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Cooking’s an Art at That Cooking School

Chef Alex Niemer demonstrates the three items we’ll be preparing that day.

I don’t know which excited my young reporter-in-training partner more: The purple stove (her favorite color) or being surrounded by other kids in front of canvases with the lightly penciled outline of a cow on them.

Lily Speake, 7, and I were on assignment at That Cooking School in Lilydale (having her name as the location, bonus) for its Paint and Cook 5+ class on the Saturday after Christmas. I had run into the owner, Bill Niemer, formerly with the culinary school at Ai, at a Hospitality MN fundraiser where he filled me in on the school he had started with his wife, an artist, and his son.

The name, he pointed out, was easily remembered, because most people looking for culinary classes utter at least once: “What was the name of That Cooking School?”

The class was not inexpensive, $65 each, but we got a lot for our money: two original paintings suitable for hanging, art instruction, a cooking class and lunch. We should probably note here that while I ate what I cooked, Lily wrapped up her overly touched food and took it home for her lucky parents to eat.

No two cows are alike as Lily Speake will discover after she adds her painting to the group effort.

Molly Durkin, Niemer’s wife and partner in the school, introduced the art portion, while their son, Alex, handled culinary duties. Alex explained that while he hadn’t gone to culinary school like his father, he had gone “to the school of hard knocks with my dad.” The joke went right over Lily’s head, but I laughed.

While we were given step-by-step directions on how to paint our cow like the one projected on the screen, we were also encouraged to be creative. Only one grandmother got a little crazy and painted her cow pink, the rest of us did standard-issue cows, with a few minor transgressions like a gold halo or clouds instead of hearts. 

After we all showed off our canvases and received lavish praise, we washed our hands and moved into the kitchen.

Lily and I had already called purple stove, and Alex was nice enough to preheat it for us, even though he hadn’t been planning on using it. I felt bad about shooing off a mother and her son who were about to claim it, but I

Lily Speake, 7, concentrates as she rolls out the dough for her calzone. 

didn’t hesitate (did I mention purple was Lily’s favorite color?).

Alex demonstrated how to roll out the proofed dough to make a calzone. The fillings were marinara sauce, shredded cheese, tiny buds of sausage and pepperoni. Next up was an egg bake. After we cracked the egg in a small bowl, we were to add cheese and mix it with the fork we had used earlier to crimp the edges of our calzone. “Does anyone have a question?” Alex asked. Lily raised her hand: “Do we have to have cheese?” She was reassured she could still make a decent egg bake with just an egg. (Actually to get Lily to eat the dish, we should have also eliminated the egg.)

Our dessert was “banoreos,” a healthy version of Oreo cookies. We each sliced our half of the banana into coins and then joined them with peanut butter to make a sandwich. “Want to try one?” I asked Lily. “Is it Jiff peanut butter, cause I only eat Jiff peanut butter?” she replied. Alex checked. “It’s Upper Lakes peanut butter,” he reported. The banoreos went on the plate with the egg bake to take home.

That Cooking School has been around about three-and-a-half years. When they first started it, Durkin says, they thought they’d be doing more adult cooking classes, but their business has evolved into corporate team-building events and private parties. They routinely do classes for the Down Syndrome Society to teach life skills, such as 10 different ways to cook eggs and how to make soup. And a specialty that has evolved is leadership training through cooking for healthcare teams. 

As we left the school, Lily was already making plans to come back. I had told her mother that I was only going to do a story if it was story worthy. As we were painting the blue background around our cows, Lily turned to me and said: “I think this is worth a story.” And she made it clear that this was just the first of many stories. 

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