East Harriet Cooking Coach Teaches Students to Trust Their Taste Buds
With a few simple techniques, East Harriet cooking coach Jen Antila will teach you the confidence to make amazing food fit for an Iron Chef competition.
Jen Antila is, quite possibly, one of the most interesting cooking coaches you might meet in Southwest Minneapolis.
Recently, Patch interviewed her over a lunch of homemade lasagna and salad. This was no ordinary lasagna, though—blue cheese, walnut halves, parsley, and a smattering of other ingredients layered between flavorful, parchment-thin homemade noodles.
Blue cheese lasagna. Who'da thunk it?
As we ate, Antila tested Patch's taste buds by having us try to identify all the ingredients. The sharp, and nutty cheese contrasted with clean flavors of herbs while the slightly crunch nuts balanced out the creamy cheese and added another layer of flavor complexity. As Antila unpacked the recipe, her bounty of cooking knowledge shown brightly, alongside a giddy delight in sharing it. The recipe, it turned out, was completely made-up, inspired only by a desire to make "something Italian" for our lunch and the odds and ends of ingredients left over from other meals that week.
Teaching the kind of enthusiastic confidence it takes to put blue cheese in a lasagna and serve it to a stranger writing about your business is at the heart of Antila's cooking classes, she said.
"My ultimate objective is to get people to love cooking, and to trust their own palate," she explained. "Where my practice differs from other (teachers) is my emphasis on not giving you the fish, but instead teaching you how to fish."
That approach was on show at four classes she recently taught for her neighbors, who bought the sessions as an anniversary present for one another. The syllabus focused only on knife skills; essential techniques like sauces, and making grocery lists; and the basics of how to keep a your fridge stocked with ingredients you can whip up into quick weeknight meals without a recipe.
The concepts were then seasoned the making of four meals, each building on and reinforcing one another. Mastering a few cores kills, Antila explained, opens a great many doors to the amateur chef. Even when working off of cookbook recipes, she said, she urges her students to avoid making it by the book without adding their own flourish.
That kind of confidence in the kitchen even comes in handy when you make a "mistake"—Antila's not a fan of the word—because each time food doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to, she explained, it will always teach you something you didn't know about how flavors and materials interact.
Plus, she mentioned with a smile, "you're alone in the kitchen. Never apologize and pretend it's how it's supposed to be. If you miss something important, you'll have the technique and confidence to cover it up and make it work."
Antila's business, Catalyst Cooks, got started several years ago as Antila found herself reevaluating her life as a manager at a major downtown retailer. She had always loved cooking, she said, and had taught herself the nuts, bolts, and details earlier in life. After taking some weeks off to think about just what she wanted to do in life, she almost fell into the idea of being a kitchen coach when she started using her free time to make creative lunches for her husband and his coworkers.
"I decided I could blend my love of hosting dinners—when I was young, I had little dinner parties almost every night—and the coaching aspect of my former management job that I really enjoyed," Antila said.
Since then, her life has evolved into one of food. When she's not teaching in-home cooking classes around the Twin Cities, or classroom sessions at Cooks of Crocus Hill, Antila manages the tasting room at Parley Lake Winery in Waconia, MN.