Inside Madison's hidden cooking-culture clubs

In a variety of mostly-private settings, Madisonians gather to bond over food and play with knives.

Illustrations by Claire Warhus.

Illustrations by Claire Warhus.

Cooking clubs are elusive creatures that have appeared throughout modern American history. The exclusive Fish House was founded in 1732 as a men's-only cooking club (to be fair, it was 1732) by fishermen in Philadelphia, with members taking turns leading the culinary sessions. For more than 125 years the Thursday Afternoon Cooking Club has gathered to entertain its members with recipes from American food preparation traditions in Wichita, Kansas. Cooking clubs can be as simple in their mission as bringing people regularly together to cook and eat, often with an ethos like that of the BayLife Cooking Club: "Every meeting has a theme, may it be an ingredient, a festive dish, or a cultural cuisine."

Madison being Madison, of course, it turns out that there are cooking clubs all around us. Some of our more storied institutions, like Underground Kitchen, started all club-like. But a good cooking club is a shimmering chimera, and even in Madison it's not always easy to track one down. My friend Sarah Marty, Faculty Associate at UW Madison School of Business and Producing Artistic Director at Four Seasons Theatre, described it thusly: "Most of my friends termed this idea of cooking groups as the unicorn—an incredible idea that we'd all deemed as mythical, as none of us had actually ever been part of one."

There is no canonical website or directory for these clubs (though there is this); most are clandestine. Sometimes the clubs take place in stunning mansions, sometimes it's a group of ambitious amateurs in a neighborhood kitchen, but the most interesting clubs are not easy to discover. After a some grunt-level detective work I began my journey into a series of semi-secret societies where diners are also the cooks, houses become something like restaurants, and participants enjoy playing with fire and knives.

Fiendishly ambitious frenemies

Bob and Pat Fischback host the Rock River Cooking Club from their capacious home in Edgerton, which directly overlooks its namesake. Bob has been interested in food since he worked at McDonald's for 60 cents an hour, peeling potatoes and taking orders before the days of the drive-though. Pat is similarly fascinated with food preparation and has been cooking her whole life. Their club has gone through three iterations over the course 15 years.

At first, the host would determine the theme and issue assignments, in a format the Fischbacks call a "directed potluck." The idea would be to bring the ingredients and spend the day cooking together working inside a theme, like Cuban, Thai, or Polish food.

Pepperoni and mushroom pizza in a cast-iron pan at the Rock River Cooking Club. Photo by Adam Powell.

Pepperoni and mushroom pizza in a cast-iron pan at the Rock River Cooking Club. Photo by Adam Powell.

Then the sessions morphed into sophisticated dinner parties. "It got very competitive," says Bob. "People would practice for weeks on end and even work with professional chefs to train them." Lessons were learned. Competitive cooking is awkward, people can drink too heavily to be useful, and it's hard to seat 12 people—then, when the group splits up into two tables, an essential camaraderie is lost. (Pat and Bob consider eight people the ideal number of attendees.) More than a dozen guests produces other problems as well: when cooking pheasants, if each person gets a half bird, you run the risk of burning your house down with all that fat and fire.

The second iteration of their club dialed the competition way down and focused on regional cuisine. On one memorable evening, the club recreated dishes from Hungary, like bread baked on a stick over an open fire. The third and current iteration focuses on how to do common things well—like make pizza. Over a recent five-hour session, I watched the group engage in semi-scientific experimentation: testing the differences between using a cast iron pan and a pizza stone, along with other modulations like using beer in the dough, varying proportions of semolina flour, and using different kneading techniques. The learning goes on, even when focused on such a seemingly simple dish. And so did mine, as I rooted out more and more cooking clubs in Madison.

Inchoate adorable anarchists

Some of these clubs take place in expansive getaway homes, some in back yards. At the months-old Anarchy Kitchen, tucked into a cozy hideaway in on the near East side, led by Kandra Shefchik, who makes her own fabulous clothes (she recently finished her "gold year," during which she wore gold tones every day) when she isn't making fabulous food with a bustling group experimenting with teas, infusions, and oils; making cheese curds from scratch, mashing chickpeas, and tossing salads.

Anarchy Kitchen host Kandra Shefchik. Photo courtesy of Kandra Shefchik.

Anarchy Kitchen host Kandra Shefchik. Photo courtesy of Kandra Shefchik.

"We are having fun, getting together with friends to cook and eat together, and we are just getting started; it's like is an egg that hasn't hatched, a seed that hasn't sprouted yet. And we plan to expand our reach," says Kandra.

The bohemian, classic east-side Madison vibe, with a healthy dose of chaos and some wild experimentation, is exemplified by the creative menus: pickled deviled eggs, "Yankee" chicken, French toast with rhubarb-dandelion sauce, and ramp pesto, right alongside more traditional selections like sundried tomato couscous, Persian mushroom soup, falafel, baked apples, and Pad Thai.

The old-school flavor

Elsewhere on Madison's east side, a group of friends have been gathering in backyards and kitchens for years. Thuy Nguyen's backyard and kitchen are a common destination, and Delia Fantova's house fills up often as well. "The backyard cookouts have been going on for at least ten years, I think. It seems like forever," says mainstay Lisa Marine, also a veteran member of the Madison music community.

This group cook prepares and then grills food together: chicken, brats, burgers, ribs, salmon, and tofu. Then there are the sides: pasta and potato salads, roasted sweet peppers and squash, green salads with nasturtiums and local produce, homemade soups, sushi, cold soba dishes, and a variety of beer and wine, sometimes Bloody Marys, sodas, water with mint and hibiscus tea.  "It's heaven," says Marine. "We definitely bond over time spent together cooking. It's really important to me and I love that our kids are growing up with these gatherings. Often, it's the only time I get to see some friends when our lives get busy. And I meet and connect with new people as well, so the cookouts make our community bigger and stronger."

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They shred vegetables and guitars

Jim Merett hosts Dockstock every year, which is kind of an ancillary event, bringing together musicians for a day of performances at a South Side industrial building that hosts bands' practice spaces. "It's about cooking as much as it's about music and art. It's the same group of friends, though a larger, expanded the community. There are a couple of grills going, sometimes barbeque challenges, and tables full of food that everyone brings to share," says Marine. Then everyone plays music in another layer of community bonding. What could be better?

Tight-knit neighbors with an appetite

Pat Mulvey is part of "First Saturday," a group of three families -- some clubs are more private than others -- who have been getting together once a month for many years to cook up a feast for each other. "We have approached it different ways, but generally, we choose a cuisine or a cookbook, and the host makes the main dish and a cocktail and the others bring appetizers, sides, or desserts," says Mulvey. The families were neighbors, shared a babysitter, and all had kids the same age.

"We became close and because life is busy we decided we should set aside time once a month to cook together." Mulvey and her husband Brad Postle have been cooking in their First Saturday club for 12 years now with Andy Alexander, Carla Knobel, Jonathan Jeffrey, and Stacey Cohen, and the club shows no signs of slowing – indeed, a new generation is now part of the action. The club started when the kids were all three, now they are all 15 and recently cooked for their parents for the first time: the teenagers created a pasta bar with three different sauces.

Experimenting expatriates expanding their expertise

Madisonian Rukmini Banerjee is part of a cooking club of mostly Indian friends. India is a large nation with highly varied cuisines, so their strategy was to pick the cuisine of one Indian state—say Kashmiri, or Bengali—for each dinner. The fun part: a rule that whatever you cooked, it had to be the first time you had ever prepared that dish. "This is harder than it sounds," explains Banerjee. "You don't know what the consistency, texture, or color is really supposed to be like, even if the cookbook has a photograph of the dish." Eventually it became difficult to manage regular meetings, a peril often mentioned by members of cooking clubs. But she likes the idea of returning to a more fixed schedule.

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Budding chefs

Donna McGuire teaches kindergarten with her colleague, Monica Drinkwine, another kindergarten teacher at Van Hise Elementary – but they also lead three different levels of cooking clubs.  In the kindergarten/first grade classes, they begin with a food-related picture book.  The book is always a "clue" that reveals one recipe they are cooking.  In second and fifth grade clubs, they begin with a recipe with blanks. The kids help fill in the blanks, resulting in some careful thought and conversation about which ingredients are going to work best together in the framework of the incomplete recipe. Once it's complete, the kids take the recipe home and are encouraged to prepare it with their families. 

Meetings are an hour long and are based on a meal or a theme. There's a bit more than the usual level of instruction here, as some of these tykes can barely wield an electric mixer. "We are currently in a six-week cooking class with 25 kindergarten and first grade kids, "say McGuire. "Our recipes for these six weeks are: breakfast, lunch, dinner, after-school snack, fancy party appetizers, and dessert. We make everything from scratch and the kids sit together and enjoy their meal when we are finished." 

The club never repeats a recipe and always tries to make something that the kids have not previously created.  "It's a lot of fun and the kids learn many kitchen skills:  knife skills, making zest, juicing, kneading. It's a whirlwind hour but our favorite hour of the week!" says McGuire. Monica's dad, Ed Drinkwine (who is retired), volunteers his time to wash all of the many dishes they make and her mom, Mary, is "the queen" of organizing our plates, knives and cooking supplies.  The club works with 150 students every year, six groups of 25 kids each.

Guiding hands, scarred with decades of flame and cutlery

Some of Madison's clubs benefit from a tour guide to help out, and there are instructors out there who will facilitate for no charge, as it's a great way for them to connect with the community.

Joel Olson has worked with many cooking clubs during the 20 years he has been teaching, and they don't always go smoothly. His first experience was with a neighborhood cooking club for couples that planned a cooking party for an early spring Saturday night. "The weather that weekend was beautiful, much warmer than normal, clear and sunny. I was set up and ready for the event to begin, the women were relaxing, sipping some wine and nibbling Wisconsin cheese and crackers, when in poured the guys, fresh off of the golf course." For whatever reasons, the guys decided they didn't feel like helping and consequently neither did anyone else. The entire concept was breaking down.

"I love doing these parties as I get to cook with people more than for people, and I sometimes need to draw people into the kitchen as participants rather than observers," Joel explains. "In this case, I grabbed a potato and a peeler and whispered to one guy 'peel this—if you just look like you're cooking, everyone will get involved.' Then I handed a metal bowl with a couple of cups of whipping cream and a whisk to another guy and made a stirring motion and said 'just stir.' He picked up on that and soon everyone was cooking, laughing and having a great time." Joel has seen this kind of thing many times and sees himself as the catalyst and guide for new cooking clubs. He gets a lot of good stories out of his endeavors.

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The cure is in cooking

Many cooking clubs are about more than just food. When Jackie Rose was in the midst of a difficult time, the club was a salve to soothe her soul. "It was a hard time. My mother, my sister, and I were utterly depleted from years of one crisis after another. We decided on a whim to have an open house."

Gorgonzola cabbage salad at Jackie Rose’s Friday Night cooking club. Photo by Adam Powell.

Gorgonzola cabbage salad at Jackie Rose’s Friday Night cooking club. Photo by Adam Powell.

Every Friday Night (as they came to call the gatherings) Rose's family would clean, organize a huge meal, and invite everyone they knew over to prepare drinks and food at a long table in a big kitchen. "It was always a beautiful, delicious night, and the truly magical thing was the alchemy of the guests. It was an open invitation: just show up, we'll feed you," she says. And every week an assortment of new and old friends would arrive, yet somehow there was always just the right number and combination of guests. (The only caveat: the club is for women only.) "The bond, besides knowing one of the three of us, was breaking bread, being fed and cared for, eating with strangers who soon became friends," she says. "Of course we pay attention to aesthetics: delicious food, fresh flowers, and candlelight. But the joy, what energizes us, is in creating this ritual of caring for our guests."

These dinners carried Jackie and her family through a dark season. They rediscovered the goodwill of sharing food, a source of such deep pleasure and healing. "Sometimes I think we can get distracted by the glamour of food and forget to feel the joy," Jackie says. "There is just so much goodwill, humor, and honesty in our gathering. We all swoon over the meals, but mostly we're happy to improvise the evening together."

Cooking brings these women together over the stove, and it's different than going out to eat in a restaurant; the private nature of these events assures an intimacy that can only be found inside the rarified space they've created.