Kitchen Jazz spices up cooking classes

Posted by Editor • Wednesday, September 1. 2010 • Category: News
Mara Zalums' "Kitchen Jazz"
For Mara Zalums, the old saying “love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life” rings true. When she moved back to Australia after living abroad, she determined that she would make her passion for food and travel her career. She started with demonstration evenings in her Turramurra home, where a range of themed recipes was prepared for small groups that were able to watch the dishes being prepared with a glass of wine, and then taste the final results. Called “Kitchen Jazz”, it has since expanded to include hands-on classes, Sydney food tours and now international food tours, the latest of which is set for May next year.

“I will be taking a group of six on a Moroccan culinary tour for thirteen days,” she says. “We will travel around Marrakesh and Fez, staying in riads – traditional Moroccan guest houses – while we tour markets, attend cooking classes, demonstrations and, of course, eat!”

Over the last eight years, Mara Zalums has turned her local cooking school into a very successful small business, taking the necessity of daily food preparation and making it an enjoyable and exciting experience.

When we visit, the evening's theme is Vietnamese Twists, consisting of a collection of recipes that she picked up or developed following her recent trip to South East Asia.

“For any event or function, it is best to have a theme. It provides a base to work with and all aspects of the evening can stem from it – invitations, menu, decorations, settings,” explains Mara.

From the appearance of the kitchen, she clearly takes her own advice. There are Vietnamese pictures, music and table settings already in place when we arrive.

The classes accommodate up to eight people and, to break the ice, wine is served while the demonstrations are conducted. Overall it feels more like an evening with friends than a class. Mara deftly assembles and cooks fresh and fried spring rolls, pho (soup), and caramelised fish, and is careful to clearly demonstrate the accompanying sauces which are so often the key to authentic tasting Vietnamese cuisine.

Throughout the evening, Mara zips about the kitchen, chopping, stirring and frying like the North Shore's answer to Martha Stewart, while her aide, Caroline Buckler, follows gently behind like a quiet fairy godmother, taking over so that Mara can move onto the the next menu item.
It all runs overtime due to the ambitious nature of the program, but as all the students are well fed and fortified with delicious wine no one minds terribly. Mara's simple approach makes the recipes and techniques accessible to even the most culinary inept among us and instils the confidence to repeat it all in our own homes. Mara explains that the key to good cooking is in mastering the basics.

“Find a reliable recipe and follow it so you can gain an understanding of the necessary cooking techniques. Once the basics are mastered, you can start to get creative and experiment,” she says. For everything else, Mara recommends shopping locally.

“Seasonal produce is important, so it's good to have reliable sources in your area so everything is as fresh as possible and you support your local community,” she says.

What inspired your love of cooking?

I have a Latvian background and meals are traditionally eaten around the table with extended family. Latvian cuisine uses farmed ingredients such as rye, dairy products, beef, pork, chicken, potatoes, cured fish, barley, legumes, apples, berries and yeast. A typical meal may consist of rye bread served with pea and bacon soup, followed by meatloaf with potato pancakes, sour cream and dill pickled cucumbers. Dessert could consist of either a semolina cranberry dessert, a custard with preserved fruits or one of many Latvian cakes.

What is the key to excellent cooking?

Absolutely the key is fresh ingredients. My parents taught me to make the most of backyard produce. They taught me how to preserve and pickle and enjoy the simplest of ingredients while they are at their best. As a child I remember watching my mother turn apricots, almonds, plums, and blackberries into cordials, sauces, jams and cakes. Fresh produce is very important to me.

What are the essentials in a backyard garden?

Herbs such as parsley, rosemary, chives and basil are easy to grow and can be planted in between other plants. You definitely need a lemon and a lime tree, and flowers help attract birds that will eat insects and pests. Make your veggie patch as large as you can reasonably maintain so you can grow seasonal vegetables such as beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes and eggplant.

Is pickling your own things really that simple?

Pickling is simple! Buy bulk produce from the market and arrange a fun day with your friends to share the load and results. I grow my own herbs and vegetables and make pickles and sauces to enjoy through winter.

What is your guilty indulgence food?

Pork crackling. I absolutely adore it with a sinister passion!

How do you feel about the fast food industry?

If only people knew how quick, easy and economical healthy home-made food can be. It doesn’t have to be time-consuming, you don't have to use packaging and plastic, and you are 100 per cent in control of what you put in your body.

Are there any animals you prefer not to eat?

On my travels I am always keen to discover new tastes, but I have declined bear paw, worms and some very strange-looking offal.

What would your last meal would be?

Succulent, spiced, crispy-skinned chicken, fresh garden salad and roast potatoes.

What is your number one cooking tool?

My Furi East West Knife, always kept nice and sharp!

Who would you say is your culinary hero?

Without a breath's hesitation, my mother, who passed away a few years ago. She would have loved to have been part of Kitchen Jazz.

What did you do before you started Kitchen Jazz?

I have an administrative background and used these skills to run a small business while I was at home with small children. As they grew older and less demanding, I toyed with the idea of working in the hospitality industry. It was only after returning from living in the UK for three years that I realised my dream.

During my time overseas I did a cooking course at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, run by Raymond Blanc in Oxfordshire, UK, which supplemented the skills I had previously acquired through my upbringing and travels. When I came back to Sydney, I did a TAFE course in hospitality which rejuvenated my passion and so I began Kitchen Jazz. Eight years later and here I am.

For information on demonstration evenings, classes or tours visit Kitchen Jazz.


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