At 5.30pm on Good Friday I took my laptop into the kitchen, clicked on the Zoom link and began my first ever virtual cooking class. The host is Sydney’s Italian eatery Sagra, which decided to launch the digital culinary cook-offs to keep busy and continue offering punters tasty food during coronavirus.
“We really just want people to have fun and share our love of food,” says chef and co-owner Michael Otto. “We’re hoping that everyone feels a sense of community by being in the classes because social isolation can be mentally difficult.”
I’m one of around six users (individuals and couples) taking part in the class, but with the video conferencing technology up to 100 people could log in. At the moment Sagra is offering three classes per week (Friday at 5.30pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 4pm), “but if we get enough interest we’ll extend that – we have the time”. The two-hour, three-course classes are $60, which includes ingredients for two (with leftovers) to be picked up from the restaurant, or $40 to just get the class Zoom link.
Otto runs the sessions at the restaurant with co-owner Edward Saxton. Both wear Madonna-style microphones and take turns running through the dishes, so punters have a chance to first watch how it’s done before making their own attempts with further guidance.
The action’s captured from a bird’s eye view so you can see what’s happening on the stovetop. Another camera is set up at the front so you can watch the chefs cutting, stirring and mixing. Jared Lanuza, Sagra’s third owner, fields any questions participants might have raised in the Zoom chat room. Students are muted while the demonstrations take place so the clangs of cooking don’t dominate the soundtrack. Occasionally, the hosts check in to see how everyone’s progressing.
It’s a pretty good system, but as anyone who’s had to rely on this sort of technology before will know, it’s not without the occasional hiccup. My screen freezes a couple of times, and my tiny laptop speakers can’t always compete with the triumphant sizzling pan.
What isn’t compromised, though, is the immense sense of accomplishment my boyfriend and I get from tucking into the tasty dishes. We make a peach and mozzarella salad with basil oil (the oil is astoundingly easy and will absolutely be added to my repertoire); grilled swordfish with potatoes and salsa verde; and pici pasta served with just-blanched asparagus spears, all tossed in a salty-sweet mix of pancetta, onions and garlic.
Pici is the ideal choice for homemade pasta, because you don’t need any gear – just confidence and a little patience to hand-roll the thick spaghetti. We use semolina to make the dough, which the guys say is the most forgiving ingredient for pasta making. And while they aren’t uniform in length or thickness, I am damn proud of those mismatched cords.
“The recipes will change every week to keep it interesting and we will take requests, but there are some constants,” says Saxton. “We will always include pasta making, the class will always be three dishes – some with desserts, others not – and we’re basing the amount of food on what the average couple orders at Sagra.”
You’re likely to see a Sagra favourite in the future: pumpkin-and-ricotta tortellini with burnt butter and sage. “It’s been requested a few times, so that’ll definitely make an appearance,” says Lanuza.
The classes are as fun as you make them. You can drink wine if you want, but you do need to pay attention to get the timing right. Novices might find these classes a little tough, but regular home cooks will pick up handy tips and have some burning questions answered along the way – like should you add salt to your pasta dough (“No”) or to your pasta water (“No, we find we get a lot more success from salting our sauce”), and what happens when dough sticks to your tea towel (“Pull it off”).
“We’ve all been hit pretty hard [by coronavirus]. At this point we’re just trying to roll with the punches and are looking for ways we can continue to provide a service until we are able to reopen. We’re hoping that doing these classes, along with the small revenue we make from takeaway, is enough to keep our staff employed (a lot of them have temporary visas) and pay the bills. We also know that we’re lucky to have what we have and will continue to try and support our community however possible,” says Otto.
“With that said, there is a lot of uncertainty and we’re not getting our hopes up. The risk of us going under is high. For restaurants like ours, delivery is not really scalable.”
There are three classes per week – Friday at 5.30pm, and Saturday and Sunday at 4pm. The two-hour, three-course classes are $60 with ingredients included, or $40 for the class Zoom link alone.