Immigrant Chefs Dish Up Cooking and Cultural Lessons in NYC

International Cooking Lessons for NYC Teens at League of Kitchens: Culture, Conversation, and More

While there are plenty of great cooking classes for kids in New York City, the League of Kitchens offers a special experience in which the learning goes beyond culinary education.

These classes, aimed at ages 13 and older, teach teens how to cook. But perhaps more importantly, young people discover other cultures by taking classes in the homes of immigrants. It's a genius idea, even in this diverse city, where we often don't take advantage of chances to learn from our neighbors. 

League of Kitchens was created in 2014 to facilitate an exchange of recipes and ideas. Founder Lisa Gross envisioned a program in which immigrants welcomed groups of Americans into their homes, teaching their guests about their home country's cuisine as well as its culture and history. When I accessed the website to read about Angie's Mexican cooking classes, my 9-year-old daughter, an avid baker, was excited about the dessert churros, but was too young to attend. I knew my friend's daughter Lailah is interested in cooking and met the minimum age so we decided to take the class together. Angie's apartment was in a house in Richmond Hill, a lovely, tree-filled neighborhood I'd never visited despite living in Queens for 12 years. 

Laila making tortillas. Photo by the author.

Angie greeted us both warmly and introduced us to the other participants. To kick off the festivities, we learned to make tortillas from scratch. It was my first time using a tortilla press. Even I, a somewhat impatient cook, could see how creating tortillas could be cathartic and meditative. Lailah, my young friend, worried her tortillas were too small, but Angie swooped in and set her at ease.

We sat down to a simple but tasty lunch of tomato soup and mushroom quesadillas that used our homemade tortillas. As we ate, we chatted. Damira, a charming woman who leads the Uzbek cooking classes, was there with her husband. Other attendees included a photographer, and a British economist who had just moved to the United States. Although Lailah was the only teenager there, everyone made a point to include her in conversation. Angie's well-behaved 2-year-old son rolled by on his tricycle every so often, checking in on the action while his grandmother watched him.

After lunch, we washed dishes—there's a lot of dishwashing throughout; everyone takes a turn—and started our formal cooking class. Prior to the class, we'd received information about the instructor, her neighborhood (and favorite shops nearby), and recipes, so I felt fully briefed about what was to come. The first dishes we tackled were black beans and chicken tinga; both take about two hours to prepare.

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Making tamales.

Angie walked us through the ingredients, explaining her preferred brands and types for each. We assembled the recipes as a group, learning about the different peppers used to make chicken tinga. While two pots simmered on the stove, along with a pan of arroz a la Mexicana (tomato rice), we shredded different types of cheese for enchiladas suizas. Angie explained the dish was given the Spanish name for "Swiss" because the recipe used many different kinds of dairy. We also chopped lettuce, shredded cabbage, and prepared nopales, or cacti, which was a first for both Lailah and me. (Don't worry—Angie buys them dethorned.) Finally, we fried tortillas for tostadas, learning how to tell when they were done by the way the oil bubbles. 

As we waited for everything to cook and shredded the chicken tinga for tostadas and enchiladas, Angie showed us how to make horchata in her beloved Vitamix blender. I'd seen it on menus, but somehow "rice milk" had never appealed. I learned the rice was usually uncooked, and honestly, didn't have high hopes for the taste. I was wrong—it was delicious, redolent with cinnamon and sugar. We also made Mexican hot chocolate for our dessert, and then sat down for dinner together. 

Although I'm a pescetarian (fish only), our dinner setup worked well. Half the enchiladas were vegetarian. This worked well for Lailah, who, like some teens, has aversions to certain foods. Obviously, if you have a really picky eater, a cooking class may not be your best outing, but our dinner was fairly flexible. A word of caution, however: While our dinner was on the milder side for Mexican cooking, Lailah thought some of it was very spicy. If you or your teen can't tolerate hot food, you are better off choosing a different cuisine.

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Angie in the kitchen. Photo by the author.

While it might seem awkward to spend five hours and have lunch and dinner with strangers, conversation flowed freely. Angie told us about the Dia de los Muertos and the special part food plays in that holiday. Angie, a bright and cheerful person, has overcome her share of obstacles and now pursues various creative endeavors, including compiling a guide to Mexican food in New York City. (Hint: Apparently, Los Tacos #1 in the Chelsea Market has the best tacos.) 

League of Kitchens is certainly not inexpensive, especially for two attendees. But if what I've heard is true, and young people do indeed value experiences over material possessions, it makes a great gift or outing for two people who love to cook.

An Argentinian class sits down to enjoy their dinner.

A five-hour immersion workshop is $175 per person, and includes lunch, dinner, the cooking class, and even leftovers. You're encouraged to bring a few small Tupperware containers to take home some of the food you'll make. There are also 2½-hour "Taste Of" workshops for $110 per person. If Mexican food isn't your thing, there are plenty of other cuisines from which to choose, including Argentinian, Bengali, Uzbek, Trinidadian, Lebanese, and Japanese, to name a few. 

Top photo: A Mexican meal. Photo courtesy of League of Kitchen. Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of League of Kitchens.