Recently I had someone ask me when I felt comfortable teaching since I didn’t go to culinary school. It was an innocent question, not intended maliciously, but yet, the question perturbed me. The notion being that getting a formal education necessarily precedes the ability to teach a subject or that the completion of a degree somehow guarantees the legitimacy of your being able to teach something. Let me preface this with the fact that while I did not attend a formal culinary school, I have completed certification through the International Association of Culinary Professionals to be a Certified Culinary Professional and have been teaching for 8 years now. I have also run a successful restaurant for 8.5 years where people regularly enjoy my culinary delights despite my lack of “formal” education. So am I qualified to teach?? Yes. But that doesn’t guarantee that I’m a good teacher. Let me explain further.
The ability to cook and the knowledge of food doesn’t necessarily translate into the ability to teach others to cook and to explain to them why they are doing what they do. I have seen many people in demonstrations, cooking classes, etc who simply show a recipe but don’t tell people why they are doing what they do. In order to truly teach cooking classes, you have to be able to dissect a recipe, offer explanation of technique and empower your students to be able to go home and recreate those dishes by themselves without supervision. This takes a certain talent and ability you can learn but that is generally instinctual. First you have to be able to talk and cook at the same time. A feat in and of itself. I have a background in theater so I have no problem performing in front of crowds which gives me a leg up in this department. I am also an avid reader and consumer of anything food related and I particularly like to read books that are technical in nature, giving the chemistry, history and cultural significance of dishes which gives me a unique ability to talk about food from a holistic perspective.
Anyone who has ever taken one of my classes knows that I love to teach. I pride myself on being a good teacher. I am capable of working with both novice and experienced cooks and I consider it my duty to make both feel as though they are not only capable in the kitchen but that they are learning something new every time they take a class with me. I am very patient and I do not get phased easily when people ask me obscure questions. These are things that set me apart as a teacher. And I say this with complete humility. I will be the first one to point out my flaws. I know I’m a horrible driver. Very inept at riding a bike. Not particularly good with math. And I most certainly am not gifted in the fashion department. But teaching, I am confidently capable at and excel at.
There is also something school cannot teach you and that is passion. To be sure, I suspect all people who attend culinary school love food or they wouldn’t be there. That being said, all the best teachers I have ever had were passionate about their subject matter. There is a distinct difference between having abundant knowledge of a subject and being passionate about it. I am not certain I can explain it but I am certain that if you have ever had a phenomenal teacher you know what I’m talking about. They don’t just give you information and encourage you to regurgitate it for a test. They engage with you. They interact with you. They make you want to learn more even outside the classroom. That is the sign of a passionate educator. And every time they talk about it, their enthusiasm is the same. They never tire of the subject matter. To quote the movie “A Mighty Wind” they are the kind of infectious it is good to get.
Perhaps the best example of what I mean from the perspective of teaching cooking is Julia Child, who would have turned 101 this coming Thursday. She was first and foremost a food lover. But for her it was of equal importance that she was an educator. Her mission was to teach people to cook good French food and to demystify it. She accomplished just that but she also inspired people to branch out from their comfort zones and experience new flavors and techniques. What Julia had was a frankness about her. She was down to earth and not fussy about her presentation. She was humorous without trying. She made you feel like she was just like you and that if she could do it, so could you. Now I’m no Julia, especially in the height department, but I do believe that I have been successful in incorporating a lot of those characteristics in my teaching style which has evolved over the years.
Bottom line is, not all cooks are great teachers. Not all teachers are maybe the best cooks. The important thing is that the teacher be confident in what they are doing so that the student feels as though they are in good hands and are not intimidated by them. And ultimately, it’s about the relationship between the student and the teacher that matters. Not all students are right for each teacher and vice versa. Sometimes chemistry just doesn’t work. With food, it isn’t always a science. There is a lot of subjectivity involved which makes it all the more interesting.