Throw out that can of baking powder from 2004! Grate your citrus zest on a microplane, not a box grater! Don’t wander away from the stove while your lemon curd is thickening!
You’ve got to have issues, important issues, to preach about when you’re a cooking demonstrator trying to keep an audience of chilly strangers entertained on a cold morning in February. Especially when bucket drummers, porchetta-sandwich sellers, and the latte line at Blue Bottle are all clambering for attention just a few feet of lettuce-strewn pavement away.
Luckily, I have strong opinions about everything you do in your kitchen, and if you’re sitting in front of me at the farmers’ market while I’m demonstrating a recipe, you’re going to hear about it chapter and verse: why you won’t buy buttermilk, why you should buy those pricey pastured eggs, why you need to stop storing your herb jars over the stove. But you’ll laugh at least once, I can promise, and you’ll go on your way amused and at least a little informed, even if all you wanted when you sat down was the free sample.
It’s the amused-and-informed part that’s most crucial to giving good demo, more important than flawless technique or having the be-all, end-all recipe for seared Arctic char suspended in pomegranate-ponzu gel.
I learned this early on from super-pro David Lebovitz, who was cooking before me the day of my first-ever demo at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Being a food writer and cookbook author rather than a “real” (read restaurant) chef, I confessed to David that I was nervous about seeming professional enough. What kind of presenter doesn’t even own a white chef’s jacket? Wouldn’t this sophisticated audience root out my less-than-perfect knife skills like a pack of snuffling, Prius-driving pigs hot on the scent of a ripe black truffle?
David, bless his heart, merely scoffed. “Just make ’em laugh! That’s all they want,” he insisted, and then went out in front of the audience and did just that. He cracked jokes, told funny stories, and in the time it took to melt a block of chocolate for a batch of his “absolute best” brownies, he had the audience eating out of his hand.
Well, entertainment I could do. Having been onstage in many guises, even buck-naked, tap-dancing in an apron wasn’t going to daunt me. In fact, as I nattered about bee sex while whipping up a honey-and-almond cake, I realized quickly that it could even be fun. Didn’t it combine two of my favorite things, cooking and telling people what to do?
It also helped that I’d seen, or suffered through, hours of bad cooking demonstrations, done by talented but charisma-free chefs who mumbled into their jacket mics and kept their eyes glued to their pans, never interacting with the audience or explaining the whys or hows of what their hands were doing so deftly. Or, conversely, the equally brilliant chefs, beamed in from Planet Moleculo-Gastronomix, who talked the room to glazed-eye death with thirty minutes of nonstop techie arcana. Then there were the recipes, often too complicated or elaborate for a home kitchen whose only prep cook might be a reluctant boyfriend or mad-hungry 12-year-old already whining for dinner.
A good cooking demonstrator, like a good teacher of any sort, is equal parts evangelist and showman. Personally, I love farmers’ markets, and have great respect for the hard work that farmers do. So my job up there is to make you, the market shopper, fall in love with the unexpected, like nettles or quinces or the ravishing, marigold-yellow color of an egg yolk produced by a happy, pasture-raised hen. What makes these pitches work is that I’m also a great big ham who loves to be on stage, even if that stage is only a folding table and a propane stove.
But does it pay? Well, no, not directly. No one’s handing me a wad of twenties to blanch kale and crack eggs (and jokes) on a Saturday morning. I’ve cooked at a lot of markets, from Brooklyn to Arkansas to Santa Cruz, and it’s always been a unpaid gig. Now, I won’t write for free. That’s a professional skill I’ve honed over the past 20 years. It’s my livelihood. I wouldn’t expect my dentist or my hair stylist to do their job for free; why should I be asked to ply my own trade without remuneration?
But I will (probably) do a cooking demo at your farmers’ market without payment. Why? Because hopefully, you in the audience will watch, like what you see (or at least enjoy the freebie sample of what I’ve just cooked) and thus buy one of my cookbooks from the stack I’ve so thoughtfully piled on this table next to me. Maybe you in the velour yoga pants and cute stripey tote bag are a magazine editor amenable to pitches. Or maybe you’re the person who programs the classes at a fancy cookware store down on the Peninsula, classes I could get paid to teach. Restaurant chefs do it to for publicity, to keep their name (and the name of their restaurant) in public circulation.
It’s that nebulous, hard-to-quantify thing known as exposure. Cooking at a well-regarded market like San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Market also puts me in good company, alongside many other well-known authors and chefs. A lot of people come to that market, and lots of them will sit down and watch the cook’s demonstration attentively, from start to finish. (Never discount the joy of an attentive audience, especially one that laughs at your jokes.)
Part of the satisfaction of doing this is encouraging people to get in the kitchen. Since I think that anyone can, and should, cook, these demos are stealth teaching, using snappy patter and snacks to sweeten the skill-share. Come for the sample, in other words, and maybe you’ll take away a few tips that might inspire you the next time you’re in the kitchen or in the market.
To this end, I’ve fried zucchini pancakes for teenagers walking by the sidewalk offerings of a tiny urban farm in Brooklyn. Made a frittata using eggs from ducks quacking and waddling between rows of chard at the Homeless Garden Project in Santa Cruz. Proved to a row of skeptical seven-year-olds in Arkansas that yes, a bowl of heavy cream will turn into a huge mound of fluffy, puffy whipped cream with nothing more than elbow grease and a whisk.
In places like these, my lack of chef cred (and jacket) is actually a plus. If I can do this, standing here in a goofy gingham apron, so can you. If this kooky woman can cajole browned and beautiful biscuits out of a tiny toaster oven running off a snaky orange extension cord, then surely you can do the same, or better, at home.
Since even basic baking seems to daunt a lot of folks, I like to show how easy it can be. Scones were the subject of my most recent demo, because, like chocolate-chip cookies, they’re delicious when freshly baked at home, and pretty much horrible–dry, tough, overly sweet–everywhere else. The reward? Several audience members came up to me afterwards,s saying they’d always thought they didn’t like scones. But that morning, they’d realized, after two bites of a hot-from-the-oven homemade one, that it was only bad scones they hated.
Only a handful of pantry staples (sugar, baking powder and soda, salt) were not from the market. Everything else, from freshly milled, Sonora soft-wheat flour from Eatwell Farm and yogurt from St. Benoit to the candied lemon rinds from June Taylor Jams was bought right there at the market. And yes, farmers and purveyors were paid market price for any items used.
So, shop, bake, and be merry. And should you ever have the chance to cook in public, take these tips from me:
1. Talk fast, talk loud. Hopefully you’ll have a microphone, but even so, markets are noisy places. Articulate, project, and talk fast, because your audience will come and go, and you want to get as much info out there before they wander off to find coffee.
2. Make eye contact. Look out into the audience as much as you can without chopping your fingers off. Pick a few receptive-looking folks, and direct what you’re saying right to them. Scan around and shift your focus every few sentences.
3. Practice your recipe at home. Make it start to finish. Talk it through. Figure out where the boring parts are. Think about what you can prep beforehand. Do you have a brilliant new way to chop an onion? If not, do it ahead of time.
4. Keep an open space between you and the audience. Don’t clutter the table right in front of you with bowls and ingredients. Let people see what you’re doing.
5. Don’t forget about final presentation. Have a pretty plate or bowl ready to show off the final product.
6. Give credit where it’s due. If you’re at a farmers’ market, promote the farmers whose products you’re using. Talk about who they are and what they sell, and why you love it. If your recipe was inspired by a cookbook you read or a dish you ate at a local restaurant, tell us about it.
7. Make ’em laugh! Be funny, be informative, tap-dance if you have to, but give ’em a show.