Capital Region

Heaping Helpings: Teaching chefs keep cooking, adapting

Chef Giovanni Morina instructs a class at Gio's Culinary Studio in Voorheesville
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Chef Giovanni Morina instructs a class at Gio's Culinary Studio in Voorheesville

Professional chefs are used to adjusting, whether it be working around dietary restrictions or substituting ingredients.

For teaching chef Giovanni Morina, the pandemic took that skill to a new level.

Morina, a SUNY Schenectady County Community College graduate, has run Gio’s Culinary Studio in Voorheesville for the past 14 years. He offers group classes as well as private lessons, and takes small groups to Italy several times a year for immersive cooking classes.

He had to change nearly every part of his business at the start of the pandemic — starting with his attitude.

“I have to be a lot more open to change,” Morina said. “I’ve been doing this for so many years and … I had a routine that I was very comfortable with and everything just flowed. It was just automatic. To adapt to what we have to do now was a little bit difficult for me, but we’re getting there.”

At the onset of the pandemic, Morina felt frozen, unsure of how to keep teacing, but after a couple of weeks he started to offer virtual classes that included curbside pickup of all the ingredients. Students retrieved everything needed to make a dish and had access to a video of Morina walking them through the recipe.

“We did one spaghetti and meatballs [class] where everything was made from scratch,” Morina said. “This was in the summertime so we had nice, ripe tomatoes, so we did the tomato sauce from scratch.”

He also began to offer Zoom classes for those who were looking for a more interactive experience.

There’s certainly a hunger to learn new recipes and techniques in the kitchen. According to a recent study from the consumer market research firm Hunter, 71% of people in the United States say they’ll continue to cook more at home during the pandemic and even after it ends, in part to save money and stay healthy.

“I’ve already seen a big surge in interest, not only signing up for classes but also people just reaching out to me and asking me different cooking questions. Because I always leave it open-ended at the end of class. I’m always available for cooking questions. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been to my class or not been to my class. People pass that on to their friends and family. I enjoy when people email me cooking questions that I’m able to help them with, or when I’m able to help them troubleshoot a recipe they’ve been having some problems with,” Morina said.

The virtual classes drew students from across the country, as well as some former students who simply had more time during the pandemic.

“Everybody [was] looking for something to do. I saw a lot of students that I haven’t seen in some years. It’s been a lot of fun,” Morina said.

In October, he was able to begin hosting in-person classes at a limited capacity.

“We’re at half capacity and the classes take longer because we can only have a few people up to do hands-on at a time, so not everybody’s crowded in their workspace, but it’s working out OK so far,” Morina said.

The Friday evening couples classes, which can fit 16 people at that limited capacity, tend to be the most popular and usually sell out. They typically include several courses of dishes, such as wood-fired crispy flatbread, saffron gnocchi, wood-roasted Sardinian lamb chops and for dessert, seadas, a honey-and-cheese fried pastry.

The one part of the schedule that’s still uncertain is the immersive trips to Italy. Morina had several scheduled in 2020, and even spent three weeks in Italy at the start of the year. He hasn’t been back since.

“We’ve been doing them since 2012 regularly. It’s a little frustrating and we miss our friends, especially since some of them are in their mid-80s. For the most part, we’ve just built this network of people who became our family over there,” Morina said.

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The trips typically run for about two weeks and include a small group of people. He hopes to continue them later this year and next, depending on the rates and travel restrictions of COVID-19.

The pandemic also motivated Morina to start a new project: creating a pasta line.

“I also realize that I have to figure out another stream of income as well, because if we ever have to shut down again it’s very difficult to recover from,” Morina said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, but just put in [on] the back burner. [COVID] kinda lit the fire, and students have been asking for years if I could sell them some pasta.”

He’s planning to release the line sometime in the summer, selling to restaurants and small grocery stores. For information, visit gioculinarystudio.com.

‘Lovely exchange’
For personal chef and instructor Susan Garth, the pandemic got her back into doing what she loves most: cooking for and alongside others.

Garth, who runs Susan’s Natural Kitchen, began working in the natural food industry in the 1990s at Four Seasons Natural Foods in Saratoga Springs.

“It just became my passion to work with very clean, simple ingredients that taste good, that promote a healthy lifestyle,” Garth said.

At that time she was already getting inquiries from community members asking if she could cook for them or help them adjust their favorite recipes to follow a different diet, sometimes at the request of their physician. After working with local clients, Garth moved to California, where she worked for Kenny Loggins and his family for about five years. She also worked for professional golfer Fred Couples, and once she moved back to New York she worked for Jon Stewart and his family for several years.

Since returning to the Capital Region, she’s continued to work in the food industry on and off. During the pandemic, the personal-chef side of her business has blossomed.

“All of a sudden my phone started ringing. I just rebuilt my personal chef business and I am delighted,” Garth said. “It’s so satisfying for me to make delicious food for people. … They’ve had some nourishing, wonderful food and I’ve done something I really love, and there’s been this really lovely exchange,” Garth said.

She’s also started teaching classes online, starting with an eight-week course called “The Beauty of Balance.”

It was created to help people balance their macronutrients, though each of the eight students in the class came for their own reasons.

“Some people came because they really wanted to lose some weight and they wanted to eat healthier. Some people came more because they really don’t know how to cook,” Garth said.

Each class was held via Zoom and one night a week the group would meet to talk through lesson plans, including everything from getting into meal prepping to setting oneself up for healthy eating.

Then on Sunday afternoons they met again on Zoom to cook together. Garth provided recipes, including everything from breakfast to dinner entrees. Beyond learning new recipes and cooking techniques, students also found a bit of community in the classes.

“People were still feeling very cooped up from COVID. The weather was getting colder and there wasn’t so much to do outside anymore. Some people had barely seen anyone but their husband or their dog for months just because of the way things were, so when it ended I had a lot of people say. ‘I’m really going to miss getting together every Sunday with my tribe,’ ” Garth said.

In the future she plans to host more virtual individual classes and will continue to offer private lessons. For more on Garth’s classes, visit susansnaturalkitchen.com.

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