So Much To Learn, So Much To Cook
By Anne Levin
Photography by Tom Grimes
To reach The Farm Cooking School in Stockton, you turn off Route 29 at the sign for Tullamore Farms onto a rutted, bumpy road. Almost immediately, if your windows are open, you notice a change in the air. It’s cooler. It smells good.
You drive up the tree-shaded road and park behind the barn, just across from the 18th century farmhouse that Ian Knauer, who started the school just over a year ago, has turned into a cozy teaching kitchen. If you’re lucky, three of the farm’s resident goats might gambol over to greet you, bleating as they usher you across the road to the stone steps that lead to the kitchen.
The term “farm to table” is casually thrown around these days. But this is the real deal. Knauer, a former chef and food writer for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, got a vegetable garden in the ground almost as soon as he signed on as a tenant at Tullamore Farms and began renovating the farmhouse on the property. His mission is simple: To teach cooking with ingredients sourced from his garden and the gardens of nearby farms.
Knauer is no vegetarian. Butchering is among the class offerings, and some of the recipes use Tullamore Farms meats. But the emphasis is on fresh produce, depending on what’s growing and what’s ripe. Knauer, 38, shares teaching duties with Shelley Wiseman, a former colleague at Gourmet and an accomplished food writer, editor, and teacher in her own right. While Knauer specializes in classes about bread-baking, different varieties of produce, cheese-making, and more, Wiseman is an expert when it comes to French and Mexican cooking. He lives in Solebury; she lives in New Hope.
“It works really well, because Shelley is classically trained, a very technical cook,” Knauer said in an interview after teaching a class about strawberries in early June. “She’s the other end of the spectrum from me, a nice complement to my style of Willy Wonka-esque cooking. Shelley is a lot of the muscle behind the classes and the curriculum. She’s a fantastic cook, an encyclopedia of cuisine knowledge.”
While he has always liked to cook, Knauer didn’t consider making it his life’s work until he was immersed in another career. He grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania and spent a lot of time at his family’s farm in Chester County. “I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get out and move to the city,” he recalled. “I went to Hofstra University and got a job as a stockbroker. But eventually, I hated that, too. I would come home from Wall Street all stressed out, and I would cook. It made me happy. It relaxed me.”
After making the decision to leave the Wall Street job, Knauer took what he thought would be a temporary position, subbing for a friend. “A college roommate of mine had a gig picking up Nick, Ruth Reichl’s son, from school and he went away for a while. I took his job. I didn’t really know who Ruth Reichl was—I knew she had been the dining critic at The New York Times but I didn’t realize the power that came with that job.”
Reichl also happened to be the editor of Gourmet. It wasn’t long before she realized that Knauer was the kind of person she wanted on her team. “We hit it off and she hired me,” he said. “I stayed at Gourmet almost 10 years.”
He started out in the enviable job of testing recipes, and moved on to cooking. “It was amazing. I did live TV, traveled, and met different chefs,” Knauer said. “They sent me to places like Hong Kong, Mexico—all over the place.” His favorite? A week-long bread-baking course at The Bertinet Kitchen in Bath, England.
“It changed my life,” Knauer said. “It taught me what to look for—the feel, the smell—when baking bread. I can do it now without a recipe. I can teach others what I know. I love to teach the bread class because there are so many ‘aha’ moments. You can see it click when it happens.”
Fans and staff of Gourmet were devastated when it was abruptly closed down in October 2009. The magazine had been publishing since 1941. “I didn’t know what to do,” Knauer recalled. “I moved to my family’s farm, with my folks. I planted the garden with my sisters and I cooked out of the garden all summer. I started thinking, ‘This is what makes me happy.’ And that became my cookbook.”
The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) led to a television show called The Farm that ran 13 episodes on PBS. “It aired nationally and it was really fun,” Knauer said. “It was unlike any other TV cooking show out there.”
After watching the show, people would ask Knauer if he had a restaurant. “I didn’t want one and still don’t want one,” he said. “But I knew I wanted to do a school.”
He began scouting around for locations and nearly gave up after a year and a half. But a chance meeting with Jeanmarie Mitchell, owner of Tullamore Farms, changed everything. “She was in a tight position and so was I,” said Knauer. “She let me come in and renovate the house, which I did by myself. So I rent from her, and it’s a great relationship. She benefits from my clientele and I benefit from being here.”
Knauer got the Burpee company to donate seeds and plants for the garden. He put the word out and 20 people showed up to help. The garden was planted in a day. Through word-of-mouth, the classes took off quickly. They are designed for all levels of cooks, from novices to those who show up with their own set of knives.
“We try to hit a lot of bases,” Knauer said of the curriculum. This summer’s lineup is varied, with classes on Mexican, Italian, and French cuisine, knife skills, “Wines of the World,” pies, leafy greens, a Summer Bistro series, and more. “There’s the basic stuff, like our Foundations of Cooking classes,” he continued. “We do different cuisines—a French series, and a bistro series to get us through the winter. And it’s totally different in summer. We do produce, with one thing every week that’s entirely ripe.”
Six students signed up for the strawberry class. After a short trip to the garden to pick the last of the crop, the cooks were put to work slicing and dicing berries in preparation for Strawberry Leather (like fruit roll-ups but better), Strawberry Preserves with Black Pepper and Balsamic, Strawberry-Chile Soba Salad, Chicken Breasts with Avocado and Strawberry Salsa, Strawberry Tart with Orange-Ricotta Cream, and Strawberry Pudding Cake.
Knauer, who is affable and easy-going, gave directions and assigned jobs. Soft jazz played in the background. Everyone got acquainted as they worked. Three of the students were veterans, having been to previous classes at the school. One was a retired engineer who has his own food blog. The proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast in Flemington was one of the first-timers.
The focal point of the kitchen is a lavish La Cornue range, but Knauer isn’t crazy about it. “It looks great, but it doesn’t work that well. It’s like a beautiful secretary who’s not very good at typing,” he said, laughing. “Sorry, I guess that’s kind of a sexist joke.”
After two hours of cooking, the classmates sat down at one of two long tables decorated with jugs of flowers from the garden. Lunch was served. The jam, spread on round toasts atop homemade goat cheese, was a favorite. There was praise for the strawberry salsa. But the hands-down favorite was the pudding cake, which is made from a simple recipe Knauer learned from his grandmother.
Students are mostly local but have come from as far as New York City and Virginia. They pay $85 a class. Veterans of the armed forces are invited to join any class for half price.
Knauer and Wiseman also do monthly dinners at the farm, where they do all the cooking. “It’s $75 a person, so it’s the most expensive BYO around,” Knauer said. “But it’s so worth it. We can be really creative and not harnessed to recipes. And it’s a lot of fun.”
The school has been open for just over a year, but classes have been selling out. “It’s so wonderful. It’s very validating to have this idea and have it go so well,” Knauer said. “Nobody’s going to get rich on this, but we can do what we love. There’s just so much to know, so much to cook.”