Online cooking classes connected us with strangers during isolation, but their continuing popularity shows the virtual chef hasn't flamed out just yet.
If lockdown gave us anything, it brought us closer to our kitchens. As restaurants shuttered, many of us were suddenly cooking three meals a day at home, with the never-ending stack of dishes to prove it. We became slaves to our sourdough starters; we jumped eagerly into bucket-list cooking projects we'd previously never had time for; we roped kids into helping us in the name of "home-schooling"; some adults even learnt to cook for the first time.
Surprisingly, learning to cook in lockdown couldn't have been easier. Zoom and other online videoconferencing tools brought everyone together despite the government-mandated restrictions keeping us apart. Cooking schools had to pivot to online classes just to keep business going, but now that things are beginning to return to normal across much of Australia, the virtual lessons show no sign of slowing down.
In June, the pinnacle of French culinary schools, Le Cordon Bleu, announced its Australian institute would release a set of 13 new cooking courses, all to be delivered entirely online. "With Australia's hospitality sector being hit so hard by COVID-19, we knew we had to do something to help the industry, its people and its future," says Le Cordon Bleu's executive dean, Alan Bowen-James. The accredited certificates, including an undergraduate in gastronomy or a graduate in hospitality leadership, are aimed at those looking to upskill, but for anyone with a love of food, it's an option that's easy to commit to.
What makes cooking on screen so popular? Siobhan Boyle, chief executive officer of Jamie Oliver's Australian-based cooking institute, Jamie's Ministry of Food, says access makes it appealing. "[Online] we're able to reach more people, in more areas across Australia and the world.
"With our trainers teaching from all over the country, we can be more flexible with class times and keep classes affordable."
Roberta Muir, general manager of Sydney Seafood School, which launched its SSS@Home online classes during the height of the pandemic, agrees: "There are people who have been to SSS classes over the years who now find themselves in different circumstances that make [attending] difficult – some have young children or are working longer hours, some are now elderly and don't like to go out much," says Muir. "We've also reached geographically remote guests."
Angie Chong, of the Humble Dumpling in Melbourne, says she's always been motivated by the sense of bringing people together through food when teaching. "Of course, the dumplings are there at the end of the day but the intimacy of the [Zoom] experience, of sharing food and making it together, is the surprise for everyone, including myself."
So how does the online cooking class compare to the real thing, and does it have a place in life post-pandemic? We take a first-hand, pixelated look.
Making Osaka-style okonomiyaki at home. Photo: iStock
Launched in 2016, Airbnb's Experiences connect tourists with local-led activities that immerse travellers in a destination's traditions, culture and, of course, food. But with the international travel industry paused indefinitely, the web-based booking platform migrated many of its in-person experiences online, giving hosts free Zoom memberships to keep their businesses running.
Their cooking classes adapted easily online, and have become so popular that Airbnb also launched virtual classes with celebrity chefs just last week. Now you can make egg tarts with a home cook in Hong Kong and tacos with a host in Mexico, as well as chicken donabe with David Chang or Michelin-worthy food with Rishi Naleendra, all from your own kitchen.
I chose the okonomiyaki class, after falling hard for the fat, sizzling savoury pancake on a trip to its Japanese home, Osaka. Airbnb's class is hosted by Keiko, who normally runs it from her language centre and cafe in the city's Shinsaibashi district.
Keiko sends out a list of ingredients when you book, most of which are already in my pantry. We're also asked to make an okonomiyaki sauce before class using Worcestershire sauce, tomato sauce and sugar. When Keiko finds out I'm from Sydney, she proudly shows me her tube of Vegemite and suggests adding a teaspoon for a salty umami boost.
Joining the class is Colleen from Connecticut and Chelsea from London, each of us cooking our breakfast, lunch or dinner in different timezones.
Keiko explains that okonomi means "as you like" in Japanese, so your ingredients are limited only by your creativity. Sausages, tuna, cheese or even avocado – anything goes.
We mix chopped cabbage and bacon into a simple batter, and pour a few ladles on a low-heat frypan. Keiko has set up two cameras, one directed at her face, and one with a bird's-eye-view of her pan so we can watch her make the all-important flip.
Without two spatulas, my flip is more belly-flop, but the pancake somehow lands intact and perfectly golden. We top it with mayo (Kewpie, naturally), the okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes and nori. It's rich, saucy, and brings me right back to feasting along Dotonbori.
The autonomy of the online class makes it more achievable – buying my own ingredients and doing every step myself in my own kitchen brings the recipe down to a total beginner's level – something I know I can make again. But it's the quick connection to places far away that makes it memorable. Next time I'll invite my mum, who is in Adelaide and I haven't seen since the borders closed. It's just like FaceTime, only with lifelong lessons and good food at the end.
Keiko's okonomiyaki class $28 a person; airbnb.com.au/s/experiences/online
Ingredients for A tavola! Cooking School's online gnocchi-making class. Photo: Supplied
A tavola! Cooking School at Pizzini Wines
When Pizzini Wines co-founder Katrina Pizzini (pictured) began running cooking classes in 2010, the idea was to lure tourists to Victoria's King Valley with the promise of good food and wine.
But when COVID-19 struck, she realised if people couldn't come to the valley, she'd take the valley to the people.
She set about packaging regional ingredients, her family's wines, recipes and decades worth of cooking experience into boxes and posting them around the country.
Unboxed, the contents provide the makings of a 90-minute potato gnocchi masterclass. Just add Zoom link.
A few days before the class, Pizzini emails participants photographs of her bench set-up, an equipment list and preparation instructions ("don't peel the potatoes; put them in a saucepan and put enough water to go halfway up the spuds") so when computer screens light up, everyone's ready to roll.
With laptop cameras angled towards benches, Pizzini alternately demonstrates and supervises gnocchi mixing and rolling techniques.
When combining the parmesan, eggs and flour to the still-hot potato flesh, fold gently from beneath until it's just mixed, Pizzini advises. Too much flour and rough handling create tough gnocchi.
Once mixed, Pizzini demonstrates the exaggerated rolling and flicking action needed to form the dough into thin sausages, then smaller pellets. Work quickly, she instructs. Otherwise the dough will become sticky and hard to handle.
It's trickier than Pizzini makes it look but soon, we've assembled trays of surprisingly impressive-looking gnocchi and have pans of napoletana sauce, brown butter and salted water simmering on the stovetop.
Don't walk away from the stove while the gnocchi are cooking, she says. They don't take long, and if they overcook, they'll absorb too much water, become transparent around the edges and fall apart.
A few minutes later, we're sitting down to bowls of cloud-like gnocchi bathed in brown butter fragrant with sage and garlic, and another in glossy napoletana delicately scented with bay leaves, smugly toasting our success with a glass of the Pizzini family's arneis.
Every class has been a learning experience, both for participants and Pizzini herself, she says. She's effectively being invited into students' kitchens – an uncomfortable experience for some. But being able to share a taste of the King Valley with a wider audience means the online classes are here to stay.
"Once the restrictions are lifted, people say they will still be wanting these classes so they can connect with family and friends interstate."
A tavola! Cooking School's gnocchi class, $165 a class, including ingredients, equipment and two bottles of Pizzini wine. pizzini.com.au/pages/cooking-school
More cooking classes to try in your own kitchen
BakeSchool by Anneka Manning
Cookbook author, food editor and baking teacher Anneka Manning (pictured right) teaches everything from gluten-free baking to the science behind the recipes in her classes based in her Sydney studio. During COVID-19 her BakeClub went online with a 14-day virtual course where participants learn the basics of baking from their own home. Classes are self-guided, so you can go at your own pace at times that suit you.
14-day e-course $99; bakeclub.com.au
Itsy Bitsy Chef
Melbourne-based trained chef Deanne Bogusz usually aims for her kids' cooking classes to be as hands-on as possible, though it became impossible when the pandemic hit and classes went online. Her term three weekly program is pre-recorded and teaches everything from chopping skills to full recipes, while private classes and birthday party lessons are streamed live with step-by-step guidance from Deanne.
$25 a class, parties from $150 for 10 kids; itsybitsychef.com.au
Jamie's Ministry of Food
Aiming to change Australia's unhealthy eating habits by teaching how to cook fresh, healthy meals on a budget, The Good Foundation partners with Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food to offer these vital life skills at venues across the country. During the pandemic, the not-for-profit put their five-session course online, with professional food trainers teaching knife skills, recipes and batch cooking techniques to beginner cooks via live stream.
$24.95 concession/$49.95 standard for five-week course; ages 12 and above; jamiesministryoffood.com.au
Le Cordon Bleu
The renowned French culinary institute has just announced the launch of 13 new undergraduate and graduate certificates all available online. From learning about business and leadership to food merchandising and event management, these courses give hospitality workers extra skills during an uncertain time in their industry. Big incentive to book now: courses started in 2020 are 50 per cent off.
If you're persuaded by celebrity clout, a monthly subscription gives you access to the master chefs: French pastry fundamentals taught by Dominique Ansel, restaurant-worthy recipes with Gordon Ramsay (minus the expletives), Massimo Bottura teaching modern Italian. These are pre-recorded so lack the question and answer style you get with a live streaming teacher, but mean you can learn at your own pace.
$24 a month for unlimited access; masterclass.com.
National Wine Centre of Australia
This Adelaide-based centre for Australian wine has taught hands-on vino appreciation for decades, but 2020 saw the launch of NWC at Home – virtual tastings that work through the A-Z of Australian wine regions. Each session features six wines from six wineries, and samples are delivered to your door before class starts.
$56 a single/$86 a couple, including wine samples; nationalwinecentre.com.au
You can't go to Italy anytime soon, but this adorable website brings home-style Italian cooking to your own kitchen. Register for two-hour virtual live cooking experiences with grandmothers from around Italy and learn to make handmade pasta with 84-year-old Nonna Nerina and her family from a village outside Rome, or Emelian tortellini with Nonna Pia.
$100 a class; nonnalive.com
Sydney Seafood School
New South Wales residents can get a seafood dinner taught by some of Sydney's best chefs as the Sydney Fish Market's cooking school went online in May. Pre-recorded classes are sent to participants on Fridays, with fresh seafood recipe kits delivered or available to pick up at select Harris Farm stores around the state (Orange, Bowral and Newcastle included). Past classes have seen the likes of Giovanni Pilu teach fresh malloreddus pasta with clams, bottarga and zucchini flowers; a New Orleans-style spicy blackened fish with oyster po'boys; and Alessandro Pavoni (pictured) teaching seafood risotto.
$52.50 including recipe ingredients for two people, pick-up free or delivery from $19; sydneyfishmarket.com.au
The Humble Dumpling
Learn to roll, fill, fold and pleat Chinese dumplings with second-generation cooking teacher Angie Chong. Normally she hosts groups of up to eight in her home kitchen but since the pandemic struck, she's been sharing her heritage with people around the country via Zoom. "Dumplings are the perfect medium for bringing people together," says the Melbourne-based teacher. "People love dumplings but it's also very simple food." At the end of the two-hour class, participants briefly sit down together, while apart, to savour their handiwork.
Gentle handling, minimal flour and working quickly are the keys to soft gnocchi. Katrina Pizzini, from A tavola! Cooking School, suggests having a potato ricer and a gnocchi paddle on hand for shaping the gnocchi and a slotted spoon (or spider) for scooping them out of the boiling water.
- 600g pontiac, desiree or Dutch cream potatoes, washed thoroughly and skin left on
- 2 heaped tbsp grated parmesan
- 2 small eggs
- 2 level tsp flaky salt, crushed
- 150g plain flour
- extra 65g flour for rolling the gnocchi
Butter, garlic and sage sauce
- 100g butter
- 2 cloves garlic, skin on, smashed a bit
- 10 leaves fresh sage
- 100g grated grana padano or parmesan
- Place the potatoes in a pan and add 1 cup of water or enough water to come halfway up the potatoes. With the lid on, bring to the boil then immediately turn to simmer. Cook the potatoes until a sharp knife can easily be inserted into the potato, this will take 30-40 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes.
- Drain the potatoes. If you are not using them immediately, return them to the pan and cover with a tea towel. This will absorb the steam and keep the potatoes nice and dry. As soon as the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel off the skin (you may be able to do this just using your fingers) and pass them through a potato ricer into a large bowl. The potato ricer incorporates air into the mixture and makes the gnocchi lighter.
- With a wooden spoon, gently but thoroughly mix the parmesan, salt and egg into the potato. Fold 150g of flour into the mixture at once, using a spoon, then complete the folding by hand, using an upward motion, rather than pressing down. As soon as the flour is totally incorporated and the mixture comes to a ball, stop folding.
- Lightly flour the bench, pick up a handful of gnocchi dough and shape it into a small log with your fingers. Place this log onto the bench and firmly roll it by hand into a thin sausage. Then with a sharp, flat-bladed knife cut 1.5cm pieces off, flicking them through the flour as you cut. Roll over a gnocchi paddle to create grooves (these will help catch the sauce) and place the gnocchi onto a lightly floured tray. Continue until mixture is finished. Don't pile the gnocchi on the tray, as they will stick together.
- While you're shaping the gnocchi, heat a stockpot of lightly salted water to boiling and add about 2 cups of the gnocchi. They will sink to the bottom of the pan. When they rise to the surface, cook for a further 30 seconds then remove with a slotted spoon (or spider) and place in a serving bowl. Continue until all the gnocchi are cooked.
- For the butter, garlic and sage sauce, place a heavy-base pan on low heat for a few minutes. Melt the butter and add the garlic. Cook the garlic on gentle heat for about 10 minutes, until the butter begins to separate and brown. Turn the heat to medium and add the sage. Cook the leaves until crisp, being careful to not burn the butter. Pour the sauce over the cooked gnocchi and stir gently. To serve, sprinkled with grated cheese.