Buongiorno. Since the Food & Wine article about Cook Here and Now came out in the Thanksgiving issue, people from all over the US have been sending me enthusiastic emails asking how to start Cook Here and Now events in their town like the ones I'm organizing in San Francisco. To which I say: Fantastico! I started Cook Here and Now as a group open to all, free of charge, with a copyrighted model that's easy to reproduce whether you're in Chicago or Asheville. Just ask, and I'll be happy to grant permission to start Cook Here and Now chapters that meet these basic chapter requirements:
- The events must be free and open to everyone. I created this group because I feel there's a need for a place for people passionate about food to meet, cook together, exchange practical tips and find new inspiration for daily meals at home, without the exchange of money. Once money changes hands, it alters the social dynamic - expectations change, and some people who really love the idea of cooking with local ingredients could be left out because of the cost. Cook Here and Now brings people from all backgrounds together into a single kitchen, and the feasts we've made together prove that memorable meals don't have to be expensive - pure passion and good company is all you need. If you have to rent a community kitchen, you can divide the cost among the participants.
- Cook Here and Now is not a potluck nor a restaurant: We cook, eat, and clean together. We don't show up with finished dishes, though occasionally people prep ingredients for lengthy recipes at home. This is an opportunity to watch other people cook, lend a hand to your fellow cooks, and trade tips and stories about favorite dishes and new discoveries. Cooking and cleaning together also helps break the ice among repeat participants and newcomers who respond to the open call for participation.
- All Cook Here and Now events must be organized via Cook Here and Now blogs. I'll build you a localized CH&N blog for your chapter (see CH&N Austin for example) where you can post and organize your local events. Posting events online ensures that membership remains open to newcomers, and helps inspire cooks around the world to come up with their own event and recipe ideas. Designate from 1 to 5 authors for your chapter's blog, then contact me to get it started. There's no charge to the group to build a chapter blog, but I do ask for a $14/month contribution to cover basic hosting costs.
- The focus of the events must be on seasonal and local ingredients and sustainable meats and seafood. This leaves a lot of room for creative themes, like our February Lunar New year meal featuring dumplings stuffed with free-range pork and seasonal bok choy, or a winter squash event to explore the soup, salad, main, and dessert possibilities of those versatile vegetables. Whatever theme you choose, it should be tied to your local, seasonal harvest. I'm sure you already know the foodie credo: Cooking with local, seasonal, sustainable ingredients is often cheaper, tastier and more nutritious than stuff flown in from far away and kept in cold storage forever. Plus, it connects you with wonderful local farmers and producers, and gives them incentive to keep growing the good stuff while protecting your natural environment. What's not to like?
- Cook Here and Now is a non-competitive group. There are no winners, prizes, or Iron Chef-like contests - so you should feel free to try out a new ingredient, or stay true to your grandmother's classic pie recipe. All kinds of cooking are welcome, and trust me: when your dish disappears and fellow cooks clamor for the recipe, that's the ultimate reward.
- Be prepared to share. Please be generous with your company and expertise at the events and post your recipes in the Forums, so we can all benefit from your presence and bring the inspiration home.
- The most important part of the experience is the interaction we have with others, not the food. This is what I believe is most important, and why I chose to do this without charge on such a regular basis. You might already be able to cook a fabulous meal all by yourself, or at least order one at a restaurant - but how often do you get to cook and share an adventurous multi-course meal with so many people as passionate as you are about food? Occasionally someone might make a dish you don't like, or doesn't bring enough of a good thing. No big deal. Try something else, and enjoy yourself.
Got that covered? Great -- contact me and let me know you're ready to set up a Forum for your Cook Here and Now chapter. Meanwhile, if you want to start brainstorming your first Cook Here and Now event, here are a few pointers:
- Find a kitchen to host. Sometimes community centers or churches have them available. If you're doing it at home, start very small: 6-8 people. If you have a large range with 6-8 burners, you can host 18-20 people.
- Post the call-for-participation in your City blog. Close the post once you have the people you want (plus 20% to account for cancellations). Start a waiting list post. Send the details just to the participants.
- Each person contributes a dish or beverages - no guest, spouse, or hot date shows up empty-handed! - and everyone helps with clean-up.
- Keep a few spots open for newcomers. New faces and fresh ideas always make for a more exciting event.
- Ask people to put on name tags. It makes mingling easier for newcomers and saves face for regulars who forget names.
- Get cooks to label their dishes with key ingredients and their names, so that they can be showered with praise for their dishes and answer questions about how they did it. If a dish has meat or nuts in it, you might want to mention it on the label so that vegetarians and people with nut allergies don't get any unpleasant surprises.
- Have people label the local wines and spirits they bring with the name and location of the vintner/maker and a description of the flavor. Drinks should be chosen as thoughtfully as the food ingredients, and pair well with the featured local ingredients.
- For our events, we gather at 2:30, and appetizers go out at 3:30, while we're still cooking the main courses, sides and salads. At 5:30 we sit down for dinner. No snacking - this is a proper sit-down dinner. Once the main courses are done, we rotate seating for dessert, so we can enjoy the company of a new set of cooks. Our San Francisco events are usually 35-45 people, and we like to mix it up at tables of 6-8.
Ecco, there you go - I hope that sparks ideas to get your local chapter started. Please post comments or email me if you'd like more input, and grazie for sharing your excitement. You're making me hungry just thinking about all those upcoming seasonal dinners, from Austin to Miami ...