At first glance, Chris McKellar and Molly Clauhs seem a lot like your average local foodies: they’ve seen the movie Food, Inc.
, they seek out notable restaurants when they travel, they frequent the farmers’ market, and they watch a lot of Food Network. But these two entrepreneurs have gone beyond paying lip service to local, whole foods and parlayed their passion for cooking and eating well into the Grand Rapids Cooking School
, a new venture the two chefs launched this spring.
McKellar, 31, is a West Michigan native, GVSU graduate, and member of a local band who recently sold his web development business. Clauhs, 24, hails from Pennsylvania via upstate New York, where she graduated from Cornell University and was an innkeeper in the Hudson Valley. The two unlikely partners met after both presenting at 5x5 Night and finding common purpose in Clauhs’ idea called Skillshare, a project that proposed using knowledge-based commerce to teach forgotten skills like knitting, brewing, cheese-making, and, inevitably, cooking.
Clauhs, who grew up on a farm, already had experience in the local food market with her food truck, The Silver Spork
. She sees Grand Rapids as the perfect place to launch a cooking school. “In Grand Rapids, people are generous and open to new ideas. They want to hear about them, support them. Things haven’t been completely figured out yet, so you can come here and experiment.”
In fact, Clauhs and her boyfriend ended up here for just those reasons. “We literally got out a map. We wanted to live somewhere sort of urban, but without a high cost of living, someplace where it would be easy to break in.” Clauhs drove her food truck here exactly a year ago and was just a finalist for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce entrepreneur of the year, a fact that proves her point. “In a bigger city, I’d probably still be looking for a job. I can’t imagine another city where you could do so much in one year. Grand Rapids is a right-sized city, and I’m really glad to be here.”
McKellar, on the other hand, is long familiar with Michigan’s culture and climate -- both factors that he thinks make West Michigan ready for more dynamic and accessible cooking classes. “Michigan is a great climate for produce, and we have a lot of excellent farms and vendors that really care about the quality of their ingredients,” he says, noting that the cooking school relies heavily on Creswick Farms meat, Trillium Haven and Mud Lake produce, and Dancing Goat Creamery cheese.
In addition, McKellar sees a trend in the number of people who are interested in moving away from processed food and toward cooking for themselves. “I see more people wanting to do things with their hands, cook basic things from scratch, and use things that are grown locally that help support our economy and our bodies.” The Grandville resident, who has taken a few classes in GRCC’s culinary program and taught private cooking classes, says he sees plenty of people who can’t cook well but have the desire to do so. “Our classes might give them the idea that it’s attainable to do some basic things. Grand Rapids Cooking School isn’t a culinary institute. We’re here for the home cook.”
To that end, the cooking school offers two types of classes, both held in Eastown’s Uptown Kitchen. Demonstration classes aim to be interactive and casual, with a focus on learning about cooking principles, techniques and tips. “If you can go out to dinner, you can come to a cooking class,” says McKellar. “It’s like a fun way to go out to eat and experience the process of the food being made rather than having it made in the kitchen and presented to you.” At a recent Lobster Ravioli demonstration class, the atmosphere is friendly and convivial, with participants including a mother and son duo, an accomplished hobby cook, a professional chef, and two couples on a date night. The attendees trade tips on the best local ethnic markets, where to find a good goat cheese, and best out-of-town restaurants while passing around a pitcher of just-made basil lemonade and watching Clauhs and McKellar knead the pasta dough.
For more hands-on classes, says Clauhs, participants should come with a very basic level of knowledge and a willingness to try things in small groups. McKellar and Clauhs are right beside the participants to guide their technique as they make the food, something Clauhs has been doing since watching her own mother lead cooking classes on their farm in Pennsylvannia. “For me it was always whole foods from scratch. That’s influenced me a lot, and it gave me a skill, which not many people fresh out of college have. I’m grateful for that -- to know how to do something, to at least feed myself well.” Upcoming hands-on classes include vegetarian party fare, vegan and gluten-free baking, and a spring steakhouse experience.
McKellar says Grand Rapids Cooking School feels strongly about keeping the classes accessible. “We’re not going to throw a bunch of French culinary terms at you. We’re just going to be real, like the food that we make.”
Guest instructor Linsey Herman echoes this goal. Herman, a professional chef by training who met Clauhs at a Starving Artist
dinner, stepped away from the kitchen several years ago to pursue a career in food product development, but enjoys keeping one toe in the kitchen by teaching the occasional class. Her goal, like the overall goal of the school, is “to get people as excited about the topic as I am and demystify as much of it as I can. I think people get intimidated by things they haven’t done before, and I like to help them realize that cooking really isn’t that complicated. Everyone should feel confident in the kitchen.”
Herman, who recently moved to Grand Rapids from Chicago, also says teaching at the school has helped her to meet and connect with like-minded people. So far, Grand Rapids Cooking School has promoted itself solely using social media and word of mouth, so connections like these help grow the school one eager eater at a time.
“Right now, we’re selling out classes just by using Facebook, our website and grassroots marketing,” says McKellar. Once the school’s reach grows, the two say they have plans for expanded class offerings, corporate team-building experiences, more guest chefs, culinary bus trips, and programs geared specifically toward populations that might need a little cooking boost, like new homeowners, newlyweds, low-income neighborhoods and college students.
In the meantime, McKellar and Clauhs are happy to be a part of Grand Rapids’ burgeoning food scene. “We work hard, but we’re rewarded with good food,” says McKellar. “That’s a pretty good reward.”
Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.
Chris McKellar and Molly Clauhs teach at the Grand Rapids Cooking School.
Photography by ADAM BIRD