Sunday July 25, 2021

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John Ochse, @ home Cooking NYC, New York City

Kids' Workshop:  It's Fun To Cook With Kids

John Ochse, an experienced culinary teacher, conducts a variety of classes.  Most recently, John was a Culinary Instructor and Demonstration Cook at Williams-Sonoma, Columbus Circle; he teaches an after-school program for high school students at Liberty Leads, sponsored by Bank Street College of Education; volunteers at Days of Taste, a program geared toward 4th graders and sponsored by Spoons Across America and The American Wine and Food Institute; works with C-CAP, a non-profit organization that creates culinary job opportunities and scholarships for financially challenged high school seniors; teaches culinary classes at Whole Foods, Bowery;  and conducts private cooking lessons for adults and children in the New York Tri-State Area through his company @home Cooking NYC.

— CAFE Archives – Chefs Speak Out – January/February 2008


Demonstrating Savvy

John Ochse Demonstration Cook, Williams-Sonoma, Inc.

By Lynn Schwartz

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Most of us have heard this Alexander Graham Bell quote so many times that we dismiss its wisdom. But sometimes, new opportunities really do present themselves to those who are willing to embrace them. This was the case for John Ochse. Ochse spent years associating with “foodies” and eating, cooking and talking about food and beverages, but pursued a successful career in educational publishing with an emphasis in college textbooks and educational videos for children and adults. Then the marketplace changed. New technologies developed (DVDs were fast overtaking VHS) and people were looking less at educational enterprises. “I became a dinosaur in my own business,” he says. After 25 years in the industry, Ochse closed his business. While Ochse was trying to figure out what was next, a friend who knew of his cooking interest and talent asked him to help out as a demonstration cook at a specialty gourmet food and cookware store during the busy Christmas holidays. As it happened, this wasn’t just any store; this was the new flagship Williams-Sonoma at the Time Warner Center Building in New York City. The Columbus Circle location is literally a hub of high-end shops, restaurants and culinary treats. Ochse’s plan was to work temporarily. In the end, the store recognized that the customers enjoyed Ochse’s demonstrations and Ochse recognized that this was an ideal position for him. He stayed on past the holidays and embarked upon a culinary career. The Demonstration Cook Ochse naturally possesses the skills that an accomplished demonstration cook needs—he cooks well, is a good salesman and like all successful performers, he has a beautiful, commanding speaking voice. “You need to have the ability to communicate,” he says. “If you are bashful or shy, this kind of situation will be difficult.” A demonstration cook is a performer, a skill that chefs do not train for. “In front of an audience, you simultaneously cook, describe how and what you are cooking, and answer questions,” Ochse says. Unlike a restaurant chef who generally stays behind the scenes, the demonstration cook works in an interactive environment. “We get immediate feedback. You watch the customer eat what you just made. You see the reaction on the customer’s face.” While Ochse has attended numerous culinary classes, he considers himself a self-taught cook. “I learned by watching and experimenting.” But Ochse says that most of the demonstration chefs at the store have culinary educations. Still, he says, “We are not really chefs. but cooks.” Ochse recognizes the distinct difference between those who want to pursue a career as a chef and those who enjoy demonstrating products. “This is not about being a chef,” he says, “because this is not a place to shine with one’s own recipes. It is about promoting ingredients, equipment and products.” The tasks a demonstration cook performs might even be considered mundane by some chefs. For instance, when a cake is made, the demonstration cook uses the mixes that the store is featuring. “We can’t change or mix that up,” says Ochse. “The creative part comes with the decorating.” The Williams-Sonoma demonstration cooks (there are between two and seven depending on the season) work in a beautiful kitchen in a stunning environment and make use of the great equipment in the store; however, demonstrating is not without the usual challenges of dealing with the public. The same questions are asked multiple times and must be answered graciously and patiently, groupies form, and since food samples are given away, there are those “regulars” who appear daily for a snack. “One develops a Zen calmness where nothing can bother you,” says Ochse. Enticing the Customer The goal of a good demonstration cook is to get the customer to buy the products. “Your success is based on the immediate approval of the taste of the food,” says Ochse. “If you cooked it well and presented it well, you will sell product.” The products consist of food items, but also kitchen appliances, utensils, gadgets and cookware. Aroma is important. “Often we cook bacon, which always attracts an audience,” says Ochse. “And our cooking choices are seasonal—mulled cider and cooked turkeys around the holidays. In winter, soups like butternut squash, briskets and one-pot meals are good. In fall, there are root vegetables and in spring and summer, you’ll find fresh fruit, ice cream and mixed drinks.” In addition to daily demonstrations, Ochse teaches in-store technique classes such as braising, knife skills and pasta making. “During the holidays, we offer ‘Turkey 101,’ which covers how to select and prepare a delicious turkey,” says Ochse. Other classes in this series present side dishes and provide instructions on roasting and carving. These complimentary sessions attract an average of 35 students per class and last one to two hours. Throughout the year, the store offers cooking classes that customers pay to attend. In this setting, Ochse instructs approximately 15 students. He plans, shops and preps for four to five dishes. These sessions are theme-menu driven, such as a “Dinner in Provence” or “A Night in Italy.” The students prepare the meal and eat what they cook. The classes are three hours long and of course, there is a break where students are encouraged to shop. One Door Leads to Another It is not surprising given his culinary-demonstration talents and background in educational publishing that yet another door has opened for Ochse—teaching outside the store. He has now begun to teach cooking lessons in private homes. He and a partner instruct children as well as adults. “Teaching privately is rewarding,” he says. “You can really measure the student’s progress and see them grow.” In addition, Ochse is involved in a new program at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City, a highly respected school known to be at the forefront of experimental methodology. As a culinary-arts instructor in this venue, Ochse teaches teenagers nutrition and cooking skills in an after-school program geared toward urban youth. “These are kids who may be dropping out, have home problems, or drug-related issues.”  Students receive hands-on experience covering topics from palate development and food safety through regional and international cuisines to table setting and etiquette. “These kids volunteer to come,” says Ochse. “What is remarkable is that all 11 students have shown up for all classes. “I’m enjoying the heck out of this class,” he says. It seems that Ochse’s career change into the culinary world, only three years ago, was indeed serendipitous. It has opened up new possibilities not only for himself, but also for the students he teaches.