Listen, cooking is really not the easiest feat, especially in New York City. Between lugging groceries across town and having to bring them up a five-flight walk-up, there’s little to no time left to even cook at the end of the day. Trust us — we know the struggle and the oh-so daunting task that cooking makes itself out to be. However, the ladies from Cook Space in Brooklyn are here to change the stigma. Cook Space is a space dedicated to not only helping you learn how to cook, but helping you learn to cook what you like with all of the confidence in the world. Everyone is a friend and will love having learned something. The sense of community and classes are A-grade and will have you cooking like a pro.
We caught up with Michelle Mannix (left), the brains of the operation; Nini Nguyen (center), the culinary director behind each delicious and savory recipe; and Lara Southern (right), the team’s creative producer; to get a taste of the brand, the food (obviously!), and the company as a whole.
Michelle: Tricky question for me – I’m a military brat and lived in six states by the time I was 13 when my father retired and we moved to Yorktown, Virginia. I stayed in Virginia for the next nine years and went to high school and college in VA and definitely consider it the place I’m “from.” I moved to NYC 22 years ago — and even though my husband teases me, I consider NYC my adopted hometown. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my life.
Nini: New Orleans, LA
Lara: London, England
Michelle: Carroll Gardens/Gowanus
Nini: Brooklyn, NY (BedStuy)
Lara: Brooklyn, NY
Coffee or tea?
Michelle: Another tricky one for me. Sadly, coffee doesn’t sit as well with me lately — so I’ve moved on to matcha but I still love the ritual of coffee and slowly get through one at least once a day
Nini: Tea, coffee gives me anxiety.
Lara: Both, but raised on tea.
Michelle: Roberta’s sticky buns. I’m annoyed I discovered that my local Whole Foods sells them. They are too good!
Nini: French bistro food. It is my comfort food from my Nola roots.
Lara: Anything Xi’ian Famous Foods (specifically their spicy cumin lamb noodles).
The one thing you can’t live without?
Michelle: Family, friends, music and good food. Preferably altogether.
Lara: My friends (and pickles).
Favorite childhood meal:
Michelle: Tuna Casserole. Sounds a little gross and when you read the ingredients it kinda is – but it takes me back to my childhood like nothing else.
Nini: Caramelized pork belly in fish sauce and jasmine rice.
Lara: Sunday bangers and mash at the corner pub.
Must-have makeup product for fall?
Michelle: I actually don’t wear makeup – I curl my eyelashes, put some face oil on, and I’m out the door. That said, I’m excited for my upcoming first order of Glossier to get some color on this face for fall!
Bar for a nightcap:
How did all of you come to meet?
Michelle: I met Nini through my former Executive Chef, Brandon Byrd. They worked together at Dinner Lab. He described her as a very talented badass. He was wrong. She’s so much more! Lara luckily came to us by mutual contacts at RVD Communications and she was already following our very early stages as she knew Nini from mutual friends. I couldn’t be more grateful to work alongside these two amazing women!
Nini: I met Michelle when I worked for her previous company Ted & Honey and Parker Red. Lara and I met through a few friends of mine from Eleven Madison Park.
Lara: I met the lovely Nini through mutual EMP friends — from there I met Michelle and it was like I’d known her for years.
(For Michelle) In a previous interview, you’ve mentioned that you lacked “kitchen confidence” and wanted to change that. How did you go about that? Any tricks or tips you could share?
Michelle: I did. I have always loved food and gathering people around it — but every time I attempted anything I would call my brother to ask him what to do. I’d call him in the middle of shifts even! (he was a young line cook then). I finally realized I needed to stop doing that and to pay more attention to what I was not only doing but liked — and why. That alone helped me to trust in myself more and to just do it. The act of cooking is practice and like anything — the more you do it — the better you get at it. I like to look at it like taking training wheels off. Once they are off — that is where the fun and magic happens. The mistakes that you will inevitably end up making, are teachers actually, helping you to learn more skill, handling heat and ingredients and at the end of the day — mistakes can be fixed and it will still (usually) taste good!
One tip or trick I would share is to just start cooking. Anything – something basic and easy that you love. Begin to pay greater attention to details and begin to let go of the recipe and begin to look at the steps as building flavors within a dish. When you do that you begin to see how the same steps can be translated into other things. Secondly, use what you have. It forces you to be creative and resourceful.
(For Nini) What is a common fear you see people expressing when trying to improve their cooking skills and how do you help develop that in Cook Space?
Nini: The biggest fear that I see is that people are always afraid of making something that is “bad” and that is why people rely on their recipes so much. At Cook Space, we want to teach people that if they know what tastes good to them, they can learn how to cook. Mistakes will happen but that is life. Sometimes, when being experimental, you can make new delicious things and if you are always cooking from a recipe, you will never discover them. We hope to guide people to think for themselves and live a life without recipes. Instead, use recipes as a guideline or inspiration.
What specifically drew you to work at Cook Space?
Nini: I have experience teaching people how to cook for some time now. Whether they were line cooks or people from a cooking class here in NYC. So it made sense that I would be the culinary director. I am very thankful for this opportunity because I have always loved sharing my food knowledge and teaching it to anyone who would eat/listen.
Lara: It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing as Cook Space marries so much of what inspires me – bringing people together around good food and in good company brings me an incomparable amount of joy – so to get to do so in such a beautiful space, a space that’s also committed to serving as a platform for discussing current issues and supporting local business is kind of my dream. I love the challenge of being a “jack of all trades” in my role and working with two supportive, badass women, whom I happen to adore both in and outside of work, is just the cherry on top.
How did each one of you come to assume your role in the company?
Michelle: I’m the founder of Cook Space and this is my 2nd food venture (but 4th project) and through a lot of trial and error — I knew securing the right Culinary Director was key to the business model of Cook — and I feel fortunate that Nini came on very early stages to bring this baby to life. Nini and I both thought, initially, that we’d be able to absorb some of what Lara does and very quickly realized we needed a third strong member of the team. Lara oversees our Creative Direction, communication and so much more and has enabled us to really focus on our respective areas and to let us take this to places beyond what we had initially planned.
Nini: I’ve had the experience to teach people how to cook for some time now, whether they were line cooks or people from a cooking class here in NYC. So it made sense that I would be the culinary director. I am very thankful for this opportunity because I have always loved sharing my food knowledge and teaching it to anyone who would eat /listen.
Lara: I had just come back from several months of solo traveling when I heard from Nini about Cook Space — I knew whatever she was involved with was sure to be sensational and, after meeting Michelle, I was completely sold.
Did you all, at one point, lack confidence in the kitchen? If yes, how did you turn things around?
Nini: When I first started cooking, I was a pastry chef. I love to cook savory food at home but did not have the confidence to cook savory food in the professional kitchen. Whenever I would be responsible to make the family meal for the entire staff, at various restaurants that I have worked, people were so responsive to my food and it started to build my confidence. I eventually made the switch and I can honestly say, practice makes progress. I don’t strive to be “perfect” because, in food, everything is subjective. I only strive to make things delicious.
Lara: I still do! I look at Nini and Michelle, both of whom have cooked in professional kitchens and have extensive training and I definitely feel insecure on occasion about my skills in the kitchen. Being at Cook Space, however, and watching these ladies improvise with whatever’s on hand on a daily basis has encouraged me to do more at home. Just playing with ingredients, trying things out and figuring out your own personal tastes and style is key I think — everyone is different!
What kind of difference you’re hoping to make in your students’ lives by offering these type of classes at Cook Space?
Michelle: The overall intention behind Cook Space is to help people cook from a place of confidence, instinct and joy. We want to dismantle the process of cooking — taking the rigidity, ego, fear and often pretension out of it — and put back some creativity, joy, improvisation, mistakes, resourcefulness, and fun. We hope that the environment we create in class, in private events — or online helps people feel empowered to experiment, get their hands dirty, and to cook more. Ultimately, we want people to develop their own culinary expression and to find their voice.
Nini: We want people to have an “ah ha!” moment when they realize things aren’t as complicated as they seem. I also want to encourage people to cook more often at home. The more you cook, the quicker you can gain confidence in the kitchen.
Lara: Beyond developing people’s confidence within the kitchen, I think classes like these, working with your hands, taking some time to slow down, be creative and creating something from scratch, is good for the soul. We hope to build a community — one that not only cooks together but laughs together and supports one another.
At Cook Space, you offer ‘confidence classes.’ Describe what these classes entail and who would you recommend to sign up for it?
Michelle: The Culinary Confidence series excites me so much! I like to look at them as a mini culinary school for the home cook — with a much more affordable price tag! We have designed a series that hits on key techniques and skills with each menu designed to help students develop and practice those skills by doing. I’d recommend them to anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in the kitchen without a recipe guiding them. We’re not anti-recipe but until you let go of them — you’ve still got training wheels on so to speak and you are really just mastering how to follow instructions instead of really developing your skills, understanding, comfort level and confidence.
Nini: Right now, we are focusing on our Beginner series — it includes basic skills: knife skills, roasting, searing, poaching, blanching, and a few knock out but simple desserts like pie, chocolate molten cakes, and pavlovas. I would recommend anyone who wants a more in-depth view of cooking to come. Even if you think you know how to do all of these techniques, you will learn tips and tricks sprinkled throughout the class. I have been cooking for almost 10 years now and still go to other people’s kitchens and learn really cool tips.
Lara: I think these classes are for everyone – though we’ll offer a Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced series, each catering to differing levels of experience in the kitchen, I think any person, regardless of experience would find great value in the individualized approach of the Culinary Confidence Series.
(For Nini) What process do you go through when choosing which dishes for the class to make?
Nini: When I am designing a class, I usually try to think of a type of cuisine and what techniques I want to cover in a class. If I want to cover braising, for example, I quickly think of either French wine braising or Asian curry-style braising. From there I think of the vegetables/sides and what techniques I want to cover and then select the cuisine route. I do this because I think themed dinners are fun but also want to show people that one technique can be used for different types of cuisines.
What do you believe sets Cook Space apart from other cooking classes?
Michelle: I think there are several things that set us apart. Our environment for one is a really unique aspect that is a very intentional part of our mission. We want people to feel comfortable and empowered to experiment in our space. That is why it feels like you are in an apartment that happens to open to a fantastic open kitchen with tools and ingredients all hopefully igniting creativity. Our approach is also different. We don’t use recipes (except with baking) as we want people to understand ratios and how ingredients interact with each other — and to learn how to develop and build flavor.
Nini: I think it is our message that is different. There are many similarities to other cooking classes but the conversations are different. We want to embrace individuality and encourage people make what they like. To teach them the skills so that they can be more creative in their cooking.
Lara: The fact that we don’t take a dogmatic approach to recipe following is entirely unique. By giving students a really strong foundation with specific techniques and tools, it gives them an opportunity to raise their voice in the kitchen and be creative with it. The fact that these techniques are imparted by a former EMP chef, and that classes are taught in such a beautiful environment is pretty special too 🙂
Do you have words of wisdom for anyone out there looking to break into the food industry?
Michelle: Get humble and be prepared to work very hard for often very little money (at least for a little while). I say get humble because as beautiful or as elevated as a place may be, they are endless, thankless, and often very physical tasks that go into running a place. The flip side is that working with people in the food business is like nothing else. You are in the trenches together regularly — and it’s also showtime regularly. Restaurant people are like no other.
Nini: Don’t go to a real culinary school (come to us =D). I see so many people who are in crazy amounts of debt because they went to culinary school and they make the same low wage as everyone else. My advice is to find a chef you want to learn from, have a good attitude and find a way to work for them. Chefs are the best teachers. You can always learn on the job in this industry. But if you want to learn the basics, come to our culinary confidence class and I can show you the ropes.
Lara: Know that it’ll be tough, like, really tough, particularly at first. Be prepared to get your ass a little kicked but know that your coworkers in the food industry are like your comrades, your family — there’s a very specific bond between restaurant people, like they’ve been through battle together a little.
Written by Hannah Smith
Feature Image via Vanessa Granada