As COVID-19 testing continues to roll out and case numbers rise, we’re looking at more weeks of trying to work, study and maintain sanity from home. One place we’re hoping people are looking for relief is the kitchen—in a way, the last bastion of freedom in a shuttered house. The kitchen is the place where, given a few ingredients, you can express yourself, challenge yourself, try new flavors, create new dishes, frost freely, julienne sloppily, deep fry, spatchcock (sort of), or even just microwave.
Since there are a bunch of dinners and lunches and snacks looming in our future, we thought it might be a good idea to get some advice from a chef about cooking at home. Chef Karan Fischer founded the Montclair Culinary Academy in late 2017, offering classes for adults and children. A graduate of the Institute for Culinary Education and former private chef, Fischer’s used to accommodating picky palates and adjusting with ingredient availability, which, in a way, makes her the perfect “remote” chef-instructor for parents at home with their kids and maybe limited ingredients during the coronavirus crisis. We caught up with Fischer, who’s currently trying to figure out how to adjust her business in a time of isolation, to ask for some tips and advice on cooking safely and creatively as a family, night after night…after night.
Table Hopping: Since I’m here to ask you—in part—about cooking at home with kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, do you have kids at home at the moment?
Karan Fischer: Yes, they’re home. It’s a day-to-day thing. They have their computers. They’re 10 and 13. We’re trying to teach them social distancing. It’s like, I love you, too! But, sometimes, from over there.
TH: You run the Montclair Culinary Academy. How have you been dealing with all of this?
KF: We just got back from vacation in Aruba, so we’ve been witnessing the process. I’ve just put something up on Facebook noting the ever-changing circumstances, and that out of respect for the community I have to cancel classes. We’d also partnered for something with Montclair Public Library and they cancelled and I was like good, because there’s an older population there. We do have summer camps in June, July, and August and people are signing up, because we’re hoping by then it’ll be handled.
TH: Some restaurants, we know, are closing and some are doing curbside pick-up and delivery, but you run a culinary academy. How will you cope? Can you adapt?
KF: Being a chef and being in the food industry, we’re so trained. It’s nothing new for us, to have precautions in place. So the good news for restaurants and food establishments is they can survive doing takeout and delivery. But I created a business around the interaction of people cooking together, so this impacts me differently. People want a communal, culinary hands-on experience. That’s what they come to me for. I shut down for two weeks at least to reevaluate.
TH: Any ideas as to how a culinary school could cope?
KF: Maybe we’ll make classes smaller, have people work separately. Maybe just booking private sessions. I was saying to another chef last night, instead of everybody handling the same serving utensil, maybe my staff is gloved and does the plating? Because students cook together. But maybe instead of communal eating, they take it home?
TH: Speaking food at home, what’s some advice for parents who might suddenly be cooking with their kids every day?
KF: I think it’s about thinking outside the box, a bit. Literally. I think the most interesting thing a parent can do is instead of the chicken nuggets and fries diet, now is the time to teach a kid “This is an avocado and this is guacamole.” We can go through steps to draw connections from the ingredient to the dish. What a lot of people don’t realize is when kids have a hand in making their food, they’re more likely to try new things. That philosophy has been around a long time. When a child isn’t just served a plate, but is involved in the prep, they’ll end up exploring more new flavors and new tastes. Kids who touch food eat food. Kids who are just served food are more likely to reject what they don’t know.
TH: It sounds like this time at home could be a time to improve our relationships with certain ingredients?
KF: Absolutely. We can undo some damage. Eat healthier. And it doesn’t have to be bitter greens. Kids love sugar snap peas. Baby carrots. Yes, kids are sometimes scared of greens. But if parents aren’t into vegetables, kids won’t be. Now is an opportunity for demonstrating why you like fresh produce. Like, even just juicing an orange in front of the kids and saying “This is what fresh-squeezed OJ is!”
TH: Especially with some of the hoarding we’ve seen, what if parents are forced to rely on canned or frozen produce?
KF: If you go in that direction, or have to go in that direction, I’m a bigger fan of Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods because of their organic brands. The price points are virtually 30 to 40 cents different. And if you go canned, like a can of chickpeas, turn it into roasted chickpeas for the kids. Keep it interesting. Put that on a salad.
TH: And what kind of ways do you recommend kids participate in the kitchen?
KF: There are different things kids can do in the kitchen. One thing kids really enjoy is baking. I would say, and this is really easy, they can make some quick chocolate chip cookie dough and let their kids make little dough balls. Just to feel like they’re participating. But even little snack things. A fruit plate or a crudité plate with some dipping sauce.
TH: What age do you think is appropriate, or safe, for kids to join in?
KF: For something like rolling cookie balls, five or six. We take them on at seven [at MCA] and by the time they’re 15, they can make dinner. But I don’t believe in standing on chairs by the stove. If you’re not tall enough, I always side on safety. You should be tall enough to look over the burner. So if they can’t reach it, let your kids do prep work.
TH: Doesn’t prep work typically involve sharp edges, blades?
KF: Plastic utensils will work for the little guys, just to cup up some cherry tomatoes, fruit, dates, things like that. Or I love a salad idea, too. They can peel carrots, cucumbers. And there are safety peelers, and kid-friendly knives. They’re like $10 on amazon. I would buy a whole set. And the peelers are built for kids. There’s usually a nice guard and kids can peel carrots, celery, cucumbers.
TH: Beyond getting help with prep, I’d have to assume there are some other benefits?
KF: Kids don’t feel as helpless. They’re getting involved. It’s great for bonding. Especially now. My kids just made guacamole. Kids can do that. Give them a ripe avocado, give them a spoon, and let them scoop it out! Yesterday was beautiful. My girlfriend’s son is 13 and he was like “Give me some hamburger meat and some buns and cheese, I’ll make cheeseburgers!” They can do things for themselves. We’re showing them how flavors get put together. My kids started out making smoothies—vanilla yogurt, mangoes, blueberries. Now they can make all kinds.
TH: Are there any boundaries parents shouldn’t cross, in terms of foisting flavors on their kids? It might be many meals we’re cooking together. I can imagine we’d end up pushing some boundaries.
KF: It’s important to remember: a child’s palate has new taste buds. As we age our taste buds dull, but little kids have very highly sensitive taste buds. Parents should think about from spice levels to sweeteners. That’s one thing for parents to consider—less is more. Less salt, especially pepper. Kids have a strong aversion to pepper. To a child’s palate, it’s bitter. Kids like things that crunch. We want texture and flavor—not high salt, necessarily. Add sunflower seeds [to a salad]. Different colors, different crunches. Make it fun. For parents, too!
Classes at the Montclair Culinary Academy are cancelled through the month of March. You can check back with the MCA Facebook for further updates. The MCA is currently enrolling students for its Culinary Summer Camp. The 2020 theme is “Food of the World: Global and Sustainable.” Montclair Culinary Academy is located at 550 Valley Road in Montclair, 973-498-8436