Step Aside Food Network—Natural Foods Co-Op Has It Covered
By Angela Knight
Frank Sinatra is singing “The Way You Look Tonight.” At least I think it’s Sinatra. The music has a decidedly Italian vibe, which makes sense because I’m here this evening to learn how to make an Italian dinner. What makes this meal Italian? It could be the dried oregano or fresh parsley in the veggie burgers. It could be the homemade basil buns, herb-and-rice-stuffed tomatoes or raspberry Italian sodas. Or it could be the instructor—Lucia Oliverio—as her parents are Italian immigrants. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For those who haven’t taken a class at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op, I’ll set the scene. The school is upstairs in a light-filled space that could double as a set for a cooking show. In front of the kitchen island, with large commercial stoves, are rows of tables holding bottles of cold water, along with cubed cheese and crunchy breadsticks. Monitors above project images of the
wooden cutting boards below, in preparation for the cooking demonstration to come.
For $5 you can purchase a glass of wine. Sip it while you read through the recipes and the shopping list. Imagine how you’ll spend the $5 coupon after class (no, you can’t use it to purchase another glass of wine). There’s a complimentary glass offered with your meal, so pace yourself. You haven’t started cooking yet.
The Co-Op opened its Cooking School about 15 years ago, offering pasta- and sushi-making classes and teaching knife skills. Instructors still teach the same “tried and true” classes, according to Julia Thomas, the co-op’s outreach manager, but have also added new ones. Vegan and Thai are popular. How about Indian, Caribbean or a gnocchi workshop? Take a French cooking class by longtime instructor Jill Simmons. Learn how to make soup this fall with Rick Mahan (chef-owner of The Waterboy and OneSpeed) or sharpen your knife skills with Mayumi Tavalero.
It’s difficult to judge the Cooking School’s impact on the community, but it fulfills a need and occupies a niche. “There are so many people who don’t know how to cook at all,” says Thomas. There’s another way to measure the school’s influence. It offers more classes than most food co-ops in the United States, according to Thomas. The only requirement for each class is that the ingredients come from the Co-Op.
Back in the hands-on Italian veggie burger class, we have divided into teams and tackled three of the four recipes. In my group there were experienced and novice cooks. We diced, measured, mixed, sautéed, and then formed and cooked the patties, while Oliverio supervised, answered questions, and kept everything and everyone moving. When the veggie burgers were done, we made raspberry syrup for the sodas. Staff whisked away dirty bowls and pans. While they plated our food in back, Oliverio demonstrated how to make the basil buns up front. The monitors sprang into action. Gliadin and glutenin “are curly in structure and don’t get along,” she says, so you have to kneed the dough. I’ll never look at dough the same way again. I may never purchase frozen veggie burgers again either.
Oliverio’s never had a class that was a food disaster. Recipes always work out. “I learned everything [about cooking] from my mother and grandmother,” she tells me later. At a young age, she cooked for her brother and herself while her parents worked. Her family owned a restaurant, but she wanted nothing to do with the food industry when she became an adult. Despite her early aversion, she eventually started her own catering business and she’s been teaching at the Co-Op since 2008, drawing inspiration from her Italian heritage, as well as her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes.
She likes talking about food science and what to eat for good health, perhaps because she believes that her diet (along with her faith) have helped her fight multiple sclerosis. She was diagnosed when she was 21. “My mother never cooked anything from a box or a can,” she says. Oliverio follows her example.
When I ask her why someone might want to attend a cooking class at the Co-Op she says, “I think most people come because they’re intrigued. There’s only so much you can get by watching the Food Network.” Soon she will be taking a trip to Italy with her dad. He’s in his 80s and has attended her class. Her mother and grandmother have as well. She’s hoping her aunts will show her some new recipes while she’s in Italy. “I like to learn from everybody,” she says.
Angela Knight can be reached at email@example.com