Are you resolved to shuck your first dozen oysters this year, to master a few Italian classics, or simply to cook more and eat out less? When looking for a nudge to get started, you might be surprised to discover the bounty of culinary classes offered around the state. Those seeking to hone their kitchen skills, expand their repertoire of recipes, or to safely “travel” to a new country by way of its cuisine can choose from a mouthwatering Maine menu that features both in-person and virtual, hands-on and demonstration classes.

The Grande Dame of Maine’s culinary schools, Stonewall Kitchen in York, has put away its spatulas and whisks for the last time – an unfortunate casualty of the pandemic that company spokesman Jacob Ouellette says was not an easy decision. “Our classes were structured for guests to watch the step-by-step process, and they would enjoy the food almost as though they were in a restaurant,” he said. “We tried virtual classes, but they never really took off.” Others, like LeRoux Kitchen in Portland, have paused their classes. But many smaller, lesser-known businesses are continuing to teach in various formats as they tweak, adapt and dare we say, pivot, during these turbulent times – and they’re finding that recent sign-ups have been brisk.

At Portland’s Bravo Maine!, for example, owner Justine Corbi, who is originally from France, says she sold 100 holiday gift certificates for her in-person, hands-on classes, and recipients have been quick to cash in. On a recent Saturday at the spacious Brighton Avenue facility, most of the seven students in a French baking class had been given the five-hour event.

A student places shaped, unbaked croissants on a baking sheet to proof (or rise). Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sitting together at one of several socially distanced tables while waiting for their croissants and pain au chocolats to proof, Jay Clement and his daughter, Caroline Balder, raved about their day so far. “She gave me a gift card for a class here, and I jumped on it,” Clement said. “I don’t need any more stuff. We both love to cook, and sharing an experience like this is just so enjoyable.”

While 2021 may have been the year to retreat from the outside world into our kitchens to tackle our first sourdough loaves, batches of homemade tagliatelle, or comfort food of any and every kind, 2022 could be the year that we crave more company and conviviality as we slice and dice, shake and stir – even if we’re only donning our aprons with loved ones in our COVID bubble or strangers in the Zoom Room.

Up the coast at Salt Water Farm in Lincolnville, chef/owner Annemarie Ahearn has just kicked off a virtual “World Cuisine Series,” which includes six two-hour sessions each week from Japanese to Persian. She’ll sign off just in time to head to Mexico City for her two-day, sold-out workshop on Regional Mexican Cuisine. Then she’s back to Maine for more Zoom classes before opening her doors again to students in May, when her seasonal cooking classes typically begin.

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With tech skills that she says are “mediocre at best,” she tiptoed into an online format at first, but after several months of practice (she switched from in-person to virtual from last June through mid-October) and “troubleshooting like crazy,” Ahearn has hit her stride, and now she and her students sometimes even prefer it. “Without the social dynamic, the focus stays on the food and learning,” she says, adding that her virtual classes are also less expensive, not only for the class itself, which is half as long (two versus four hours) and less costly ($75 instead of $215), but also travel and hotel expenses are moot.

Of course, the most obvious benefit of remote teaching is COVID safety, and instructors say – whether they’re hosting online or in-person classes, the health of their patrons and staff is top of mind these days.

Chef Amy Kayne leads a cooking class at The Maker’s Galley earlier in January. On the menu: chili-lime Brazilian nut-crusted mangos, salmon tacos, and chamomile roasted orange tartlets with rosemary honey. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At the Maker’s Galley in Portland, a new tasting lounge, café and gift shop featuring Maine products, owner Rachel Sagiroglu is staying vigilant and closely following CDC guidance as she gears up for a busy winter of in-person, demonstration classes, some of which have already sold out – such as a five-course tasting dinner with Matt Ginn, executive chef at Evo Kitchen + Bar in Portland.

Just a week before kicking off a long-planned “Winter Cooking Series w/ 2Gether We Cook” earlier this month, Sagiroglu decided to require that attendees show proof of vaccination, hoping the added precaution would put people at ease. The classes, with private chef Amy Kayne, are intended to be lively and interactive.

Judging from the relaxed vibe at the first class in the series, she’s onto something. Laughs and learning were in full attendance right along with the eight participants, each seated with a friend at island stools or nearby high tops. Vaccination cards were shown at the door and masks stayed on unless students were sipping wine from their demi-carafes or sampling Kayne’s freshly made cabbage slaw or other dishes.

“This is super fun and exactly what I needed,” attendee Monica Bates said. “During the pandemic, we have all felt so distant, but something like this brings us together with like-minded people.”

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Bates, who lives in Monson, had signed up for the class with her pal Tammy Pelletier, from Biddeford. Neither had ever attended a cooking class before. “This is our first one, but not our last,” Pelletier said. “It’s not just fun, but I’m learning so much.”

Perhaps a better description for what’s on offer at the Maker’s Galley might be “cooking parties” rather than “classes,” a term that Kayne also embraces with her own business “2Gether We Cook.”

Melissa Frederick, left, of Scarborough, and Tammy Loring, of South Portland, watch and listen as Chef Amy Kayne leads a cooking class at The Maker’s Galley. The class made chili lime Brazilian nut crusted mangos, salmon tacos, and chamomile roasted oranges tartlet with rosemary honey. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At the other end of Commercial Street, the Black Tie Company’s “Black Tie Cooks” team is also hosting in-person classes, both hands-on and demonstration, which are filling quickly. “We are limiting class size to 10, which is a big change, executive chef Avery Richter said. “Before COVID, we would sometimes host 45 people at a time and have multiple stations.” Other pandemic precautions include masking when social distancing isn’t possible, and asking guests to be vaccinated.

“Everyone has been cooperative, and among the staff, we have kept safe,” Richter said.

Richter thrives on sharing her passion for Maine ingredients and their back stories. “I always incorporate Maine foods into my classes,” she said, “and I love the storytelling behind where we source our food, how is it raised, grown, prepared, consumed, the whole life cycle.”

She feels lucky to be teaching at a time when some aspiring cooks are picking up a chef’s knife for their first time. “COVID has meant that some people who had never cooked before had to start cooking at home, and they suddenly wanted to learn,” she said, adding that newbies in her classes are enjoying the company of others like them.

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For all ability levels and whether screen-to-screen, mask-to-mask, or toque-to-toque with folks who are vaxed to the max, it seems that as the pandemic lingers, the format is less important than the sense of community and camaraderie that’s sparked by a shared cooking experience.

“People are so eager to be together,” said Sagiroglu. “After we’d been open only five weeks, our mailing list for cooking classes was 10 pages long!”

Ahearn, at Salt Water Farm, would concur. “For so long now,” she said, “people have felt unsafe and like the future is so uncertain, and a cooking class can serve as a vehicle for calm and togetherness. It’s the type of activity or ritual that can help create a sense of normalcy during a time that feels anything but normal.”

Jennifer Wolcott is a freelance writer living in Portland. She writes stories on food and travel, art and design. She is always looking to hone her culinary skills, and she’s taken cooking classes in various locales from Maine to Mexico, but she’s learned some of her best recipes from her mother-in-law in France.

Chef Amy Kayne leads a cooking class at the new Maker’s Galley on Commercial Street, a combination gift shop, restaurant and class space. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Salmon Tacos with Avocado Crema, Pepitas and Cabbage Slaw

Amy Kayne from 2gether We Cook made this recipe at The Maker’s Galley for the first class in the space’s Winter Cooking Series. Kayne uses spices from Portland-based Skordo. 

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Serves 6
Prep/cook time: 30 minutes

FOR THE SALMON:
2 lbs. salmon fillet
½ teaspoon adobo seasoning
1 teaspoon chili lime salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon coriander
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper

FOR THE SLAW:
1 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 teaspoon chili lime salt
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 red cabbage, thinly sliced
Salt to taste
½ jalapeno, finely chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped, including stems, minus 1/4 cup chopped which you will need for the Avocado Crema
Zest and juice of 1 lime, about 3 tablespoons juice

FOR THE AVOCADO CREMA:
2 ripe avocados
Juice of 1 Meyer lemon
¼ cup reserved chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons avocado oil
½ jalapeno, finely chopped
Salt to taste
12-16 corn or flour tortillas, to serve
Scallions or Fresno chilis, chopped (optional), to serve

Heat the oven to 425 degrees.  To start the slaw, mix together the pepitas, chili lime salt and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small bowl. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 7 minutes until toasted, watching carefully to be sure they don’t burn, then set aside.

Meanwhile, place the salmon on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper and season it with the adobo seasoning, chili lime salt, chili powder, coriander and cayenne. Bake in the preheated oven for 18 minutes. At this point, the fish will just flake apart.

While the salmon cooks, finish the slaw. Mix together the cabbage, salt and remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil. Massage the cabbage for a minute to help tenderize it. Add the seasoned, reserved pepitas, the  jalapeños, cilantro and lime juice.

For the avocado crema, blend all crema ingredients in a food processor for at least 3 minutes, or until the mixture is super creamy. Taste and add more salt or Meyer lemon if needed.

When everything is ready, set up your taco bar and get ready to play with your food. Place a tortilla on your plate then top with salmon, crema and then the slaw. For added heat, sprinkle with chopped scallions or Fresno chilis.

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