NEWPORT, Ky. -- Food is the glue in many social situations, whether cooking or eating.
And, for me, taking a cooking class at the Incubator Kitchen Collective in Newport put a new spin on interacting that was a recipe of one part social, one part cooking and one part eating.
Six of us paid $65 each for a worthwhile experience in a commercial kitchen space learning (or relearning) how to sauté or braise. We were led by Jordan Hamons of the Tablespoon Cooking Co., who helped even the most experienced cook in the group look at cooking cabbage a new way and helped the self-professed not-so-great cook (not me!) smash and chop garlic.
My new cooking colleagues included an engaged couple, an elementary school principal, an accountant and a COO.
I'd been to the space a couple of weeks before to interview Rachel DesRochers, owner of Grateful Grahams and now three incubator kitchens under the umbrella name The Gratitude Collective. It's a new space for the incubator, moving from Covington to a light manufacturing/warehouse area at the end of West Seventh Street.
What's cool about it is what DesRochers has done over the past few years to help entrepreneurs get off the ground and sell their products everywhere from Dirt at Findlay Market, small local groceries to Whole Foods, Jungle Jim's and Kroger. Besides this location, she has a small kitchen in St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Newport and a facility in Loveland. Making and selling what you love to cook is the hottest new thing. There are 30 tenants at all three locations.
"It's really cool and yet totally insane sometimes," said DesRochers. "Their stories are really amazing. It's, ‘One day I was in corporate America and the next day I decided to make pies,’ " she said of her tenants.
On that day alone I met the owners of three companies that work out of the kitchen — Jamie Coats-Dohohue of Grandola Granola, sisters Debbie Moll and Maria Schade of Grass Fed Gourmet Cocoghee and Teeny Lamothe of Teeny Pies. (Everything was yummy.) They work around each other with their own supplies on rolling shelves that easily store when they are not there. The new space will have a distribution arm as well to help the small companies get their products to the shelves.
When I walked around the commercial kitchen that day, I was a bit overwhelmed with ovens and stoves and all that stainless steel. Cooks share the space and equipment throughout the week, doing a scheduled dance of sorts to make and package their products.
DesRochers, who serves as main business mentor and it's-not-going-so-well-today therapist, no longer personally makes her product but has a staff that makes nearly 10,000 Grateful Grahams per week, also in the Newport kitchen.
This year the incubator also hired a COO, Triston Crigger, who also was in my cooking class.
When I learned that they had added cooking classes, I was on board signing up for one of Jordan's Boot Camp series.
When I arrived for the class, some of those stainless prep tables had been pulled together for a more intimate experience so we could watch Hamons demonstrate techniques, as well as help prep some of the food or share a stove with a partner to sauté or braise. I was relieved – although I've cooked since I was a kid, cooking meat has never been my favorite, and I was worried I'd be standing at some stove ruining the meat by myself.
Instead I partnered with Shelley McCormick, an accountant from Arkansas who is new to the area, and the self-proclaimed poorest cook of the group. We sipped wine and listened to Hamons before seasoning and dredging our beef short ribs to braise them. We browned that meat together before it was put in a Dutch oven with a lovely wine-based liquid for slow cooking.
And we also talked. Shelley was quite the talker, and well, I believe I was a strong contributor.
But hey, you learn things. Crigger turned out to be the COO of the incubator collective and had his mom, Connie Crigger, the principal at Mann Elementary School in Boone County, in tow. She didn't need any lessons but came for the camaraderie and to pick up new techniques.
Katie Bischoff of Edgewood brought her fiancé, Jeremy Hoffman of Harrison, as a replacement for her mom, who couldn't make it. The couple, who plan to wed at the Cathedral of the Basilica in Covington in December, seemed to be of different skill levels, with Jeremy the professed cook of the team.
And there were those other personal tidbits: Connie is a fifth-generation Boone County resident; Katie has made two trips to Waco, Texas, to visit Magnolia Farms (of Chip and Joanna Gaines' “Fixer Upper” show on HGTV); and this is Shelley's first time living in a "big city." Oh, and Hamons, our chef, still loves to take cooking classes – "You always learn something new."
We made beef short ribs, sautéed chicken breasts, braised cabbage, sautéed asparagus and apple streusel, and we all learned something new or were reminded of what we "should" be doing. Among those tips from Hamons:
* Don't over-flour the meat or vegetable – it's not a breading – before braising.
* Use a high-heat oil for braising, such as vegetable, canola or grape seed oil. Olive oil smokes and changes its flavor at a high heat.
* You can toast the dry ingredients for the streusel (yep, flour and everything) to bring out a richer flavor (and it did!).
* Salt vegetables, such as cabbage, so it can draw out the liquid before you braise it. You don't want to add water to the sauté pan. We seasoned it with salt and pepper and a light dredging, as well.
* If you call ahead, a good butcher will pound your chicken order to the same thickness for you, or cut your ribs to serving size. I guess I knew this, but I've never done it. Might make life easier.
* And, wow, a digital thermometer that quickly checks the temp of that pounded and sautéeing chicken breast sure beats overcooking it. So tender.
Even Connie, who said she's cooking for her staff soon (lucky people at Mann Elementary!), said she learned some things. "Never would have fixed cabbage that way," she told Jordan. "It was really quite good."
For me, I'll do it again. Who doesn't want knife skills like a pro or to be able to make a sauce to update the most conventional of dishes? I liked being in a commercial kitchen and learning, and relearning, from others.