Cassoulet. Homemade sausages. Bao and other Asian dumplings. A year's worth of tomato sauce. Whether it's because of the labor involved, the economies of scale and bulk buying, or the enormous fun to be shared, some recipes and kitchen projects benefit heavily from a collective effort. This is why I love being a member of a cooking club.
What is a cooking club and how is it fun and helpful? Let me count the ways!
What Is a Cooking Club?
A cooking club is a group of people who gather together on a regular or semi-regular basis to take on a large cooking project or explore an unfamiliar cuisine. As mentioned, the benefits are usually to share labor and ingredients. Other reasons are that one person may have expertise in a certain area that she is willing to share with others, or perhaps the project asks for a very specific piece of equipment that very few people own, but someone in your group has.
But really, the main reason is that there's enormous fun to be had when a group of people gather together, roll up their collective sleeves, and get something delicious done.
I've been a member of a cooking club (unimaginatively called The Meat Club) for about two years now. We take on large, meat-centric projects like making sausage, terrines, and confits. My group consists of food professionals as well as enthusiastic home cooks, and is very loosely organized via a shared private Facebook page.
I love being a part of this group for many reasons. Besides being a lot of fun, I am always learning something from my fellow cooks: a new technique, a new source for ingredients, a short cut. I've even ended up making and loving something I previously thought I hated. Similarly, I've made things I would have never tried on my own or have even known was possible at home.
Advice for Starting Your Own Cooking Club
1. Know Who You Are
Establish an initial structure: Before starting your club, figure out a few ground rules. Will your club be members only? Is this rule strict or can an occasional non-member join by invitation? Do you want to meet regularly (say every third Saturday) or occasionally, as projects and ingredients arise? Do you want to take on a theme (meat-centric projects, a specific cuisine, preserving, etc.) or be more open? Do you want to be a mixed group as far as skills go or would you prefer to keep it strictly amateur (or pro)? Of course, your group will evolve and change over time, and that's just fine, but having some or all of these decisions figured out will save you a lot of initial scrambling around.
Be purposeful about your size and make-up: The number of people participating in an event and their collective skill level will influence how things go. My group is now too big for all of us to do every event, so we often cap them, usually based on refrigerator space and kitchen size. Our average gatherings are around eight people and our skill levels are mixed, with a tendency towards being very experienced/pro. That said, it's never a problem when a less experienced cook participates. We try to not rely too heavily on the pros unless it is very specific project that the pro knows something about. In which case, we make it really clear he or she is OK leading the session.
2. Basic Organization
How we create an event: There are many ways to organize your group. My group is semi-open (you need an invite but no one has ever been turned away) and pretty loosey-goosey. We use a private Facebook page to float ideas and share information: Someone will get a hankering for a project, which he will post on the page, often with a link to the recipe. The people who are interested start to chime in and soon the herding cats phase begins as we figure out a date, time, and a location. This phase can take a lot of patience and persistence, as it can easily devolve into a mass of conflicting dates and interests.
Our way is a little chaotic. What makes it work is that one or two people usually own the project from initial posting of idea to meet-up day. When this doesn't happen, the confusion of figuring out dates and ingredients can cause the event to fizzle from sheer overload. Some groups are more organized in that they meet regularly (once a month, every other month, etc.) on a specific date and at one location. But even then, there has to be someone to scale the recipe to make enough for the group, organize the shopping, and figure out equipment needs.
About two weeks before the event, we divvy up the shopping and equipment needs. Finally the day arrives when we gather, cook, and make a merry mess. Before we depart, the math wiz among us figures out the total cost of ingredients, we all chip in our share, and then head out the door, our arms filled with fragrant Thai sausage or quarts of lard.
Location is important: My group has no set meeting place, although we do often find ourselves in the same two or three kitchens, due to their size and equipment offerings. I've also heard that some groups will rent a professional kitchen for their club. The location can also move systematically from member to member, with the current host picking and organizing the project.
There are a few essential considerations for your host kitchen. Obviously, it needs to be big enough to hold your group and easy to get to, especially if you're in an urban setting. (No one wants to haul a pressure canner over three subway changes and a bus.) There should be plenty of open counter space, and a large refrigerator is helpful, too. It's also essential that the host feels very relaxed about having people use her stuff. There's always an element of chaos in group cooking and this can really push a neat freak's buttons, so self-assess your need for control and volunteer your kitchen accordingly.
3. Other Considerations
Learn how to scale up a recipe: Cooking in a group often means that a recipe will need to be scaled up so everyone has something to take home (or eat at the end of the session.) Scaling a recipe is not always as simple as multiplying the ingredients times a set number, especially if you are doing a baking project. If possible, have one of your more experienced people scale up the recipe or choose a recipe that's already scaled. (More on scaling here.)
Be aware of equipment: A scaled-up recipe can also can mean more stuff is needed, from sharp knives to KitchenAid mixers to measuring spoons. Our group is a hale and hearty bunch, willing and able to haul small appliances across town, but this might not be the case for your group, so choose your recipes accordingly. At the very least, each person should bring an apron and a sharp knife or two. It's also important to bring something to carry your delicious recipe home in: ziplock bags for sausages, tupperware, jars, etc.
Establish basic etiquette: Large group events can have their tense moments, as people have different styles of organizing and cooking. Our group gets along very well, even though we vary in this regard. We all have a strong sense of consideration for each other, which goes a long way. For example, if we need to bow out of a gathering, we do so as early as possible to give the group time to find a replacement, if needed. We try to be mindful of doing our part of the shopping and schlepping of equipment, and everyone has a good sense of pulling their fair share of work at the event. We are all dishwashers and onion choppers — no prima donna would make it in our group! We also self-break, peeling off now and then to sit down for a minute. Some of us need more of this than others, but it all works out.
It's also important to leave behind a spotlessly clean host kitchen. We often give a little extra of the final results to the host as a way to compensate for having the generosity and fortitude to open his kitchen to a hoard of people grinding 30 pounds of pork shoulder into sausages.
Have snacks! Another fun part of our group are the snacks. We don't over-organize this since most of the organizing energy goes into the recipe we are working on. People just bring whatever they want and it all works out. There are usually a few bottles of wine, someone's homemade pickles, a decent loaf of bread, some cheese or fruit — just enough to keep the blood sugar levels in a good place.
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There are many ways to organize your cooking group. You can invite professionals or experts in to teach the group a specific cuisine or technique, attend a class together at a local cooking school, cook your way through a specific cookbook, or explore a cookbook author's complete body of work. Some groups go on field trips to local farms or food destinations, or even plan trips abroad to immerse themselves in a great cuisine.
How about you? Are you in a cooking club? How does your club work?