STORY BY APRIL BAPTISTE-BROWN @warriorsaint213
WORDS BY MICHELLE MANNIX @cookspacebk
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANISHA SISODIA @anishaspice
STYLING BY KEEON MULLINS @keejermain
PIECES BY VANIA & DAVID @vaniaanddavid
Bonding over food and Southern roots, Chef Lazarus Lynch decided to pick the brain of former restauranteur and Cook Space founder, Michelle Mannix, to find out how she’s infusing culinary confidence back into the bellies of home cooks everywhere.
CHEF LAZARUS LYNCH:
So Michelle, what is Cook Space?
Michelle Mannix: Cook Space is a culinary studio and private event space where our whole focus is on building culinary confidence. I think, which is interesting because I’ve had all these influences and it doesn’t always land that well when I say this but, I think the culture of food has hijacked the culinary confidence of a lot of people.
And what I mean by that is there’s 80 million posts on Instagram of food, but are the people cooking for themselves continuing to climb? I think that the quality of what we see on television and how restaurants are scored have made people think that it has to be that way. So what I want to do is to connect people back to the joy of cooking from a place of improvisation. From fishing in your refrigerator and throwing things together from what you have, and what’s in season and what speaks to you. I feel that cooking connects you to your past and to your future. Like you: you bring your history, you bring your dad, you bring your Southern-ness, but you also connect to Queens [New York] and the current world. You only do that when you get your head out of a recipe and you push yourself beyond your comfort zone. I think recipes are a guide; I’m not anti-recipe, but if that’s your only place and you’re still ‘What do they want me to do?’ You don’t learn balance, you don’t learn season, you don’t learn what happens to food when you just play with it.
[Cook Space] is basically the brick and mortar space of what I'm talking about [in my book]. Mastering a new mindset and taking an approach to cooking that's different: ingredient driven first vs recipe driven. Because I feel like that's coming from a place of ‘What does somebody else think I should make with this?’ versus ‘What do I got? What do I have?’ But then maybe it's like ‘What does Laz do with okra? Let me see what he's got going.’ [I realized] when I follow recipes, I'm not as loose. It doesn't taste reflective of how I normally cook if I truly follow it. I season every layer. I’ve never in my life measured salt and pepper to go into a recipe; I think it's bizarre to do that. I get how people have to do that, but if you continue to do that your whole life, you're not cooking, you're just following instructions. So I feel like you're figuring out how to master instructions versus figuring out how to feed yourself in a way that reflects who you are. That’s why I have things like ‘Develop your own voice. Develop your own culinary expression.’ I have things like ‘Think, then don't.’
Oh I love that! It almost reminds me of the book Thug Kitchen. They're like, ‘Don't measure that s***! Pour that s***!’ It’s like that kind of dialogue.
So when we have classes here, we don't use recipes.
No recipes. Are people freaking out?
It’s a little bit out of their comfort zone but it’s basically like, ‘You’re going to roast carrots’, and they’re like, ‘Well how do I [do that]?’
That was my next question. How do you teach that?
Well this is the whole ‘Think, then don’t’. ‘How many carrots do you think I need?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. We’re twelve people. What do you think? Think about it.’ But then I’m like, ‘THEN DON’T’. What do you like? Do you like soft? Do you like sweet? Do you think the combination? How do they get soft? Think about it, but then don’t. And then just do it versus always consulting.
We’re doing culinary confidence theory, so classes will be six weeks. Almost like a yoga studio. Level 1: I don’t know how to cook at all. You come here every 6 weeks, there’s homework, there’s exercises, it’s basic. Knife skills, braising, roasting. Like a culinary school for the home cook.
Level 2 is going to be maybe you can’t pull yourself away just yet. And then we’re going to do one off classes. Like we have a Vietnamese Street Food [class]. Very specific. And then even with that class, we still don’t want it to be ‘Now everybody measure one quarter cup of this…Get your oil hot…How do you know it’s hot?’ Whatever! We don’t have answers, but it’s just going a little bit outside the lines. Coloring outside the lines.
It’s like it’s not right. It’s not wrong. It’s following your instincts, trusting your inner self to really guide you to good food. Which is actually how we all started cooking in the first place. There was no recipe.
Every grandmother and every person before them, didn’t have recipes. And even when [you talk to your family], and say how do you make this, they show you, they don’t tell you. And they don’t write it down. It’s a little bit of this…a little bit of that. Unless it’s baking.
And even then! My grandmother, for example, made amazing cakes (I’m told, I never met her), but [she] never measured anything.
Well when you see Southern women doing biscuits, it’s by the feel. You don’t get that from a book. You get that from doing. And so my feeling is you get better at everything when you practice and when you take the training wheels off. And I feel like…I want to create a movement around food. And Nini [my chef] wants that too.
Well cheers to that movement! *cheers*
It’s great! We’ve been testing classes all summer and it’s been really going well. We’re going to do private events here [as well].
Home cooks are not just mothers, fathers. I’ve always thought of home cooks as sort of like…the stay-at-home mom.
And that’s why I don’t like to use that word. When I said culinary studio, I wanted this place to not [have] any pretentions. What I like to say is that we’re dismantling the cooking experience. Taking the fear out of it. Taking the ego out of it. Taking it and making it approachable. So I designed this space specifically to look like a very cool apartment. Because what do you do when you’re at your friend’s cool apartment? You relax. You have fun. You help yourself. If you’re in a sterile cooking school environment, you feel intimidated. And you feel like you have to cook like a chef. And we don’t all have to cook like a chef. You just have to feed yourself in a beautiful way. And then you can get better. But you only get better by practicing.
So what started this whole idea for you?
To be completely honest, it was almost like one of those universe things. When I was closing my restaurant [Ted & Honey], it was a beloved type that people liked. I’m not saying that to brag, but people felt connected to [it] because they went there every day. It was celebratory, and this woman was saying, “You’re like magic!” I’ve never had anybody say that to me, and it was the sweetest thing. And I think like a month later I was a little bit lost, so I just emailed her and she happened to be a literary agent. I said “I'm thinking about writing a book, and I’ve never thought about writing a book one f****** day in my life, no joke. But I just throw things out there sometimes.” And she immediately emailed back and she’s like, “I don’t do that…but this guy does it.” He emails me in all caps “I LOVED TED & HONEY”. So I go in there. I’m powerwalking every day. I’m meditating and I’m just like, ‘What do I have to say? Ted & Honey, I wasn’t the culinary part.’ That was my brother. He went to culinary school. I mean I was a line cook, and I did go to culinary school later in life, but that wasn’t my angle. So I said to myself, ‘What do I have to say?’
So I had a couple aha moments, and I thought my skill set is fit to do something. I can make environments come to life. With catering I used to do that. You know, I’d drop off a cookie platter and it’d be beautiful and all that, [but] I realized this doesn’t help people. ‘Where’s the back up? What do they do with the dirties?’ Because I was thinking like a caterer, and then I was thinking like a restaurant person. So I’m thinking, ‘This isn’t helpful.’ It’s just executing someone else’s vision the way they want to without any insight into why, where, the circumstances, your apartment, your budget, your life. So I then started to ask myself what do I have to say, and I [realized] I enter the flow and the zone when I cook, and I only do that when I’m throwing it together. That’s when my food taste best, and that’s when I feel the best. So I thought to myself, no wonder why people aren’t cooking! If they’re only doing recipes, it is a little more stressful. You wait. You’re pausing. You’re out of the zone and going back into your head and you’re out of your heart.
So how can people support Cook Space? What can they do?
Well one thing that’s different from a restaurant, no one’s going to know I’m open! So social [media], this world that I have to embrace now, follow! Spread the word! Sign up for a class! But I also think that what you and I can take from this is, if we get people saying, ‘I really want to figure out a way to make it in this industry!’ I’d be happy to give people advice on how to open a restaurant. How to start a business. What it takes and that kind of thing. You launch brands in different ways too, so it’s like that sort of collective new world [meets] old world. So they can support that way. But they can also come here and take a class. And they’re going to be affordable and we’re going to do some community things meaning like lower price points. Like I said to you, I don’t want this to be all white. And I mean that metaphorically speaking meaning when food’s all on the white plates and it’s simple. Food is dirty and people aren’t all white. I want this to be a place with lots color and influence in many ways.
For more information on Michelle Mannix and Cook Space Brooklyn, check out cookspacebrooklyn.com and follow @CookSpaceBK on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter.