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Feature Thu Jun 09 2011
Amber Gibson is a freelance writer.
"The process of enjoying food does not need to be pretentious," Vanessa Moses insists, as she chops rhubarb fresh from Klug Farms and gets ready to welcome a group of strangers into her home for a dinner party.
The idea that delicious gourmet food is attainable for everyone to make at home, not just reserved for lofty tasting menus at five-star restaurants, inspired Moses to found Chicago Cooking Chicks, a culinary club for women.
"We're a different genre of foodie," Moses said. "Our concept is cooking for yourself and building relationships." Cooking undergrounds, where women come together for an intimate dinner party in someone's home, are one of Chicago Cooking Chicks' signature events.
Tonight, Moses' husband has surrendered the kitchen and living room to the Cooking Chicks. He's kind enough to ring guests in but refrains from making an appearance.
"A cook's kitchen should always look slightly like a hot mess," Moses said with a grin, scrambling to get her strawberry lavender rhubarb pie in the oven before her guests arrive.
Even cities as big and friendly as Chicago can be lonely places. With women representing nearly half of the work force, and working longer hours than ever, friends and fun sometimes fall through the cracks.
Although the Chicago Cooking Chicks Meetup group has only existed for 15 months, it boasts 461 members and Moses has organized more than 20 events, ranging from cooking undergrounds and book clubs to technique classes with industry professionals.
"I've seen woman really taking chances with recipes," Moses said, typing on her laptop with fingers covered in flour and brown sugar. She embodies this herself, making a strawberry lavender rhubarb pie for the first time. Using a Food Network recipe is a starting point, Moses adds some lavender, freely admitting she has no idea how it will turn out.
She grew up in a Lebanese-Israeli family, but Moses said she doesn't know how to cook Middle Eastern food at all. In fact, she only started cooking a couple years ago and has never been to culinary school. In August, Moses is planning a three-week trip to Paris to study at La Cuisine Paris.
"You're about to witness me for the first time rolling out dough for a pie," she unabashedly announced. Later, Moses muses aloud about whether to use a crumble topping or strips of extra dough, personifying the carefree, experimental nature of her club. She may be the founder, but Moses never pretends to know more about cooking than any other members. Moses learns just as much as anyone else from the talented women of Chicago Cooking Chicks. The club is growing organically and can be whatever members choose - a truly democratic supper club. Anyone is free to suggest event ideas or offer to host an event.
Although she spends 50 hours a week at her day job as a realtor, Moses somehow manages to make time to build Chicago Cooking Chicks as a brand. She's dreaming big, hoping to take Cooking Chicks to cities across the county and launch a website, complete with a recipe box database. Signature events will include the book club, cooking underground, and food crawls. "My heart tells me not to build this from advertisers, but to build this community and whoever will come, business-wise, will come," Moses said. Ideally, Chicago Cooking Chicks will become her full-time job.
Shortly after six, the first guest arrives, and other women trickle in slowly, their delectable dishes excusing their lateness. This was the first Chicago Cooking Chicks event for four of the five guests. This event is even smaller than normal, but Moses isn't frustrated at all. She understands that people can be flaky, and the success of Cooking Chicks events relies on the quality, not quantity, of members. Smaller events can be even more fun and allow time for everyone to really get to know everyone else, as opposed to breaking off in small clusters of conversation when groups are larger.
Christina Gorsuch, 33, couldn't find any produce at the Glenwood farmer's market in Rogers Park, so she made a slow-roasted lemon garlic chicken with baby onions. Gorsuch found the Cooking Chicks on Meetup.com and thought it looked like fun. "The description indicates a younger, more laid-back crowd," she said. Gorsuch moved to the city several months ago from Atlanta, where she almost started a cupcake bakery. However, she's left her cupcake dreams by the wayside and now works at Brookfield Zoo with the African Savannah animals.
As Gorsuch reaches over to eat leftover pie crust off her neighbor's plate, I'm amazed at how comfortable everyone has become in just a couple hours. From stories of African wild dogs giving birth to a spirited discussion on whether cheap white wine is better than cheap red wine (the consensus is yes), the conversation flows as freely as the wine, and there is never an awkward silence. The women range from stay-at-home-moms to financial consultants, but bond quickly over alma maters (several are Michigan State grads), farmer's market frustrations (Green City Market can be a little snobby) and a shared love of food. Lora Reilmann, 35, even shared priceless culinary secrets to the perfectly flaky crust in her rhubarb pie.
"Use vodka," she said decisively, explaining that the moisture helps to roll out the dough. "And it evaporates as it bakes, so you get this flaky crust." Reilmann uses a quarter cup water, quarter cup vodka for her crust. "Butter gives it taste, but shortening gives it flakiness," Reilmann said, so she uses a mix of both.
As we meander out around after three hours of eating, drinking and chatting, Reilmann offers to make her famous apple pie in the fall, and other women hint that they'll be back for more.
I'll definitely come back for seconds. And next time I'm cooking.
This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.