It was a long ride from Manhattan on the A train (running local, naturally) to BedStuy on a cold Saturday afternoon. Exiting at the Utica Avenue stop, in a completely foreign neighborhood, there was one task at hand – to find Stuyvesant Avenue and a certain brownstone. Inside the brownstone, a group of strangers and grocery bags of mystery ingredients were waiting. It was a bit of a walk from the subway, down a quiet street with rows of surprisingly gracious-looking homes, passing the occasional deli or boarded-up building. At last, our destination: Up the stoop, past the door and inside, where, unbeknownst to us, we would spend the next few hours watching democracy in action.
Neither The Scout nor the rest of the people inside that stately brownstone knew what to expect that Saturday, as they gathered for the debut of an improv event. This wasn’t a comedy or jazz performance, however; this was the first-ever Cooklyn Improv. Eight amateur cooks with a passion for thoughtful food and top-notch ingredients, many of them strangers to each other, assembled in this home for an afternoon of creative collaboration, armed with sharp knives, a deep fryer and a copy of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect and was a little concerned that I might show up and my level of skill wasn’t up to par,” said improv cook Marc Matsumoto, who writes the food blog NoRecipes.com. “I also wasn’t sure what kind of equipment or ingredients were going to be there, so I tried to come prepared for the worst.”
Cooklyn Improv host and organizer Jonathan Landau, who also runs Lab 24/7 – a space for creative projects and events – out of the cellar of his home, had gathered this group of marketing experts, pastry cooks, creative consultants and web developers as a first-time experiment. A few days beforehand, each cook was given a food category, such as dairy or vegetables, along with a budget, and was responsible for shopping for assorted ingredients of his or her choosing to bring to the event. To kick the afternoon off, each chef had a show-and-tell of his or her ingredients. There were dozens of items; everything from humble staples like eggs and breadcrumbs to the exotic and downright odd, such as sea urchin, black truffles, a smoked pig’s trotter and Ricola throat drops. Jonathan then explained the rules: Use as many of the ingredients as possible; divide into teams of two; create four courses; and be ready to serve the first course by 6:30 p.m.
And then the fun began. The eight relative strangers quickly began discussing the ingredients, throwing out flavor combinations, ingredient pairings, and suggestions for techniques, each person building off the others’ ideas. Personalities began to reveal themselves, test each other out and mesh. A loose menu formed, and the participants divvied up the work according to their strengths, skills and interests. They then headed to the kitchen – spacious by New York standards but still a tight squeeze with eight energetic cooks – and began slicing potatoes, cutting open sea urchins, and making dough for pasta.
“I really wanted to bring improv to cooking,” Jonathan said, as he watched his team of cooks go to work with a grin on his face, Iron Chef Chairman-style. “You have guidelines and rules, but everyone has a forum to express themselves.”