Lisa Gross was raised on the cuisine of her grandmother’s native Korea. Growing up, when she came home from school, her halmoni would give her a snack of salt- and sesame-sprinkled rice. Dinners were made of Korean miso soup called Doenjang Guk, sautéed Korean beef, and multiple kinds of pungent kimchee, which her grandmother fermented in large vats. And yet neither Gross, nor her mother, who had come to the United States in the early 1970s on a special nursing visa, knew how to cook Korean fare themselves. As a girl, whenever Gross would offer to help her halmoni prepare dinner in their Rockville, Maryland kitchen, her grandmother would wave her off. “She didn’t value her own cooking skills. She thought studying was more important,” Gross says. “She wanted me to have professional opportunities she didn’t have. ”
In college and after Gross’s grandmother had passed away, she tried to teach herself the ins and outs of Korean cuisine, but nothing tasted right. “There are always these subtle techniques and tricks that differentiate good food from great food,” she says. “I wished I had another Korean grandmother, so I could be in her kitchen,” Gross said.
In fact, it turns out that she could. In 2014, Gross started The League of Kitchens, a New York City-based business that offers intimate, six-person cooking classes in a variety of international cuisines in the homes of immigrant cooks. The instructors aren’t professional chefs; they’re ordinary women who happen to be terrific cooks and who brought their culinary history and know-how with them to the United States. Until now, their knowledge has been hidden away in kitchens across the five boroughs, but with the creation of the League of Kitchens, anybody has access.
Gross currently employs four American employees and ten instructors from India, Korea, Lebanon, Trinidad, Argentina, Greece, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Japan, and Uzbekistan. Getting to know these immigrant cooks is what makes the League of Kitchens so special. The Lebanese instructor was an elementary school French teacher back in Lebanon, and her husband was a car mechanic. They came here six years ago for their kids’ education. She had trouble finding work in the States, until Gross found her. “She’s an amazing host and a natural teacher,” Gross says. The business’s Afghan teacher came to the United States through the International Refugee Committee in order to flee an abusive marriage. She worked for a long time as a hotel housekeeper, but with the League of Kitchens, she’s able to be in a position of authority. “She cooked for a household of 30 people three times a day in Afghanistan,” Gross says. “She’s an incredible cook.” Other instructors have come to the League of Kitchens after careers as home health aides, jewelry importers, and doctors.
Instructors offer both meat and vegetarian-based classes, and each one culminates with sharing a meal. But the emphasis is on the participatory experience. You don’t just stand by in somebody’s kitchen and watch them work; you stand beside them with a cutting board, a knife, and an array of foods — often unfamiliar ones like shado beni, a large herb used in many Trinidadian dishes and Kewpie mayonnaise, which is popular in Japan. Unlike most Americanized Chinese restaurants, and even many East Village Indian joints (mainly run by Bangladeshis using the exact same recipes), these meals aren’t overly sweet, salted, and sauced.
Because of the emphasis on the intimate, authentic experience, the League of Kitchens is reaching groups of people that Gross did not originally anticipate. Coverage from national media like Slate, the Today Show, and Condé Nast Traveler has driven increasing numbers of tourists to sign up for workshops. Additionally, she gets a sizable number of culinary students, restaurant owners, and professional chefs.
“They want to learn from someone with a personal connection and a grounding in that cuisine’s culture,” says Gross. “They don’t just want to go to a big cooking school in New York and be taught by an American chef.”
In this sense, the League of Kitchens is poised to have something of an economic and cultural ripple effect. Sharing immigrant cuisine in this way helps restaurants across the city offer better, more authentic food to their patrons. In short, the success of Gross’s venture can help other businesses succeed as well. And unlike a lot of places that rely on immigrant labor, especially in food service, the League of Kitchens puts the immigrant cook at the center of the experience.
“This isn’t a service experience,” says Gross. “Most interactions between immigrants and non-immigrants are like the restaurant waiter or the guy at the bodega. Here, the immigrant is the host, the teacher, the expert. They’re in charge of sharing their story. And everyone learns, eats, and cleans up together. There’s a fullness to the experience that’s very special.”