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Get in the kitchen

Whatever your culinary experience or comfort level, Hamilton offers plenty of options to up your cooking game.

If you find yourself spending more time in the kitchen, you’re not alone. When it comes to preparing meals at home versus dining out, 44 per cent more Canadians were sticking to their home kitchens in 2023 over the year before. The rising cost of dining out is certainly a factor but inflation only tells part of the story. On the whole, our society is becoming more informed on what goes in our meals and even more concerned with balancing nutrition with taste. It adds up to Canadians wanting more control in preparing their own food to control their own health.

If you’re like me, cooking is not a skill you’ve easily picked up. No matter how many recipes for bread you looked up on Instagram during the pandemic, you always burned the toast. But fear not. It’s never too late to muster your courage and claim your space in the kitchen. Indeed, many Hamiltonians are discovering their proverbial joy of cooking through a number of businesses across the region, and these are a few of the master chefs cooking up something special just around the corner.

According to Justine Wilk, co-owner of Gastro Market in downtown Hamilton, demand from Hamiltonians wanting to learn how to cook has skyrocketed. A recreational cooking school and catering company, Gastro Market provides locally sourced fresh foods and upscale dining experiences alongside popular cooking classes. “With the cost of food becoming more and more expensive,” says Wilk, “we have seen exponential interest in folks wanting to learn how to be more cost-effective and use all those ingredients in their cupboards and fridge to avoid being wasteful.” 

Working alongside spouse and fellow chef Anthony Zolkiewicz, Wilk says Gastro Market offers customers a wholesome yet innovative approach to food preparation. “Cooking is a life skill,” says Wilk, “and we would say it’s never too late to learn. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, and these days, it’s more and more easy to glide through life without ever learning how to prepare a nice home-cooked meal.”

As grocery prices continue to climb, more Canadians are looking to adapt how they consume food, and cooking from scratch is seen as the best way to save money on groceries. But, according to Wilk, it’s not all about economics. “It seems the number of allergies and dietary restrictions have increased over the years. Whether it be celiac or nut allergies, health-related diets like keto or paleo, and just general intolerances to staple ingredients like onion and garlic, people want to know how to properly take care of themselves and/or their loved ones.” 

Wilk also counts the steep cost of food delivery services like UberEats and SkipTheDishes as a factor in the growth of culinary classes. “Folks will spend an arm and a leg on food delivery services simply because they’re craving something they don’t know how to prepare,” she says. Ultimately, those same people would “prefer to take food into their own hands and make it fresh from scratch at home.”

Chef Marsha Simmons, of Marsha’s Kitchen in Flamborough, has also seen demand for cooking classes on the rise, with her sales increasing by more than 50 per cent between 2022 and 2023. Simmons cites the popularity of cooking as an activity that is both easy and unique yet is close enough to home that it won’t break the bank. “A lot of people want to learn how to cook a dish they have never done before and use unusual ingredients and unfamiliar techniques,” says Simmons. “Cooking can be like a travel experience – seeing and doing something new, especially if it's from a region in the world you have never visited before.”

In her cooking sessions, Simmons has seen a lot of interest in the preparation of tapas, pasta and even dim sum. Contrary to popular belief, Simmons shows clients that making dim sum is nothing to be scared of and can easily be prepared in your home. “It’s a perfect bonding activity for friends and family to make dumplings together.” 

Simmons agrees that the value of learning to cook goes beyond high food prices. “Cooking for or with family and friends is a lovely way to spend time together, and being together in the kitchen will build a lot of memories. Also, I think all the food shows have sparked a lot of interest in cooking and helped people realize that cooking can be fun, entertaining and that anyone can do it.”

That said, fear of making mistakes can be a factor in keeping people from trying their culinary hand. Following recipes, effectively using various techniques, and handling specialized equipment can all be overwhelming for beginners. With that in mind, every one of the chefs I spoke with emphasized the need for support and encouragement in conveying kitchen skills to every level of would-be chef.

There is no right or wrong way to cut an onion, says Simmons. “Try starting with recipes that don't have too many ingredients or are simple in the prep and cooking process. If you're really intimidated, take a beginners class or a private lesson to build some of your skills and increase your confidence.”

Joyce Leung, chef-owner of The Joyce of Cooking, agrees that starting hands-on is the best way to conquer your culinary fears. “Don't be afraid to start,” says Leung. “Cooking is not only about following a recipe, it’s about experimenting and being comfortable with what ingredients work well and don't work well together. It can be so liberating, stress relieving, and most importantly fun. We all need to eat and we all love a good meal.” 

Leung offers both in-person and virtual classes on Asian cooking including sushi, dim sum, Asian soup and kimchi. Her hands-on courses, offered in Hamilton and surrounding areas extend to both individual adults and courses where parents and kids can learn together.

The social bonds that form around people cooking and eating the food they make is a point of pride of Leung’s business model. “Food is an important part of all our daily lives and I can see many parents want their kids to learn from a younger age and learn a basic life skill. Many people also like to join classes alone to meet locals who have the same interests. And then we have couples coming out for date nights or anniversary celebrations.” 

Asked about recent trends in clientele, Leung says there are two groups who attend her classes. “One is the food lovers who already know how to cook. They want to expand their knowledge on different types of cuisines and learn how to make dishes they normally enjoy in a restaurant. The second are people who realize that eating out, and buying prepackaged foods, is getting expensive, so they want to learn some basic skills in the kitchen.”

Luisa Di Marcantonio, of Burlington’s Il Convento, agrees that the kitchen is the place to have fun. "Don’t be afraid to make a mistake because this is where we learn. Be inspired and start with trying to learn to make a favourite dish you would normally enjoy out.” Offering private and group classes in Italian cooking, Di Marcantonio says that “learning to make pasta by hand is a bucket-list item” and her group classes work well as gifts or corporate and team-building exercises. “It's a fun activity for people to gather with a group of friends to celebrate,” says Di Marcantonio whose classes specialize in “an authentic hands-on Italian cooking experience” including “an immersive four-course meal.”  

Born in Canada to Italian immigrants from the Italian region of Abruzzo, Di Marcantonio always loved to bake but only learned later in life to cook like her mother Annunziata. She says her students appreciate that lessons are “hands on and not just a demo.” To ensure that no one is left behind, she adds “we are there every step of the way with practical tips, and they leave with detailed recipes.” 

Asked why more people might want to learn to cook these days, Di Marcantonio says “people have expanded their cooking repertoire. COVID has given many the chance to push out of their old comfort zones. Also, in the spirit of the Italian ‘cucina povera’, with increasing inflation and good meal planning it is very economical in the challenging times we are all facing.”

Without a doubt, learning to cook is a skill that almost anyone can pick up, with half the fun being in the process itself. So, check out what these and many other chefs in Hamilton are cooking and get yourself in the kitchen this year!

Other culinary schools and programs in the Hamilton-Burlington region include:

Affirm College

Formerly known as Liaison College, this culinary institution in Jackson Square continues to provide quality education and training with a diverse range of culinary and lifestyle programs. Headed by chefs Romaine Newell and Clarissa Smith, Affirm prioritizes personalized cooking lessons to foster an intimate, student-centred learning environment. The college offers short lifestyle classes suitable for novice or experienced chefs, while the essential series offers intensive courses that focus on both recipe-based and advanced culinary techniques. 

Mohawk College - Cooking Fundamentals 

Run through Mohawk’s Continuing Education department, the 12-week cooking fundamentals course is geared towards those with cooking as a general interest. Chef-instructor Nino Sarkis, a graduate of both the culinary skills chef training program at Niagara College and teachers’ college, offers catering services and private virtual cooking classes in a variety of dishes including Mediterranean, pasta and sushi.

Yellow Door Catering

Chef-owner Bill Horodecky and partner Andrea Coull offer in-home cooking classes to both burgeoning chefs and experts, featuring a variety of tailor-made menus including seasonal and specialty meals. Horodecky brings a note of off-beat fun to his three-hour classes alongside full-service catered cocktail parties and his five-course private chef experience. 

The Casual Gourmet

Situated in the heart of Westdale Village, the Casual Gourmet offers an extensive selection of fine kitchenware and an inclusive market filled with locally sourced foods. Under the new ownership of Nasif Walji, and a fully equipped kitchen in the back of the store, the Casual Gourmet looks to resume offering cooking classes to the public in the near future.