The Salt
4:58 am
Sat March 24, 2012

Cooking School Spreads Immigrants' Skills And Ethnic Recipes

If you want to learn how to make Vietnamese egg rolls, you can always check out a cookbook, a food blog, or perhaps a site like Epicurious.

But Linh Nguyen — who is teaching a cooking class here in San Francisco — says that that's not really the way to do it. In fact, her family doesn't even own a cookbook.

"In a Vietnamese house, there are no measuring spoons or measuring cups," says Nguyen. "Everything is sort of just done by the handful, or the bowlful. And the recipes are all sort of passed down from one person to another."

Nguyen teaches for Culture Kitchen, a company that hires first-generation immigrants as cooking instructors. Unlike Nguyen's family, Culture Kitchen teachers do write down recipes.

But they also focus on that person-to-person tradition — showing how a dish should really taste or look when it's done, and answering all the little questions that come up along the way. Like whether egg rolls are rolled properly.

Jennifer Lopez co-founded Culture Kitchen a year and a half ago, as part of a graduate school project. She tried to find people who were amazing cooks but wouldn't normally be teaching because of a language barrier or lack of formal training. Lopez reached out to community groups, and also got help from a surprising source.

"A lot of our cooks that we've had ... it's their sons or daughters who have emailed us and said my mother or my grandmother makes the best food," says Lopez.

Culture Kitchen has held dozens of classes, with cuisines ranging from Bengali to Peruvian to Afghan, for $60 a session. It's also expanding beyond the Bay Area, sending out ingredient boxes to people who don't necessarily have a Vietnamese grocery nearby.

But the connections between people are really the heart of it.

Student Laurie Mun came to learn Vietnamese cooking firsthand in part because that's how she picked up her family's Cantonese recipes — this same sort of one-on-one instruction.

"We actually started having family dinners, where my grandfather would say 'Oh, you know, this is like a B minus, because it's one pinch too much sugar, one pinch too much salt, a little bit too much soy sauce.' And we're like, 'B minus? You need to have grade inflation! This is too hard,' " says Mun.

Despite the harsh grading, Mun was grateful for the opportunity to learn how to be a better cook — then, and now.

"It's a way I think for us to connect the generations," says Mun.

Culture Kitchen classes don't just keep recipes from dying out. Co-founder Lopez says they change the way the instructors value themselves.

"A lot of the women we work with don't have that many friends outside of their own culture," says Lopez. "So the opportunity to share their cuisine with a larger group of people is huge. It's been phenomenal watching some of our cooks transform."

They're transforming into teachers with an important body of knowledge to share with students who are hungry to learn.

Deena Prichep is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.