Culinary Instruction Without Borders

Culinary Instruction Without Borders

Virtual platform takes Melanie Underwood from Fairfax farm to nationwide classroom.

Culinary instructor Melanie Underwood teaches students to be courageous in the kitchen. Photo by Aiko Austin.

Culinary instructor Melanie Underwood teaches students to be courageous in the kitchen. Photo by Aiko Austin.

It started with a pastry. Eight-year-old Melanie Underwood trudged through a grassy field in Northern Virginia in search of her father. Finding him on a tractor, she presented him with her latest masterpiece: a platter of eclairs, a confection that is both sinfully decadent and extraordinarily difficult for an elementary school student to master.  

Decades later, Underwood, who is the youngest of six daughters, is helping her father celebrate his 81st birthday in Fairfax this week. She’s no longer an enthusiastic novice serving dessert on a plate, but a licensed culinary arts instructor and founder of Gather, a school that allows her to share passion for food with others.

“An essential part of my class is teaching confidence, creativity and calm in the kitchen, along with technique,” said Underwood. “Almost anyone can follow a recipe, but I help students to learn what to do if whatever they are making doesn't come out as expected.”

Through virtual learning platforms that are still on trend post-COVID, Underwood has a worldwide classroom that reaches students from elementary school through retirement.

“Some students watch, and some students actively participate,” she said.  “I watch what everyone is doing and give feedback in real-time. I also answer any questions during this time. We discuss the techniques of what we are making and how to make substitutes. I encourage tasting

as we go and get students to talk about what they are tasting.”

The name of her school is an homage to her grandparents and their tradition of gathering family and friends for meals made using ingredients like cream that was milked from cows on their farm and fruit grown on trees on their land.  

“These were the building blocks to some unusual and delicious dinner and dessert offerings,” said her sister Lori Page who lives in Fairfax. “Meals were not simply nourishment for the body … they were also nourishing to the senses, to the soul. They were an event in many ways [and] something to look forward to. … It's not a surprise that Melanie would grow up to cook and to develop recipes that use ingredients in nontraditional ways.”

Underwood works to set an anxiety-free tone in her classes where whimsy is prioritized over perfection. Families stuck in a culinary rut with a repertoire of three dinner recipes that they cook on repeat will get a boost of originality. Her students might learn to make chicken salad by swapping celery and mayonnaise for curry paste and arugula. 

“We made homemade gnocchi, freely chatted about food and family, all while learning and practicing techniques together,” said Joanna Dewey, who is one of Underwood’s students. “I was so hesitant signing up for my first online cooking class [but] my fears of being judged or too inexperienced immediately dissipated.”

Taped classes allow families to have culinary experiences that are not bound by hectic and often conflicting schedules.  

“Now, my nine-year-old daughter and I catch any episodes she is hosting and enjoy baking her recipes together,” said Dewey. “I’m already planning on giving her classes to family members, and also using them in the future to gather friends from all over the country for a virtual ladies night out.”

Through classes that she creates specifically for children, Underwood uses a holistic approach to education and helps her young charges develop a palate that extends beyond chicken nuggets, French fries and juice boxes.  

“I know the importance of designing classes to incorporate math, reading, critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity through the life skill of cooking while having fun,” she said.

Her family’s time-honored tradition of using food as a vehicle for community building and social connections guided the mission that Underwood established for Gather. “Cooking can break down all types of barriers and unite us all. I’ve repeatedly observed how learning to cook and bake enriches lives, connecting with friends, and family, creating community, and developing self-confidence. ”

Culinary instructor Melanie Underwood. Photo by Aiko Austin.