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Empowering Housekeepers Through Cooking

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Photo: Courtesy of Tara Wambugu

Here’s the thing: I never really planned to start a cooking school. It came about when friends started asking if I could teach their housekeepers how to make bread. Having worked for six months in a little bakery in France, I happily agreed, and Friday morning baking classes were born. Word of mouth quickly worked its magic, and soon I had three days of classes full of ladies (and occasionally, a single man) eager to bake. Our sweet focus quickly expanded to cover savory vegetarian dishes as well, and meat was added to the roster last August. At some point along the way, I enthusiastically whipped up a website and a big stack of business cards with the name of this unexpected new endeavor: The Open Table Cooking School.

The early days of Open Table were trial-and-error based, and in those first months I feel I learned as much from my students as they learned from me. I learned about the frustrating fact of being a seasoned housekeeper—many of my students have decades of experiences—who nevertheless has no professional résumé to speak of, relying instead on favorable word-of-mouth within their employer’s community to secure additional work. I realized how confusing the language of the culinary world is, the slapdash mix of French, Italian, and technical English words making it difficult for any amateur cook to decode it. I learned how hard my students work to support their children, most of whom are in boarding schools outside of Nairobi while their mothers work full-time. And I learned about which dishes kept them reaching for seconds and which received mistrustful glances and nervous bites.

At the same time, I’ve learned a great deal about the employers who send their housekeepers to classes. They are generous, thoughtful people invested in the personal & professional development of those they employ. They look forward to having more varied, nuanced dishes on their tables, of course, but ultimately sending a cook to classes sends me this message: that they care about their employee enough to provide trainings for them. I am lucky to be in contact with people whom I so naturally respect.

A big part of the reason that my clients have someone cooking for them is because the duties of professional life and childcare more than fill up the hours of the day. I receive frequent requests for dishes low in sugar, sodium, and fat, as busy working parents try to bring themselves and their children back to a more balanced diet. Another frequent question from my students concerns picky eaters: What if the child doesn’t like raisins? What if they’re allergic to peanut butter? What if they only thing they want to eat all day is macaroni and cheese? Working through these problems together is one of my favorite parts of cooking class, especially because I get to hear the next week about how our ideas worked in practice.

One sentiment that I often hear from the folks who do send their housekeeper or cook to cooking school is this: that they feel guilty about asking someone else to cook for them instead of doing it themselves. These are men and women who work 50-hour weeks, and have to commute, and they volunteer, and they’re hugely involved in their kids’ school—of course there isn’t often going to be time to roast a whole chicken, or make a stack of crêpes for everyone, or wait for loaves of bread to rise! Instead, they’re allowing themselves to be supported and nourished by others. In the process, their cooks and housekeepers come away with increased independence in the job market, improved hireability, and a network of cooking class friends who regularly call & text each other for culinary inspiration and troubleshooting.

I may not have known it at the beginning, but this cooking school is a beautiful thing.

April Dodd is the founder and head instructor at The Open Table Cooking School that runs group classes on weekday mornings and Thursday evenings. For more information get in touch on – april@opentableke.com https://openthetable.wordpress.com/

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