Dos and Don’ts of running a virtual private cooking class

The Saucy Dressings team has now run a number of virtual cooking events over the various lockdowns we’ve had. We’ve had a lot of fun, but we’ve also learnt a lot and we thought it would be helpful to distil our experience, and give some hints regarding what works, and what doesn’t.

Overall, though, the main lesson is to do your homework in terms of the participants; the technology; and the food.

Make sure you know who your participants are

Check food intolerances

Richard Lovemore said he found it very helpful knowing some of the background to the participants – why they were interested in food, what level of experience they had. Also, check food intolerances of participants and their households (bearing in mind that it may not be possible to cater for these – no onions or garlic is quite limiting).

Tailor your class to the participants

But if you are given details of participants make sure you use them to good effect. Look to see what level they are in order to pitch the class correctly. And if you are using standard materials to send out, make sure you have tailored these to the group. At a more recent cook along we ran (no names, no pack drill) the written instructions told us, “This bit is a little difficult so please approach an adult to help you.” which we (mostly over 50) all found rather endearing.

Use the experience in the class

Equally, use the knowledge of the participants. Richard Lovemore’s class involved middle-eastern flatbreads, and it was useful and interesting to have the input from one participant who had lived several years in Turkey.

Make the participants feel like people

Use the information also to make the participants feel like individuals, and engender more involvement. For example, one of the participants at a recent cookalong had just started making his own vermouth (using his own grapes) with an eye to doing it commercially. The restaurateur running the session was just launching his own brand of vermouth, but he didn’t ask the participant about this – a lost opportunity.

The value of questions

We cannot overemphasise the value of the use of questions as a way of ensuring everyone in involved, participates and truly enjoys the session.

Make sure the participants can get to know each other

Finally, make sure that it is not just the organiser that finds the biographical details interesting – the other participants, especially if they don’t know the others well, also do.

Make sure the participants know the background of the chef

And don’t forget to send out the bios of the chefs/person running the session. We sent out to all the participants a bio of Richard Lovemore, they were all intrigued and looking forward to the sessions.

Advance preparation is key

Allow time for shopping, prior preparation

Issue lists of ingredients, equipment and complete recipes to be printed out well in advance (ideally a week). Ideally include substitutes wherever possible. Be clear about the ingredients if you have international guests (eg – if you specify coriander put ‘cilantro’ in brackets; or by red pepper put ‘capiscum’ in brackets). Don’t ask for any exotic equipment – no spiralisers or mandolines!

Make sure ingredients are easy to measure in a hurry (eg – not ‘three-quarters of a teaspoon’ of anything. Ideally give cup equivalents as well as weights.

But most importantly give the WHOLE recipe – at a recent cook along, only the ingredients were given, and different participants reached different stages of bewilderment which resulted in a lot of time wasted dealing with repeat questions.

By all means suggest a little pre-preparation, but allow time for those who haven’t managed it (we found the week before Christmas was frantic for everyone, including one person who was moving house!).

Check the use of the technology

Make sure everyone (instructor and attendees) is comfortable with the technology – it’s worth a few trial, practices. In particular encourage participants to use the mute facility – or if they don’t the organiser should override and put participants on mute. Check camera angles etc. Try to avoid nude men passing by behind you, à la Trinny Woodall.

Ensure everyone gets the link in good time.

Don’t overreach yourself – remember KISS (keep it simple, stupid)

Make sure that the food is simple and easy to make, and it’s something that everyone wants to eat. Offer suggestions of what to do with leftovers (eg in the Richard Lovemore session, using skordalia as a side dish to duck – an inspired idea. I also serve the bread version of skordalia with beef stew – follow this link to see how).

If you are introducing something rather unusual – like Matthew Pennington’s apple shrub for example – give examples of how it can be used.

apple shrub recipe
Matthew Pennington’s apple shrub

Allow time for socialising

Make sure you can fit everything into the time allocated. Then allow more time for the less experienced, and a bit of chat. Or, alternatively, the person who has organised the group of friends should also be the Zoom organiser, so that the chef can leave once the cook along is over, and allow time for a bit of social chat.

Limit the numbers

Limit numbers of participants to eight… ten at the most.

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