Sometimes, there are projects that sound almost too good to be true. This could be the case with the newly launched The Cook’s Cooking School, located in picturesque Bowral in NSW’s Southern Highlands. Except this extraordinary cooking school is real.
Run by Anna Phillips – she has the title of consultant and in-house cook – it is a community cooking school that will support free healthy cooking clases for people in need.
All profits from the school will benefit Your Angel’s charitable community programs. Based in Bowral, Your Angel is a not-for profit that supports people with different physical and intellectual abilities through a range of practical programs, including cooking classes.
At the new cooking school, Phillips aims to provide classes in what she calls “inspirational home cooking”.
She loves the connection with Your Angel, which also uses food and cooking classes as part of their work with young people living with disabilities.
Believing that the demand for high-profile celebrity chefs is waning, Phillips says she wants to bring “cooks back into cooking schools” with the program.
The first classes, on Thursday October 5 and Friday October 6, feature mother and daughter duo Dimitra Alfred and Martha Stais, demonstrating some traditional Greek dishes, including spanakopita (spinach pie) and almond shortbreads.
Australian born, but of Greek heritage, Dimitra and her mother Martha have been spending every Friday together for the last seven years, cooking, chatting and generally catching up on the week’s news.
“We're either shopping for food, we're cooking together, or we're eating,” says Dimitra, laughing.
This will be the first time they have taught a class together.
Traditionally, Greeks eat vegetarian food on Fridays, says Dimitra, so they often cook plant-based foods when they get together, which will be reflected in the recipes chosen for the class at the cooking school.
“It's kind of a nice way to vary your diet,” says Dimitra. “We usually cook legumes or lentils or something like that on a Friday. Whenever I visit mum on Friday, there's always a pot on the stove, either the pressure cooker or the pot, and it's got chickpeas or lentils soaking.”
Dimitra is a formally trained cook, while Martha is self-taught, so they consider the class to be a great opportunity to showcase their combined skills.
They have spent the last few weeks documenting all the recipes they plan to demonstrate during the class, measuring ingredients, clarifying the methods – because most of them are in Martha’s head, rather than actually written down.
“Mum learned to cook by watching her mother, by learning through trial and error,” says Dimitra. “It's more of an intuitive approach, whereas I've gone and studied cookery in an official way. It's kind of like the two worlds are meeting now.”
“I have over the years taken notes here and there, because I can see the value. The food is kind of integral to our culture. I mean we are both Australian-born, but with our Greek heritage, food is just so intertwined with it all and the idea of family and sharing a meal.
“Every time we go to a party or we entertain, out comes the spinach pie... and you can see there's something in there. While it's baking it smells wonderful, and it's just a lovely way to bring people together and I think I’ve seen the value of that over the years.”
Dimitra says the challenge with Martha’s food is to honour the spontaneity of her cooking, while still recording it for people who don’t have the privilege of watching her work every week, as Dimitra does.
“It's like, why does she do certain things?" she says, “because I watch her do things such as shake the pan and I ask, ‘why do you do that?’, and she goes, ‘Well, because it makes the pastry crisp’ or whatever.”
“That's not in the books. I didn't learn that and yet Mum's learned that along the way. She gets the spinach pie out of the oven and she shakes it, then she knows it's done. I'm thinking it makes perfect sense.”
“Some of the things I do, I work them out myself,” adds Martha. “My mother did it that way, but I don't think they knew why they do it. Now we learn more, we learn why it works."
When not cooking with her mother, Dimitra works part time as the kitchen specialist in the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden at Stanmore Public School, in Sydney’s inner west.
“I'm the kitchen specialist,” she explains. “So whatever the kids harvest, I will teach them how to cook it. So I'm there three days a week, but prior to this, when I was working in food publishing, I held cooking classes sporadically here and there.
For her part, Martha enjoys cooking all different cuisines, especially Asian food. She is an avid fan of TV cooking shows and enjoys experimenting with different ingredients, even if her time with Dimitra is usually spent perfecting the traditional foods of their culture.
The kitchen is her happy place. “I like to cook, I cook every day,” she says, stressing the importance of having at least one “hand-cooked meal” a day. She lives with another of her daughters, but says it’s not necessarily about feeding others; it’s just the joy of cooking that keeps her going.
“I cook for myself,” she says simply.
Other classes will include Spanish Tapas, Mexican street food, an indulgent chocolate class led by Michelle Southan, the food director of taste magazine and, closer to Christmas, festive baking and gingerbread house classes.
To find out more about Your Angel visit their website.