Cooking Chops

Arriving at the unexpected oasis of vegetables, herbs and greens tucked beside Smithtown’s Elegant Eating, I transitioned to an organic space where everything is a potential ingredient. Myra Naseem and Neil Schumer, owners of the catering company, have been in business since 1987. But four years ago Naseem fulfilled a lifelong dream when she started to host cooking classes in the company’s commercial kitchen. Beginners have come to learn the basics, but experienced cooks have also attended to pick up new recipes and techniques.

Before class began Schumer brought us outside to see his garden. Everything, he said, was fair game for use as either food or garnish. He showed us strawberries, thyme, sage and other herbs, greens like arugula and Swiss chard, Asian pears, figs, fennel and mentioned that he also grows pumpkins. As we completed our tour Schumer showed us some mint he’d picked to pep up a fresh watermelon drink.

Naseem, a former home economics teacher, has over 30 years of teaching experience. She and chef Pete Baran, a former restaurant chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, teach the cooking classes that Elegant Eating holds 10 to 15 times per month. They are a culinary odd couple—Naseem meticulously follows recipes while Baran often deviates, changing ingredients, searing instead of grilling and hardly ever measuring.

The class I attended was assigned to prepare a Hawaiian luau. Naseem creates themed menus for all of her classes; among the most popular are fresh mozzarella making, sushi and steak classes and cake baking. Sixteen amateur cooks filed in to the kitchen to watch the chefs explain how to make pineapple rice salad, coconut fried shrimp, rum-glazed pork and pineapple upside-down cake. The demo portion of the lesson lasted an hour and a half and the classes take up two and a half hours (not including eating). Naseem walked the students through the dessert and side dishes, peppering her instructions with practical tips and anecdotes from her years of experience. Baran took over for the main courses, balancing his knife work and his talking points with a casual ease.

This wasn’t just a spectator class, however. After the chefs wrapped up their demos, the students were put to work. Naseem said her classes are unique because her kitchen is large enough to accommodate big groups cooking together. (Companies often use the space for team building.) Nothing was prepared before the students walked in. Everything they eat, they make, Naseem said.

The room came to life when the group broke up to tackle individual assignments. Two participants began pulverizing watermelon for the fresh mint-spiked drink. Two more began chopping vegetables for the rice salad. A father-son duo was baking the pineapple upside-down cake, while a mother-daughter team breaded and fried coconut shrimp. Blenders whirred, mixers spun and pans sizzled—a culinary symphony.

Some students were skilled while others stumbled. Instructors floated around the kitchen assisting those who peered at the recipe boards with furrowed brows. When one student made an error with the cake batter—adding four times the amount of flour the recipe called for—Naseem swooped in, tasted the batter and declared the mixture would be perfect for muffins. “You can fix anything but burnt,” she told the class.

When the last shrimp was fried and the last drink blended, the cooks emerged from the kitchen, tossed aside their red aprons and transformed into restaurant patrons. The dining table was laid out in accordance with the luau motif—seashells, bright napkins and pineapple-shaped cocktail glasses (a small lesson in presentation). The lights were dimmed, the drinks were poured and everyone sat down to enjoy the fruits (and meats) of their labors.

Smithtown-based Elegant Eating offers culinary classes to suit a variety of needs and interests. Class schedules and reservations at