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Gather Food Studio pivots overnight to take its classes to interactive online platform


Turns out it’s easy to cook good food like this at home, and Gather shows us how. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Turns out it’s easy to cook good food like this at home, and Gather shows us how.

I am cooking alongside people from Alaska, California, Arizona and Colorado Springs. Not in the same kitchen — we’re all sheltering in our own homes during the COVID-19 crisis — but we are assembled on a Zoom videoconference being hosted by Gather Food Studio.

Chef/co-owner David Cook walks us through two recipes for this hour-long Easy Indian class at their hub in Old Colorado City, while chef/co-owner Cortney Smith moderates off-screen — she calls on participants who hit the “raise hand” button to ask a question and otherwise mutes our microphones so Cook can teach on a clean audio channel. Considering this is their first online class since having to shut down on-site instruction the week prior, everything for them and the eight students (some cooking with helpers) goes swimmingly.

Gather opened on June 28, 2018, moving one door down to their current location a year to the day later. Cook, a 38-year-old East Coaster with a deep culinary background, moved to the Springs in mid-2014 to take the executive chef gig at then-fledgling Wobbly Olive. Smith formerly worked in recipe development and merchandising at CHEFS Catalog, then The Cooks Marketplace, where she and Cook connected in 2016.

Since Gather’s launch, they’ve grown a loyal following of students who’ve taken dozens of classes — a few have taken over 100 — and they continue to earn business from newbies too. Prior to this shutdown, I’d sat in on Ethiopian and black garlic classes, experiencing the typical process where students first gather around a table for an entertaining mini lesson (on relevant ingredients, history, technique, etc.), then dispatch to cooking stations, then re-convene at the table for a family-style community dinner.

Once Cook and Smith realized the current social distancing requirements would prohibit Gather from holding in-person classes, they quickly pivoted to the online model. And by quickly, I mean they strategized over lunch and consulted with friends inside a couple hours, then got to work with the necessary steps to relaunch within a week, to broadcast two classes a day. Smith says they’d considered online classes initially and have had requests for them, but never had the bandwidth between all their ingredient shopping, prep work, teaching and cleaning to make it happen. Now, if they wanted their business to survive, they would be forced to innovate.

When I stop by the morning of the Easy Indian class to pick up my ingredient kit and recipe folder — classes are $30 ($20 if you buy your own groceries) compared to classes that previously averaged $65 and included a couple more recipes — Cook tours me through all the digital equipment they’d just purchased to enable online broadcasting. It’s stacked up on a table inside Gather’s spice pantry, where they usually blend seasonings for retail sale; there’s LED lights, tripods and light stands, a new SLR camera, microphones and a clip-on webcam. All in all about $3,000 of investment, which includes a few hundred dollars more on branding gear like stickers, shirts and ingredient tote bags.
Take-home ingredient kits are available. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Take-home ingredient kits are available.

What separates Gather’s classes from others online is the interactive aspect that Zoom allows, where students can not only query Cook, but point their own laptop webcams at their sauté pans to share images with each other, or give feedback (“my kitchen smells so good right now!”). Or, in my case, hold my cat up for everyone to see, just because she happened to walk through my kitchen. Someone’s dog barks in the background. A couple students couldn’t find certain ingredients and Cook advises them on substitutions.

As Smith, who’s adored by her students in her own way, will tell you, Cook’s got an offbeat, deadpan sarcastic personality that students love, so laughter tends to lace the air during class as much as aromatics from sizzling pans and hissing pressure cookers. Both chefs bring deep culinary knowledge to their instruction, from off-the-cuff knowledge of ingredients to equipment expertise. And, most importantly, their recipes taste damn good.

As our Easy Indian classes opens, Cook takes a moment with the new students to explain Gather’s eponymous ethos, of being “a place that brings people together.” It feels especially poignant now as we’re all feeling isolated, missing hugs from our friends and feeling a little cooped up. Like generations of people before us, we turn our worries into baked goodies or lengthily simmered stews or multi-course gourmet meals to chase the dust off those underutilized cookbooks. Food is life, and the act of cooking is joy and love, plus action for idle hands and distraction for nervous minds.

What Gather’s really offering here isn’t just food for two to four people per intimate-sized class: It’s therapy. Before the class even concludes, students ask them to consider keeping online instruction around even after on-site teaching resumes — for days following on social media, I see classes fill up and more folks championing the new model. For our part, having done both on-site and at-home, we find a continuity between the experiences that gives them equal value and us equal enjoyment.
We first made fruit and cashew biryani — basmati rice made with cinnamon, cumin, cashews, raisins and apricot. That comment about the amazing-smelling kitchen comes when we toast the cinnamon sticks and cumin seeds prior to adding the rice and fruit. While the rice cooks, we brown poultry pieces for chicken tikka masala, again pleasing our noses with garam masala spice aroma rising from the pan. We incorporate hot peppers, garlic, ginger, Madras curry powder and methi leaves (fenugreek leaves) and a few other ingredients, including tomato sauce for thickening and tart acidity, balanced out by a pinch of sugar.

When finished, we plate our rice under the chicken and take bites. More than one moan emanates from our laptop speakers and everyone seems as pleased as we are, to have so quickly produced a dish so fresh with spice and layered with sweetness and richness. From my prior samplings of Cook’s dishes over the years I already knew him to be an Indian food wizard, well schooled and familiar with all of our local ethnic markets. Just because this was “Easy” Indian didn’t mean he cut any corners — rather, he showed us just how effortless it can be to execute the cuisine at home. For that knowledge, the bountiful meal and an hour’s entertainment, I can say $30 feels like a screamin’ hot deal.

And best of all, though we were states away and a world apart, we Gather-ed here today and cooked together.

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