As an unabashed nerd, I’m proud to say that I love learning. While I know my way around a kitchen, I still love going to cooking classes. Not all classes are equal, though, and over the past several years I’ve developed a major kitchen crush on The Social Table’s Rebecca Goldfarb and her teaching style. Rebecca’s cooking classes are intimate, 8-person lessons with a pre-set menu and BYO policy that makes them very relaxed and, well, social. I sat down with Rebecca to talk about her uber-popular business—it’s seriously competitive to get a spot in one of her classes—cooking, booze in the kitchen, and her upcoming move from New York to Chicago.
FP: The Social Table is wildly successful. You have achieved the elusive 5 star rating on Yelp. What was your path to where you are now with the classes?
RG: I know! It’s crazy. We’re actually the first result that comes up when you search Yelp for “cooking class” in NYC. My path to creating The Social Table was not exactly part of a plan. It sort of just happened. I grew up in California; went to WashU in St. Louis for college, where I studied Dutch 17th century art history (super practical!); then graduated and figured I could put off “real life” for a little longer if I went to culinary school. I had spent some time during college working at a local community center with a culinary program, so it wasn’t out of the blue, but I wasn’t really sure where culinary school would lead me. I’ve had a lot of gigs in the industry, from being a kitchen manager to a sous chef to teaching children’s cooking classes to managing restaurants.
FP: What inspired the shift to teaching cooking classes?
RG: I decided to move to New York from San Francisco, where I had been living after college, because I had a lot of friends in the city and was ready for a change. I got a job managing a restaurant, but I was quickly reminded of how I hated the hours. I decided to start The Social Table as a way to keep working within the hospitality industry, which is what I know, but to get out of restaurants. I didn’t expect The Social Table to be as big as it’s become, but there’s definitely a market for it.
FP: Your classes are geared toward home cooks. What types of things do you keep in mind when choosing the menu?
RG: Ease of ingredients. You can buy everything we make in class at a plain old grocery store, or if you want, you could make a fancier version by buying higher quality stuff. The best recipes are short, approachable, and have variations for when you get comfortable with them. I want you to learn a core method or set of ingredients, and then as you cook more, you’ll start to recognize similarities with other recipes. Once you feel confident with something basic you can grow your recipe box.
FP: Where do you like to shop? Farmer’s markets?
RG: I usually end up going to several places for ingredients. It’s very time consuming. I do a lot of produce shopping at Chelsea Market, and I do get things at the Greenmarket as well. I go to a local butcher for meat, and then I fill in the rest of the ingredients at more traditional grocery stores. I do this both for dinner parties with my friends as well as for The Social Table classes.
FP: Does being “the cook” among your friends come with any pressure?
RG: When I host dinner parties, I always have to try to find something interesting to make because they’re expecting to be impressed. Since I teach classes 4 nights a week, I almost never cook for myself at home, meaning I don’t get a whole lot of time to experiment with new dishes, so I usually just make my favorite recipes again and again.
FP: What were you most surprised to find that people know/don’t know about cooking? What do people usually “ooh” and “aah” at the most? In one class I took, everyone loved the blooming onion [a trick for quickly chopping onions].
RG: I come from a family that cooks and eats different cuisines and focuses on fresh ingredients, so I was surprised by how many people didn’t grow up with that, and how the little things blow people’s minds. Mincing. Sauteeing. Chopping onions. I was surprised that these things make the most difference—like, explaining that you should add garlic to the pan after onions so it doesn’t burn. I also find that there are sometimes funny dynamics in the class. Like, the guys will be standing at the stove with me asking questions, and the women will be chatting and drinking wine. Thanks in part to the Food Network, cooking for men has become cooler.
FP: For me, learning about the concept of mise en place and buying little dishes to use for it was a life changer. What is one tool that all home cooks should have on hand? One ingredient?
RG: A heat-proof rubber spatula – you can use it for cooking eggs, pastry, sautéing anything in a pan. As for ingredients, smoked paprika is awesome but not requirement. It’s very versatile and adds a nice smokiness. I use it in hollandaise. I also think a good cheese sauce tastes awesome on pretty much anything. No cheese sauce left behind!
FP: Your classes being BYO make them a lot more fun than other cooking classes I’ve attended. Does alcohol make for better or worse cooks?
RG: Cooking is supposed to be fun. It should be something you like to do versus something you have to do, and it shouldn’t be hard or complicated. In other parts of the world, food is social and fun. Alcohol reminds people not to take it too seriously. Learning isn’t fun if you can’t laugh at yourself. A couple of glasses of wine make people less ambitious, more relaxed. I’m less about “I’m teaching you this technique” and more about you having a fun time and learning a few things in the process. Luckily, most of the chopping usually happens before people have too much time to drink. This is also why we have a waiver. [Laughs.]
FP: It’s hard in New York to instantly feel part of a group, but your classes achieve something nearly familial. Have you ever had any alcohol induced disasters?
Only one, and it was actually my fault and not alcohol-related. It was a carrot cake that I totally forgot about and it turned into burnt sugar carrot caramel. Luckily, everyone else was drunk by that time and barely noticed.
FP: So the sad news for me and the good news for those lucky Chicagoans is that you’re moving to the Windy City and The Social Table is coming with you. What do you have to say for yourself?
RG: I’m sorry!
FP: I’m only kidding. Kind of. Are you excited about Chicago and its food scene?
RG: Yes, it is the right time for me to leave New York. I feel like I’ll have more of an opportunity to grow The Social Table in Chicago than in New York. Chicago’s food scene is definitely cool. It seems a lot like Brooklyn: great innovative food that’s still approachable and casual. Plus, there’s a young professional crowd that supports it.
FP: Any advice for future entrepreneurs?
One of the hardest things about owning a business is staying passionate about what you do. Turning your passion into your job can take the fun out of it. You have to ask yourself: how can I keep liking this? And if you get too ingrained in the “passion” side of it, then it’s going to be hard to help it become a better business. I think the ideal balance is to not have the company define you, but be proud of what it does.