Music As Accompaniment: Our AIM Cooking Class Experience

by Eric Hughes


This month’s Spotify playlist – No subscription is required to listen:
Songs to Cook By (1 hour long)


Rewind to the 1960s when I was a sprout in small-town Northern Indiana. There were two restaurant food choices in town—papa burgers and fries at the A&W Root Beer stand and fried chicken at the “Corner Tavern.” I had no idea what I was missing.

My mom, by the time she got to me—the fourth child—wasn’t a frequent cook, but she did watch “The French Chef” on WTTW-TV from Chicago. So did I. I thought Julia Child was funny, and it seemed an unreachable dream to be able to cook like she did. Saturday morning became a time to look forward to, not only for a neighborhood game of kick-the-can, but to catch Julia Child reruns, and then Jacques Pepin’s “Everyday Cooking.”

Fast forward past college and a couple of jobs to 1982, when the way to a woman’s heart was through her stomach. My new wife and I moved to California where we bought our first VHS video recorder! The first shows blissfully recorded were cooking classes. I typed the recipe below while frequently pausing a time-shifting tape of a 1985 “Master Chef” show on how to make Pastel del Pescado. (I still make this recipe!)

Fast forward again to 1993, and the launch of the “Food Network.” This was heaven for me, and was the main reason I was willing to pay $18/month for an “Oakland Cable” subscription.

The first interactive, in-person cooking classes I took were in the mid-2000‘s at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. The ability to finally ask questions of instructors was enlightening.

And now click here and end up in 2020—a crazy time for all sorts of reasons, but a time also imbued with occasional opportunities. My wife Priscilla, our son Gavin, his partner Sadie, and I participated in a very fun online cooking class on August 15. It was run by a group of folks affiliated with the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM), the organization that runs our wonderful Saturday Grand Lake Farmers Market. We were a little skeptical about using Zoom to take a cooking class, and wondered how it might work. The conclusion: we’re hooked.

Eric and Priscilla

And here is what we learned (most online cooking classes are on Zoom, not because it is the best conferencing software, but because it is relatively easy to use and, at least for the audience, free).

Before class:

  • Print the recipe ahead of time, if you can, or make sure you have an additional computer to the one you are watching the class on. A hard copy is nice to have for taking notes for the next time you make the recipe.
  • Read the recipe carefully so you know all the steps involved. Online classes can move pretty quickly.
  • Prepare a signature cocktail, if you like. Or open a bottle of wine or sparkling water.
  • Get all the ingredients and utensils out and ready before the class starts. Be prepared with substitutions. Gavin and Sadie used chicken instead of salmon, for example.
  • Some preparation can be done in advance, but generally all steps are done during class; it is fun to learn new techniques for chopping vegetables or mincing garlic, or smashing cucumbers!
  • If you are having groceries delivered rather than shopping in person, think ahead, as some of the ingredients might be more exotic and take longer to have delivered or shipped to you.

During class:

  • It is important to be able to clearly see what the chef is doing, so using your phone for an online cooking class will be a challenge; tablets or laptops are best. Using your phone to follow the recipe can work, though, if you can’t print it.
  • Following the instructions in the same time frame as they are given can be a challenge, and is a lot easier with 2 people, if you can swing that. One person will cook and the other be a sous-chef or take the dog out.
  • If you’re not familiar with Zoom, do some research on it and its capabilities. You can get a free account, so practice with a friend and learn how to chat, to switch between gallery and current speaker views, and to mute and unmute yourself. To communicate with the chef, you will probably be asked to use chat, especially if there is a large audience. It is also likely that unmuting will be a feature that is turned off.
  • Think ahead to where you want to place your laptop/tablet. It can be in the way or in danger on the counter. Think about whether you will want to show your creation to the other attendees or the Chef, and how you would do that. We use a camera tripod with an attachment for our iPad. A charged up device and wifi are must-haves or you’ll inevitably pull out a cable.
  • If you know others in the class, consider starting a separate Zoom conference after the class and dine online together! Note that free Zoom conferences with more than two participants are limited to 40 minutes.
  • And here are our creations from our first class! Miso-glazed salmon, mushroom fried rice, and smashed cucumber salad. Delicious! We hope to see you at the next class.

After class:

This month’s hour-long Spotify playlist, “Songs to Cook By,”contains 20 songs to listen to while cooking–or eating–your next kitchen creation. Listen to it when you re-create your recipes for post-pandemic get-togethers, or anytime you cook a masterpiece!

Watch for future classes at www.agriculturalinstitute.org, the AIM newsletter, and related social media.


Eric Hughes has lived in the Grand Lake with his wife Priscilla since 1986. They have two grown sons who also live in Oakland. He’s a “finger-style” guitarist who has been playing for more than 50 years and is now retired from the computer software industry. In addition to his musical interests, Eric is Co-chair of the Grand Lake Neighbors Neighborhood Council. Suggestions and feedback are always welcome and should be directed to eric@grandlakeneighbors.org or on instagram @hughesearthur.

Editor’s Note: Eric is also responsible for the Grand Lake Improvement volunteers who periodically help out with clean-ups and landscaping on Grand Avenue between Mandana and Lake Park and, in addition, you’ve almost certainly seen him out in the commercial district scrubbing away graffitihis #1 pet peeve.