Walking down residential Henry Street, a few minutes off of downtown Queen's Park and College, you may hear distant buzzing. Listen closely and you will make out the faint sound of kitchen equipment (blenders, cutlery clinking, dishwashers, a hood fan, a juicer, and a freezer), light music, and laughter. If you're brave enough to descend a few steps to take a peek inside — and if you're lucky — you'll witness the magic in action, a handful of strangers prepping, cooking, and indulging in a one-of-a-kind meal.
Viva Tastings cooking school has a similar energy to that of a bustling restaurant kitchen, with a fully decked-out, completely equipped kitchen to match. Students create several dishes, all working in sync to find the right timing, with a head chef providing guidance whenever necessary. The positive energy in the room is palpable, which is probably why Viva Tastings has been successfully running corporate team-building workshops, with problem-solving and following instructions just some of many things you'll learn throughout the class. The only catch is that the stakes (or steaks?) are high. Instead of serving hungry customers, the finished product is for you and your fellow chefs to eat, and it will serve as a just reward that brings everyone together in the end.
The owner of Viva Tastings is a quirky Cordon Bleu–trained woman named Karen Viva-Haynes who is also a caterer and vendor at the St. Lawrence market. She has been leading cooking classes for over a decade. She uses innovative recipes to teach her students, with an extensive knowledge of culinary techniques and a welcoming spring in her step. On this particular evening, the class of eight was entitled An Affair to Remember and featured a final menu of several dishes, including Middle Eastern cocktail meatballs with a minty yogurt, fresh salmon– and feta–stuffed phyllo, a colourful salad of carrot, avocado, and orange, and individual mouthwatering molten chocolate cakes with fresh raspberries for dessert.
Since this was a class for couples, students split into four pairs and were each assigned a dish to work on so that, in the end, everyone could enjoy a feast as a group. Students were given a recipe to work from, with their ingredients and equipment set up at separate stations. We had Karen's special fruit and chili guacamole to munch on as we worked. With the help of the owner and one kitchen assistant, the class was able to complete each dish and learn culinary skills in the process. Karen would stop the class to demonstrate knife skills, showing the right way to cut cilantro, avocado, and scallions. She taught us how to roll meatballs, melt chocolate, and slice salmon to wrap in phyllo pastry — all using a hands-on approach that allowed each student to learn the technique, discover a new recipe, and prepare a four-course meal. Karen believes this approach is what makes her classes unique, She explains,
"We don't just focus on one technique at a time... Through building a meal together with other people everyone learns and everyone has a fabulous meal. My aim is to inspire each person to continue building their skills and to have fun with food.
For $90 per class, students learn fundamental cooking skills and gain experience in a professional kitchen by jumping right in. Most importantly, with Karen's method of teaching, you learn how to cook by tasting and fixing as you go — which, as any chef can testify, is what makes cooking an endless work in progress. These tips will stay with me throughout my cooking endeavours. I really enjoyed Karen's constant participation in the class and the high energy she maintained throughout the night. We really felt we were part of a team in a kitchen with an important task at hand, but she kept the session fun too.
When it came time for plating, Karen taught us the importance of eating with your eyes. She emphasized,
Your food needs to look fabulous, or else it's not going to taste as good.
Luckily for us, every bite was better than the last — from crunchy salmon phyllo to dark chocolate spoonfuls. We each went home with full stomachs, new skills, and possibly even a better understanding of our cooking partner and ourselves.
MEET THE PHOTOGRAPHER: BEA LABIKOVA
Bea is a Toronto based musician, photographer, teacher and a multidisciplinary visual artist. Growing up surrounded by her father’s antique camera collection, Bea was naturally inclined towards photography since an early age. She loves taking portraits of unique faces and always tries to capture the colours of the world around us. Her main areas of interest are documentary, performance and travel photography.