcoastcookeryschool.ie/
Cordon Bleu trained chef Tara Walker offers a host family-friendly online cook-along classes. From €15
Picado Mexican picadomexican.com
Master all things Mexican, authentically, with Lily Ramirez-Foran. From €45
The Bunnery Kell facebook.com/TheBunneryKells
Family-focused cooking classes via Facebook and Zoom. From €25
Ciara's Kitchen ciaraskitchen.ie/
Ballymaloe alumni Ciara Gorman Fennessy offers live cook-along demos, perfect for the home cook. From €20
Saspan Sopan saspansospan.ie
Chef Lisa Davies creates bespoke online demos and runs great classes for teenage cooks. From €15