How Cooking with the Best Chefs Got Started
By Bill Lavery, Founder
Many have asked me about the history of Cooking with the Best Chefs(SM) and how we got started. Whether you simply enjoy good food or you're interested in starting a cooking school, or whether you're a home cook or a professional chef, food always begins with family and is responsible for the many memories it gives us all during our lives. It was no different in our family, relatives on both sides introduced me to different parts of the culinary world.
I enjoyed cooking for myself during junior high and high school. My mother didn't seem to mind and would ask me what items I needed from the store. Although at that time I worked for Mr. and Mrs. Stewart, in the "White Store," our neighborhood grocery store. Some people called it the "Dairy Store,", even though it had its own meat market. I would learn about different food items while I stocked them. I often talked to the different vendors who came into the store. Ahtough looking back on it now...they probably thought I was nuts. Many years later, I would run into Mr. and Mrs. Stewart and they would tell people how I was their best employee. I think they were either being very, very nice, or probably forgot how many times I was late due to the school paper or another school activity, or the times when I dropped breakable glass jars.
You wouldn’t think an Irish grandmother would like to cook as much as mine did. She was terrific, very kind and friendly, and was always willing to teach me. Sometimes it was making Slovak drobe, a potato sausage which my whole family liked, especially at holidays and birthdays, or her famous Chicken Fricassee, or a lemon meringue pie from scratch (both the sweet dough and the pie with real lemons which became a curd). Her homemade candies were just as good. Grandma Anna Quigley had a next door neighbor, Mrs. Anderson, who was Swedish and also had a great smelling kitchen. I spent so many Saturday mornings watching her make homemade cinnamon buns, various strudels, and breads, that I picket up a few things.
My great aunt and uncle on my father’s side, lived on the south side of Chicago, and didn’t have any children. I visited them almost every month and usually got assigned cutting grass or taking down the screens in the fall and helping put up the storm windows. Did I mention that this was a very long time ago?
My great aunt Louise was very French, and was a great cook, singer and watercolor artist. She was my very own Auntie Mame. I also got to know my great-grandmother Messenie, aunt Louise's mother, who was born in Messenie, in the Alsace area of France. I now appreciate the fact that despite her age, I could still talk to her about pickled pigs feet, blood sausage and why French pastries were better than Austrian pastries. She was a very determined person and even when she passed away at 98, still liked to cook, talk about food, and run her own home.
I grew up in Joliet, Illinois, and everything was very "white." I always loved getting away from home, even if it was only to the south side of Chicago. Because life was so different when I visited my aunt Louise and uncle Don. I was able to meet many of their friends who were Lithuanian, Swedish, black, Jewish, and every ethnicity and religious background under the rainbow. I really enjoyed taking the train uptown to Chicago to dine at the old Berghoff German restaurant, and go to great pastry shops, then on Michigan avenue, and the original and very large Shop and Stop International Market. It had so many different fresh and canned food items, and hanging poultry, hams, and other foods that it was like taking a trip. I know it sounds like a stretch, but I even remember some of the smells. The good ones.
Every meal my aunt Louise cooked was a great meal. Even when we were at our family’s summer home in Monticello, Indiana. Once I remember the weather was really bad when we first arrived. Aunt Louise had only brought a few things from home. But within a couple of hours, I had my first souffle, beef rouladen and a spinach dish. With just some eggs, lefover slices of beef, pickles and spinach, she created a meal that I still remember today. She was very creative and loved cooking. So did all her friends. I met and became friends with a professional chef friend of my aunt’s and uncle’s, Cyril Demuth. He was the head pastry chef at the old Stevens Hotel, now the Conrad Hilton. He created the cake for the city of Chicago for its public celebration of the "S Curve" on Lake Shore Drive in the 30s, and also created the huge cake for Queen Elizabeth’s first visit to Chicago, when she was 17. His wife liked to cook, too, and always brought me into the kitchen to teach me whenever we visited their home. But it was Cyril who first taught me how to make my first roux, and the differences and uses between a light and dark roux. He gave me one of my first professional saucepans which I still use today.
Food memories are strong ones, aren’t they? Even ones where you aren’t actually eating. One day while on aother visit to my aunt Louise’s, the weather was bad and she made me watch a new television show with her. I watched Julia Child during one of her first nationally televised shows. I remember that at first I didn’t like it and couldn’t believe that people would watch someone cook on tv. After all, you couldn’t smell or taste the food...what was this all about? I told my Aunt that it was dumb and didn’t like it. But the next day, I caught myself asking what time it was, and there we were watching Julia Child drop chickens and have what looked like, a lot fun.
I was on the newspaper staff at my high school all four years, and during my sophomore year, I wrote a long article about some friends of mine who I was trying to help stay in business. A Greek family had owned The Sweet Shoppe, in downtown Joliet, for generations. They still sold phosphate colas and shakes. Everything was hand made, including the whipped cream. They had one of the last soda parlors, and a pretty good sized one. A long counter had high chairs for everyone to enjoy their soda's, or whatever. But a bank wanted the property for a parking lot and I remember my friends didn't receive enough of a payment to relocate. It was one of those times in life you'd rather forget. The Joliet Herald-News, much to their credit, not only ran my story, but took at least 5-6 photo's and gave it two entire pages. But as you already know, it didn't help.
All of this was was decades prior to the TV Food Network and most Americans were still "frying" up a storm. And most midwest household cooks had never even heard of a portobello mushroom. Garlic was still mainly found in homes with Italian ancestry!
After college, in April, 1973, I started The Lavery Company, a small advertising, marketing and public relations agency. I provided public relations services, including special events, for different kinds of clients. Chef demonstrations became a specialty for local special events and trade shows.
In 1991, I created Cooking with the Best Chefs for clients who wanted on-going publicity which they would receive from the cooking classes. Within two months, it became a second business, but more of an advocation, which it still is today.
I knew if I created a class format where professional chefs could teach home cooks of all ages, at least three dishes for a reasonable price, it would probably be a hit. My goal was to add different locations throughout Northern Illinois so people didn’t have to drive too far to attend one of our classes. I wanted to keep the prices low enough so even a single parent with children could still afford to attend a few classes each season.
It worked. I noticed other cooking schools starting within a few years after we began. But their prices were much higher, sometimes double or even triple. It was only four years ago that I created a membership where members and their family could register for class discounts. Memberships are still $25 for a year.
It’s nice to be noticed, and when Bob Don, the owner of Edward Don & Sons, one of the largest food equipment distributors in the U.S., located right here in North Riverside, IL, hired us to coordinate the cooking demonstrations during the National Restaurant Show, at McCormick Place, it ran into a three year stint. And they were a lot of fun. We did two-hour demonstrations with six chefs each. Now th company does capability videos at their large booth. I know our food attracted almost as many people as the nearby beer tents!
We’ve produced more than 9,000 cooking and baking classes, working with more than 400 chefs. Some of the chefs we originally worked with have begun to retire or have moved away. But we still work with about 20 chefs who did classes with me our first year. After that much time you become good friends. Our goal is to have 8 locations where we do classes the same night every other week, along with some weekend hands-on, kids and teens, and singles classes at each location.
The food industry, especially in Chicago, is a friendly and helpful group. Most chefs are very giving people, with information and the many, many charity events in which they participate. But I've noticed that the local chefs who have cookbooks or television shows don't seem to do classes with us. One of these chefs said to me in a telephone conversation that he didn't know if home cooks would "get" his food. I said, "what?" Our classes have represented just about every kind of cooking style, cuisine and ethnicity imaginble. The people who attend our classes run the gamut from school teachers, business owners, upper and middle level management, tv camermen, physicians and nurses, to single moms and dads. Most of our chefs and vendors are typical of the Chicago culinary community at large. Everybody knows each other, either directly or through reputation, and are one of the nicest bunch of people I've ever met. I’ve been introduced to many new chefs through out existing chef instructors. And in return, have assisted some of them to obtain executive chef positions. Just like the old saying says, "what goes around, comes around."
Despite the fact that there’s many cooking schools and individuals doing classes in the Chicago area now, we still attract many new members every season...actually every week. After ten years of using same website, I finally replaced it at the beginning of 2008, with a membership-based website that will help me manage our growing group.
My hat off to the Public Broadcasting System, and our own WTTW-TV for their support of chefs and giving them an audience to teach Chicago and America about the huge variety of foods. PBS was the very first with their early tv shows, such as Julia Child, Jaques Pepin, and others. And now the Discovery network for their chef inspired cooking shows, and the Food Network for bringing a wonderful array of some of the best chefs in America and beyond to our tv sets. And the ever-changing network has introduced challenges across America as well. But without smell-o-vision, our cooking and baking classes are a nice addition to the wonderful world that us foodies live in.
We all have such a short time on this earth, and I hope sometime before I'm done, to find someone who loves food, and talking about it and teaching it as much as I do. Someone younger with a lot of energy, smarts, and financial support, who would take Cooking with the Best Chefs to the next level. And later to keep an eye out for someone to continue it...after them.
America's interest in cooking is only going to get greater. Especially with the challenge and interest in creating healthy dishes that taste good, and cooking smaller portions for an aging population. Thank God for the appliance manufacturers and the new super dooper freezers!
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