Embracing life’s little messes: How Cook Space is taking the fear out of cooking

Kevin Assam
Sep 20, 2017 · 16 min read

Cook Space is the latest venture and the NYC culinary studio founded by CEO, Michelle Mannix. It offers highly intimate and collaborative classes that encourage all levels of foodies to get back into the kitchen and reacquaint themselves with the simplicity of cooking. Also comprising the core team are the Culinary Director — Nini Nguyen — and the Creative Producer — Lara Southern.

How did the core team first get together and decide to combine forces moving forward?

Nini: Michelle and I worked together at her businesses Ted & Honey and Parker Red, and when she asked me to help develop and hire someone to help her, I couldn’t imagine not being the Culinary Director at Cook Space. Lara and I were friends before we started working together here. When she showed interest in joining our team, we thought it was Christmas in July. Lara is delightful with a sharp eye for excellence. I feel privileged to work with such talented and wonderful women.

Lara: I came upon Cook Space by sheer luck — I met Nini through friends she’d worked with at EMP and had always admired her lack of ego in spite of her extraordinary talent. When I learned more about what she and Michelle had created with Cook Space, I couldn’t quite believe it — from mission to execution, it encompasses everything I could hope to find in my dream work environment. Meeting Michelle was the clincher — you’ll never meet two more passionate, driven, hilarious, and supportive women.

Michelle: I worked with Nini for a few months just before I closed my previous food businesses. She was about to travel to Vietnam and filled in for several months as our sous chef — she ended up overseeing both Parker Red and Ted & Honey in a very short time. Once I found the space and had this concept, I reached out to her early on. I knew she was not only a talented and smart chef, she also had experience teaching at various cooking schools.

We spent the summer hosting test classes, private friends, family events, and outfitting the space, when we realized we needed a third person. I thought someone was playing a joke on me when Lara reached out. She ended up bringing things beyond what we were asking. It’s great, as it really allows us to expand our vision.

What meals have been the most important throughout your past?

Nini: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday — you are surrounded by friends and family and the day is all about food. My favorite Thanksgiving memory was at my home in New Orleans with my fellow “orphan” chef friends. We shared a potluck meal on an extremely long table that went from my dining room into my living room. We sat, ate, and watched Jurassic Park. I felt like a real adult that year.

The second most important meal is all of the family meals I’ve had with staff. Sometimes you don’t get a chance to know the person cooking next to you. No matter how busy the day was, having time to share a meal was always the best part of the day. It’s cliché but every restaurant is a family — you celebrate together, you get your ass kicked together, and you drink after a hard day of work together.

Lara: Oh, this is so difficult! My most memorable meals are probably wildly unremarkable from an outside perspective — barefoot breakfasts with my father in South Africa, late night sticky rice, and sat ua [fermented Thai sausage] shared among friends on a Bangkok street corner. The most important meals are actually less about what’s on the table and more about the people around it. No matter how exquisite the plating or pristine the tablecloth, the meal is nothing without the people.

Michelle: I agree with Lara — this is a hard one, as I truly love nothing more than being with friends and family around food. I’ve built a career around it. I love eating outside and we go to a beach in the North Fork on the Long Island Sound and have picnic dinners and watch the sunset. It’s occasionally just the three of us — my husband, Dan, and son Jackson — but often it becomes a beautiful mess of friends, neighbors and family. We usually have fried chicken from a local favorite place, corn, tomatoes, rosé, and all kinds of summery bites. We build beach fires and swim in the cold sound — just thinking about it makes me a bit sad to see summer on its way out. It’s heaven.

Why is the language of cooking sometimes so complicated? Do you feel that terms like “folding an egg white” and “boning a chicken” just confuse those now starting out?

Nini: I think this complicated language was developed and is still developing to make food sound more intangible or intimidating. Chefs don’t want you to know that you can easily make the same food. They want job security. Making things sound fancier helps them by making normal people scared to make their own food. We want to take that language and simplify it, make it accessible, and take the fear out of cooking.

Lara: I’m not sure how the verbiage became so unwieldy and confusing. Perhaps it was an attempt to romanticize the process or add an air of prestige? There are some extremely talented chefs who can do things with food I couldn’t fathom attempting and they deserve serious credit for what they’ve achieved. That said, the language surrounding cooking needn’t be so precious and intimidating — it acts as a deterrent to those interested in learning more but lacking the confidence to do so.

Michelle: I’m not sure if they’re confusing but they can add a layer of intimidation that needn’t be there. The challenge I have with a lot of cookbooks and recipes is that they aren’t communicating what lends to a deeper understanding of what you are doing. Most recipes are set up as steps — lots of them — making things seem long and difficult. Continually measuring salt and pepper won’t help you understand that you should season every layer of your cooking and that you should taste along the way. It also doesn’t help you understand ratios so you can recreate [recipes] on the fly based on how much you have or need something. Alice Waters tends to write her recipes like someone telling you how to make something — that makes sense to me. Cuisines and recipes have been passed down for generations and they all include using intuition, your touch — not strict adherence to a set of steps.

In light of a very divisive political period in the USA, on top of other day to day challenges, do you see more people wanting to learn about cuisine as a way as way to achieve comfort?

Nini: Not to sound cheesy, but I think the best way to understand another person’s culture is to share a meal. I learned so much from friends by having a meal in their home. There is something intimate and vulnerable about it. Letting someone into your home is much more than just entering the building. It gives you a better sense of their life, giving you the chance notice the similarities. When I meet people from other places, I always have a conversation about a dish from their country — it’s a great way to break the ice. Everyone loves food and if you know more types of food, you will learn more love.

Lara: I recently spent three months traveling — from South Africa, through Vietnam, China, and Japan. Despite wild differences between the places I visited, one thing remained constant — the expression of love through food. The way different cultures approach the ingredients at their disposal, the way traditions and recipes are passed down from generation to generation, says so much about a culture.

As many parts of the Western world become increasingly and discouragingly nationalistic, it’s important to remind ourselves just how extraordinarily diverse and beautiful the world is and how much we have to learn from one another. Food is a fundamental component of this.

Michelle: Without a doubt! Sharing a meal is a universal experience. I think cooking is one of the most simple and profound ways you can show someone — including yourself — love. In a world more online than ever, the act of cooking for yourself and others connects you to your past, your present, and others in ways that go deep.

In a time that feels very dark for many, I’m hopeful of the spirit of so many people wanting to wake up, connect, stand up, and move away from the hateful rhetoric towards a more kind, unified, and beautifully diverse community. Food is a key ingredient in this.

You all put a lot of effort and I imagine money into the aesthetics of the cooking space. Why was that important?

Michelle: Atmosphere can lift you up, bring you down, create intimidation, and other feelings you may not even think about. Having had a neighborhood café where the aesthetics — while very DIY — played a key role, I knew how vital it would be to create a place that would make you feel a certain way. It’s also one of the aspects I enjoy the most. While I put a decent amount of money into it, I actually put far less than you would probably guess.

I didn’t hire an architect or general contractor. I designed the look and feel — with a lot of input from a few friends — myself using a range of products from Ikea to Noguchi with intention, function, and form always in mind.

A driving force in our mission is to build confidence and take the intimidation and fear out of cooking. It was extremely important to create an aesthetic, vibe, and approach that would align. The open pantry and peg board were intentional as was the open dining hutch. We want our guests and students to feel comfortable taking tools, platters, and other things off the shelves and that feels easier when you aren’t digging through cabinets and drawers.

How do you keep a space’s design fresh while bracing for spillages, open flames, and what usually is a lot of mess?

Nini: You aren’t doing it right if you don’t get a little dirty. Messes are bound to happen and cleaning while you cook is a key component to making sure you aren’t spending more time cleaning than enjoying cooking.

I worked with a woman who is a food stylist and photographer. She would always use her beautiful tableware and linens for every meal. Her motto was:

“If you only save the beautiful stuff for special occasions, you will never use them.”

I adapted this mentality and started to surround myself with beautiful things and used them daily. It makes me happier. I used to worry about ruining or breaking things and now I just enjoy. People should let go and enjoy what is here today.

Lara: It’s certainly a balance figuring out how to keep the aesthetic personal and inviting but also functional. Michelle did an incredible job of imbuing the studio with character, finding beautiful flooring tile, and using unique vintage pieces while ensuring the space is fluid and flexible to accommodate multiple needs. A general rule of thumb to maintain some semblance of tidiness is to give yourself room in the kitchen, physically and time wise. It’s funny how much having a prep list or plan of action can streamline the whole process.

The kitchen is a place to make mistakes. Getting messy is half the fun. One of the important facets of Cook Space is playing in the kitchen, experimenting, and being creative — which will mean making a few messes. Having the space be beautiful to begin with compels you to clean as you go, maintaining a level of respect both for the ingredients you’re working with and the tools you’re using. I think there’s something kind of beautiful in life’s little messes.

Michelle: We’re restaurant people and it’s just in our blood and DNA to break down a place thoroughly and regularly. We are also trying to pass along approaches and insights from professional kitchens and how cooks think and operate. One aspect of that is cleaning while you cook. Not only does that keep you engaged in the process of cooking, but done right you are almost done with clean up before you sit down to eat.

As far as keeping it fresh, you’ll need to check back in with us in about six months. Leaning on my café and catering days — you can do so much with food, foliage, branches, florals, and tableware that can completely update a place. I’ve already been fantasizing about what we’ll do in the place around the holidays.

It was very important to me at Ted & Honey to decorate seasonally and to keep things fresh and it will be just as important at Cook Space. Food is a natural force in that freshness, which naturally leads us to how we’d make it look to our guest and in our space. It’s all beautiful and due to the ever changing nature of food and cooking — it’s always fresh.

How involved will you be with the actual teaching of the classes? Are there guest teachers who’ll come in from time to time?

Michelle: Very. Nini will be the driving force in our classes, curriculum development, and partnering with chefs. The plan is that our core team will be the primary staff in the majority of our classes. Workshops and cuisine specific classes will have guest instructors. We recently had Nina Subhas who was the former head baker at Roberta’s teach a cheese making class. For our upcoming fall semester, Nini has already secured an exciting roster of guest chef instructors all with lots to offer.

Nini: Our signature class, the Building Culinary Confidence Series, will be taught weekly by our core team. We will also have guest chefs teaching classes on their expertise subjects. Most of the chefs and myself have cooked in popular New York restaurants. From here, we will teach people techniques and make cooking more approachable with the secrets and tips we have learned.

There’s a lot of emphasis on the joys of cooking but do you think culinary classes should do a better job at helping individuals deal with more frustrating or difficult moments of life?

Nini: Culinary classes should help people deal with frustrating life moments. Every well seasoned chef still makes mistakes. I sometimes get frustrated when a dish doesn’t come out the way I imagined it. I overcooked my eggs on a dish that I was experimenting with just last night. Instead of dwelling on my mistake, I have the urge to make it again and perfect it because the messed up dish that I ate was still delicious. I know that next time it will be better. Finding the silver lining is very important in life. Perspective plays a very strong role. I am a glass half full type person and hiccups are not the end of the world. You just have to remember, it’s food, there are no true mistakes. Everything can either be fixed or is a lesson learned. I feel that applies to life.

Lara: Cooking can undoubtedly be a kind of therapy — it is for me at least. These days it seems we’re all moving a million miles an hour, constantly rushing, and perpetually plugged in to whatever gadget we have handy. Cooking forces you to slow down. Working with your hands, connecting with what you’re doing, touching instead of typing, is such a calming and grounding practice that can often be sidelined in the mayhem of the modern world.

Preparing a meal also takes time, patience, and planning. Being in the kitchen and working around restaurant people is what gave me organizational tools that I apply to all areas of my life. The Culinary Confidence Series will offer students a myriad of skills to alleviate stress in their lives, while also reminding them how much joy can come from slowing down and being playful.

Michelle: I love this question. When I cook from a place of confidence — throwing things together based on what I have or am in the mood for — I can get into a meditative zone similar to a flow many people talk about with yoga, painting, or running. I think cooking can be a very grounding act and to me — slowing down and connecting with yourself and others through cooking can be a huge aid in helping individuals deal with more frustrating and difficult moments of life. Cooking can be a metaphor for so much in life.

What exactly is happening on the food and drink scene right now that made it a good time to launch your venture?

Nini: The meal kits that are so popular right now are a good sign that people want to cook at home. They might not have the confidence to do it on their own. But people want to experiment and need to be told what to do to make a successful meal. We want to empower people to think for themselves, learn basic techniques, and apply them to just about anything.

Lara: In spite of being in a city famous for its food, crammed with astonishing restaurants, and so much culinary talent, it almost feels as if there’s a growing disconnect between the consumer and where our food comes from. There’s so much emphasis on perfection and aesthetics. Now, with everyone’s camera phones whipped out at a moment’s notice, there’s an actual physical barrier between the person and the plate — Instagram doesn’t need to be the primary vehicle for appreciating a good meal.

Food can be both beautiful and accessible — the interest is clearly there. I think Cook Space is coming at a time when people are looking to re-engage with what they’re eating and have the opportunity to be part of the cooking process.

Michelle: My decision to launch this business had nothing to do with what was happening in the food and drink scene. I had a few aha moments after I closed my café and catering business while developing a book idea that essentially became Cook Space. Admittedly, many aspects of the traditional food business were no longer appealing. Having had my experience opening and running food businesses in NYC, I understood the economics much better.

What is happening in more of the wellness and mindful world made it a good time to launch Cook Space. I see people gravitating toward very specific classes, real life experiences, and activities in a big way and Cook Space fits into that nicely.

Success is subjective but what are you looking to achieve a year or three years down the line with the students and teachers of Cook Space? Is there a specific outcome in mind?

Michelle: Another great question. I’m a big fan of setting intentions, clarifying goals, and identifying what you want to see happen. Yet, we’ve been so focused on developing a strong mission that I have not spent much time on how I’d measure success at this phase. When I think about it now — having been working for the past several months with our team developing, testing classes, and hosting private events — it’s nice that it still remains the same.

For me the measurement of success for Cook Space is based on a few key components:

That our approach resonates with people and that Cook Space becomes a place to help students build a foundation to cook from a place of confidence and instinct and to develop their own culinary expression. That they can adopt an approach that will make cooking an easier, more accessible part of their lives.

That we are able to host lovely celebrations — and produce mission driven events for our community that give back — and give us another reason to connect with others over food.

For our team — success for me would be measured in ensuring that Cook Space is a great work environment that includes lots of family meals, laughter, learning, music, great conversation, hard work, and fun. There is often a lot of talk about sustainability in food systems. I’m happy that it is also becoming a bigger discussion related to creating jobs that provide sustainable lifestyles and compensation.

Its very important to me that our team not only be happy with the content of their role, but also how they are treated, paid, and how their personal life is respected.

Lara: That Cook Space offers a new kind of approach to the way we cook makes the outcome almost unquantifiable, which is kind of wonderful. It means that students’ goals are truly individualized based on what they want to achieve and on their own unique style of cooking. I hope that the Culinary Confidence Series is a safe space where people leave able to approach the kitchen with excitement, rather than with trepidation — where they can open the fridge and see possibilities rather than limitations.

I also hope it’s a place, and a concept, that people keep coming back to. For the group as a whole — students, teachers, guests alike — we want Cook Space to provide a real sense of community to celebrate, be creative, and act as a platform to discuss current issues in food and support growing local businesses that give back.

What’s wonderful about Cook Space is that Michelle and Nini have built something that is designed to expand and evolve as the conversation around food develops. This means the opportunities are limitless, which is the best kind of challenge we are privileged to tackle.

Nini: Michelle had such a great vision when she thought of Cook Space and I couldn’t help gravitate to this idea.

Cook Space| FB Page | Located at 603 Bergen Street, Brooklyn, NY 11238

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Special thanks to Rachel Van Dolsen

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

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