Never let it be said that Toronto does not have its fair share of cooking classes. Any night of the week, the culinarily curious can bake, sauté, flambé or roast at courses that range from “watch and eat” style to professional certifications. But for anyone with an interest in local, sustainable cuisine, they should stop looking at options once they hit Culinarium’s Lovin’ Livin’ Local Cooking School.
For those not in the know, Culinarium (705 Mount Pleasant Road) is a delightful little food shop where all the products are from Ontario. They carry everything from produce and meat to artisanal cheese, Ontario-grown peanuts, jams and preserves, herbal teas and more. Owner Kathleen Mackintosh has curated a wonderfully comprehensive selection of Ontario grown and produced goods and the shop even offers CSAs and meat share programs.
The space itself is designed to look like a country kitchen with shelves full of goodies and a food prep area in the back where small groups can get hands-on experience cooking up local food under the guidance of chefs and experts. With a little bit of rearranging, the shop transforms into space for a class of 8 to 12 people, or a tasting event for up to 16. Culinarium can also accommodate a private tasting – taking over the whole shop – for up to 24 people.
“When we first started to offer cooking classes,” Mackintosh tells me, “they were the same old, same old: pizza class, weeknight dinners, soups, bread making, nothing really unique. Then we realized that our passions and knowledge centre around local food, not just cooking it, but the whole food system.”
“We have first hand knowledge of about how animals are raised and slaughtered, the seasons of vegetables, methods of preserving the harvest. We’ve got a direct line of communication with Ontario Farmers, which is unique. When we cook dinner we don’t say ‘what do I feel like tonight,’ we ask ourselves what is available locally and what can I create with it? So that is the basis for our classes, what is available locally? When? And what exciting things can we do with it to make the most it?”
The classes are arranged in a series based on type of food. For instance, the meat series features a different animal (chicken, beef, pork) for each class. The preserving classes range from jams and jellies to pickles and tomato sauce. There are also veggie and grain series’, and a cheese and beverage tasting series.
Mackintosh, with a background in food consulting, event planning and recipe-editing, is clearly enthusiastic and excited about what her classes have to offer compared to similar programs out there. “Our beef 101 class [will] teach you everything you want to know about beef: how it’s raised, different breeds, how to cook all the less familiar cuts, etc. And our preserving classes where we’ll teach you to make your own pectin, and safely preserve the fruits of the season. We know folks are nervous about canning and preserving but we’ll help you get over that by doing it together so that you can leave with confidence and the drive to tackle that bushel of strawberries or tomatoes all on your own. Our harvest classes focus on the produce of the season, so you can make the most of those winter roots, or garden full of zucchini. And our cheese and bevvy classes – well, they are just for fun! Who doesn’t love cheese and scotch or cheese and beer? It’s also a great way for me to share with folks my great love of Ontario cheese. I’m so proud of the Ontario Artisan cheesemakers and the progress they’ve made in the last 10 years.”
Mackintosh also stresses that participants do not need to be skilled cooks to take part. “Our programs are relaxed and fun, it’s rather like cooking in a friend’s kitchen, its just that there are a few folks there that you may not know…yet!” she says. “In our hands-on classes we break up into teams and each person is given specific portions of a recipe to work on. Our staff assist where needed, as well as other students.”
“Because our classes are so small and intimate, everyone pitches in by sharing their labour and their knowledge of cooking – whatever level that might be. Since we all cook together it’s a great opportunity for our instructors to have some one-on-one with each student and tailor the learning to the individual.”
Classes are broken down into three components – an informational section where students learn about the products they’re working with, the hand-on cooking, and then a 3-course meal where everyone enjoys the fruits of their labour. “We all gather around a large communal table and dine together on the delightful goodies we’ve made in the class. I love this part, it’s so neat to watch folks who did not know each other before the class find common bonds and points of interest over a meal. I’ve always loved how food connects us all, no matter what our background, all celebrations and gatherings revolve around food.”
While the all-Ontario angle definitely makes the Lovin’ Livin’ Local classes stand out in terms of what is offered to students, Mackintosh admits that the unique content of her classes can present a few challenges. “Logistically, local food procurement is difficult,” she explains, “but since we have to tackle that on a day-to-day basis to fill the shelves of our retail space we’ve just learned to be flexible.”
“Some of our challenges are simply not avoidable. Mother Nature will do as she pleases. When our peach farmer calls to say there was a hail storm and he lost most of his ripe crop, and we have peach jam class that week, then we’ll make apricot jam and tell you how to modify it for peach jam. Flexibility is key.”
“Expense can be an issue too,” Mackintosh says. “Our ingredients are farm fresh, local and naturally raised so when you come to a class not only are you getting an evening of great education but also a meal of good, clean, wholesome, locally produced food – and there is a cost to good food. We can’t skimp on ingredients, we can’t skip on talent, and our classes are small so our profit on classes is very small, but we do it because we love to share food and knowledge and we’re setting out to change the way folks eat.”
“Our long term goal is for people to think of Ontario first when they think of feeding themselves and their families.” And for that, an Ontario-specific cooking class is the ideal place to start.
Culinarium’s Lovin’ Livin’ Local Cooking School schedule is available on their website and runs from now until late autumn. Courses may be booked online or by phone. The space is also available for private classes or tasting events.
Image: Lauren Simmons for TasteTO