What it Means to Learn to Cook: A Peek into the Istanbul Culinary Institute

During my recent trip to Turkey, I spent a day at the Istanbul Culinary Institute. At the outset, my intention was to share some stories and photographs with you, and encourage you to check it out the next time you're in Istanbul. Then yesterday, when I was thinking about why I started this website, something more meaningful came to my mind, and as I sorted through the photographs and the ideas I'd jotted down in my notebook that day, it became clear.

The most spirited images I had were the ones that showed how joyful this process is of learning to cook. The class was intimate, barely ten students, all women. There was laughter and focus. I even saw one little tear fall.

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The setting was familiar — I too went to culinary school — but as I looked deeper, I saw that the setting was one we have all experienced; it is the kitchen. The warm, fragrant place where we make the food that feeds us, and if we're lucky, someone occasionally shows us the best way to peel an apple or dredge a piece of meat.

What this place really evoked in me is not an urge to encourage you to sign up for a class there (though if you are in Istanbul you must at least have a meal in their restaurant), but rather, a desire to talk about how we learn to cook.

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I bristle when I hear the term "self-taught cook" because while I know not everyone has attended culinary school, and that this may in fact be an advantage, no one learns to cook in isolation. It's impossible. Even if you cook for yourself only, you interact with your community; your grocer, farmer, the neighbor who smells it happening, the co-worker who watches you eat the leftovers.

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When I think of all the places we learn to cook, the common denominator is community. Often it starts in our childhood kitchens. Grandparents are sometimes there, too. Then we make our way into adulthood figuring out how to fill our growing bellies. Then maybe we wise-up and start looking at the quality and quantity of our food. Maybe we take a class or two, start reading more cookbooks in bed, browsing online resources and subscribing to magazines.

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The heart of the action happens when we cook with others, and that's the spirit I felt during my day at this school. It wasn't the terminology or the chef's coats that made it a learning experience. It was the way the women shared it together.

For those of you learning to cook at home, know that when you have someone to dinner, and you talk about the food, the learning grows exponentially. That's what happens when we gather together to eat.

I should note that I was especially excited to visit the Istanbul Culinary Institute because the intro came through one of our writers, Leela Cyd Ross (who wrote about her time at the Institute in the post she wrote as a try-out for the job) and because it promised to be a very local, tourist-free experience. And it was. So if you do find yourself in Istanbul, I encourage you to take one of their one-day classes, or at least have a meal in their restaurant.

(Images: Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan)

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Sara Kate is the founding editor of The Kitchn. She co-founded the site in 2005 and has since written three cookbooks. She is most recently the co-author of The Kitchn Cookbook, to be published in October 2014 by Clarkson Potter.

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