With international travel on hold, cooking together is proving a powerful way to connect people and countries around the world.
“I felt like I was sitting at a friend's kitchen table, and we were about to share a meal and cook together. And it really did fill my soul and my senses,” says Carmel Barrett, a Queensland-based freelance journalist.
She’s talking about a cooking class she and one of her daughters, who lives in Innsbruck in Austria, did with a family in Morocco – not in person, but online. The class, conducted by a Moroccan husband and wife based in Marrakech, shares a family recipe for a chicken tagine. It’s clear when we chat to Barrett that the experience was so much more than she had expected.
“It's very personal, sitting at somebody's kitchen table or their kitchen bench. And that's the experience that you get from the class, which was unexpectedly beautiful. I didn't expect to feel like that. But I did,” says Barrett, who’s also taken an online Portuguese custard tart class with her other daughter, who lives several hours away from her in Queensland.
“It was a very personal experience, and I felt very honoured to be in their home, and to have them teach me part of their culture and something as personal as cooking," Barrett says of her online classes.
She's is one of the thousands of people around the world who’ve been embracing virtual cooking and drinks lessons during coronavirus restrictions, making connections to distant people and places.
There are classes available in everything from vegan Turkish cooking and Mexican sweets to sake tasting, Scottish oatcakes and advanced artisan pizza making. You can discover the secrets of Vietnamese egg coffee or sign on for a cabaret-style cocktail class by the fab drag queens of @DragTaste. Some are offered by established companies, others by cooks and groups going virtual for the first time (Eventbrite is a good place to hunt for those).
The pandemic has seen a huge surge in interest for The Chef & The Dish, a company that’s been offering online cooking classes since 2016. Today, the company has Skype-based classes featuring chefs and teachers from Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, Vietnam, the US, Canada and a new addition, Peru.
Ana Lopez Marin, who also runs a cooking school in Seville, has been with The Chef & The Dish from the start. She currently teaches online classes in paella and tapas.
“In person, they are personal because you are with people and you can see right into the eyes… but in the online cooking classes, it is more personal in the sense that they are showing you their personal space, their homes, and they open the doors of their homes to you … and at the end of the class, you are like friends. It's so lovely,” she says when we chat late one evening Sydney time, and morning in Seville, where Marin is getting ready to teach another class.
Teaching online has been a way to connect with many different people, she says.
“You see the way others are living, it enriches you a lot. It’s one of the things I love from cooking. When you are… sharing recipes together, it’s not only eating, it’s something else, it’s the connection you have, the relationship, the friendship. You can transmit your food to another, and on the other hand, you engage with how the others live, their way of life, and that makes you more rich than money can pay for. It’s priceless.”
Marin has had students from all over the world joining her online, but we discover another, different connection, too: before the coronavirus restrictions, she was visited by Ainsley Harriott during the filming for Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook, which will be screening on SBS Food in August. “I was so proud that Ainsley came to my cooking workshop,” she says. Later, I discover that another The Chef & The Dish host, chef Asli Mutlu (who teaches that vegan Turkish class we mentioned earlier), appeared in another SBS Food series, Shane Delia's Spice Journey Turkey.
Jenn Nicken launched The Chef & The Dish four years ago. After working for Apple for many years, she decided she wanted to make a career in food. “I ended up travelling around the world for three months on my own, and I went to Thailand and Italy and Indonesia and all these beautiful places and immersing myself in food, and it was such a beautiful experience where I learned how to cook with locals and chefs.
"All you need is a computer and the Internet, and that's kind of the beauty of it, you can be anywhere and connect with anybody."
“When I was travelling I felt so fortunate that I had the chance to taste all of these amazing dishes in the places where they were invented. And that was really the inspiration behind The Chef & The Dish … I wanted to give people a chance to cook together and get to meet each other as I had the opportunity to do. I knew not everyone could get to the places that they wanted to, and so I used my background in entertainment and technology to bring them all together through cooking.
“All you need is a computer and the Internet, and that's kind of the beauty of it, you can be anywhere and connect with anybody.
“Some of the stories that come out of our classes are just so beautiful. The way that our classes work, you really form a connection. And it's not just the client forming a connection to the chef. The chef is very much connecting to the other person's culture as well, and so it's a beautiful exchange.”
“With Online Experiences we wanted to provide an opportunity for hosts to connect with our global community in the only way possible at the time - online. Not only has Online Experiences become an economic empowerment platform for so many during this pandemic, it’s been a fantastic way for hosts to share their passions and connect with people from all over the world from the safety of their homes," says Parin Mehta, Director of Airbnb Experiences Asia Pacific.
Online experiences are available in languages including French, German, Japanese, Italian, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Indonesian, Korean, Thai, Greek and Polish. More than a third of the online classes are food or drink related. Classes range from pasta making with an Italian nonna and her granddaughter to empanadas and arepas from Colombia, making homemade medicinal sodas with a farmer from Costa Rica and vegan baking from Slovenia. Teachers range from experienced cooking school teachers to Airbnb hosts who normally offer accommodation and have turned to offering classes since the start of coronavirus restrictions.
“We launched Online Experiences with just 50 listings, and since then thousands of new hosts who were no longer able to operate face-to-face in the traditional sense have joined the platform - from chefs to restaurant owners, wine connoisseurs, dancers, bartenders, and even Olympic athletes,” Mehta says.
“Like many others, COVID-19 has caused significant hardship for the everyday people who rely on sharing their passion and expertise to make additional income. With people largely restricted to their homes and unable to travel, we launched Online Experiences as a way to give our existing hosts an opportunity to connect with guests online. We’re really proud to have been able to provide an immediate and positive impact for both existing and new hosts, some of whom have already earned over $20,000 since transitioning online.”
Graciela Montano, who teaches a Mexican Street Tacos class, tells us the online experience has been life-changing.
“When I was not able anymore to welcome our guests in the Cooking Studio, I knew I had to find a way to stay connected and share my passion with the world. This is when I started designing an experience that will reflect Mexican heritage and at the same time be universal so anyone wherever they are can create a taco with the ingredients they have in their own countries,” she says.
“It has been a wonderful experience to be able to connect families, friends and teams through food. Each connection has a very special meaning because of the challenging times we are living. I have been able to bring together families that are in different countries and for 1.5 hours I invite them to come to Mexico so we can cook and dine together, from grandmas sharing with their beloved ones, newlyweds creating new cooking rituals, to just friends that search for a way to stay connected and find a time to celebrate their friendship.
“I cannot tell you how much my life has changed since I started this online Mexican cooking Experience. I have cried tears of happiness with my guests, we have talked about life, about childhood food memories and future plans. I strongly believe that Airbnb Online Experiences have arrived to stay because even with social distancing the necessity to be together will remain. I am blessed to be part of this journey and I invite everyone to come to cook some delicious Mexican tacos with me.”
“This is really filling the soul with those things that you may be missing if you love travel,” says Carmel Barrett of her experiences with online cooking classes. Barrett, who says usually she’s more of a “packet cake maker” has also taken a pastel de nata - Portuguese custard tart - lesson that she found on Instagram. “Joanna from Porto, had me making my own puff pastry, which was just amazing.”
“With Brahim and Sana, we really got to have a fantastic conversation, not just about food in our own lives, but about other topics that we might have picked up if we'd been travelling. And Joana in Portugal was great sharing her life, too.
“This is a way for me to still travel, to still get those experiences that you get from travel, which is the food, the interaction with the local culture, having a chat with somebody. So this is really filling the soul with those things that you may be missing if you love travel.”
Nicken agrees. “We believe that the more you can share together, the more you bring the world closer.”
Prices for cooking classes vary greatly depending on the length of the class, the number of teachers and kitchen assistants involved, and the number of students. Find a wide range of online classes at Airbnb, The Chef & The Dish and Eventbrite (which also lists some free classes offered by local governments and social enterprises, such as this pickling & fermenting class).