Paloma Salazar stood poised, knees slightly bent, tension in her arms, a look of concentration etched in her generally round genial face. The East Palo Alto special needs teacher and mother of three who immigrated from Mexico in 1995 had done this hundreds of times, the quick flipping of a perfectly cooked flan from its cooking bowl to the serving plate.
More often than not, the beautifully domed flan emerges stunningly perfect from the bowl coated in the warm, luscious flowing caramel. Still, she knows — as does every home cook — that sometimes recipes just don’t turn out. Even with a tradition of blessing the pot with a cross and a prayer, sometimes the flan emerges from the bowl not as a perfect dome but as a still tasty but otherwise less elegant mess.
Today Salazar has said an extra prayer. It is her second class as a cooking instructor for the burgeoning Silicon Valley start-up, Culture Kitchen, and a group of eight students and the two heads of the company are watching her technique with rapt attention. With one swift motion, Salazar turns the bowl onto the plate, and with an internal sigh of relief, she sees the decadent caramel sauce pour down on top of the fully intact custard.
Perhaps at this moment, a professional chef would think about garnishing the dessert, but Salazar passes around spoons so the class can join in her favorite part of making flan — eating the small caramelized bits of custard and sauce that stuck inside the flan bowl. Smiling with childlike satisfaction, Salazar and the rest of the class take a moment to enjoy the less sophisticated sweet treat, a moment that feels familiar – even to those who had never had flan.
The basic idea behind Culture Kitchen is to have exceptional home cooks who specialize in the cuisines of their home countries teach their secrets, recipes and culture to eager local cooks wanting to try something new. The instructors, most of whom have never had formal training, are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who have literally been cooking their family recipes and cultural staples since childhood.
As an instructor, Salazar is still getting the hang of things. When asked how large to cut the potatoes for the main dishes she responds not with exact measurements but with, “Three small, and three not so small.”
But perfect technique and exact recipes are not the point of the classes, say Culture Kitchen founders Abby Sturges, 29, and Jennifer Lopez, 24. “There are so many ways you can be an expert in cooking,” Lopez said.
“People want to learn to make Vietnamese,” Sturges said, “Now you can have a Vietnamese grandmother teach you.”
“These women are experts of their culture and their cuisine,” Sturges added.