Attention, Future Top Chefs: Cooking School Goes Online

Photograph by David Matheson/Gallery Stock

Want to learn how to cook? These days it seems like a PC or a tablet is a more indispensible kitchen tool than a sauté pan or a chef’s knife. The Internet is a treasure trove of recipes and techniques—and increasingly ingredients—for the aspiring chef. It was only a matter of time before we saw cooking schools move online.

TV shows Top Chef and America’s Test Kitchen have both launched their own online cooking programs, and we’ve even see the emergence of the first online professional culinary school. Now a San Francisco startup called Feast is taking a tech startup’s approach to the cooking school.

Feast co-founder and Chief Executive Officer David Spinks doesn’t have a cooking background. Instead he’s an online community developer who has created or managed the community portals for the LeWeb conferences, Zaarly, u30pro, BlogDash, and Scribnia. He even created a meta-community for community managers called, you guessed it, TheCommunityManager. But after he did some consulting work for online learning startup Udemy, helping it develop its community strategy, Spinks got the idea for Feast.

Spinks said he wanted to apply the same online education methods underlying teaching sites like Udemy and Coursera to create a platform for cooking lessons. In addition, Spinks wanted to anchor those classes with a strong community, not only to address the inevitable questions and problems that emerge when trying to prepare a dish, but to keep students interested and engaged.

Spinks added that he didn’t want to create something dull or overly academic either—not the cooking equivalent of a coding course.

“We wanted to take the entertainment value you get on television, but create a format where you can actually learn,” Spinks said. “There is a problem with the Food Network. It’s entertaining you, but they’re not really teaching you how to cook. They’re selling you a lifestyle. We’re actually trying to get you in the kitchen.”

Last fall, Feast launched its first online cooking course, a four-week class designed to teach basic cooking techniques ranging from knife skills to braising. Led by Feast’s in-house chef Jeremy Umansky, the self-paced lessons use detailed text descriptions and photographs along with numerous videos.

It’s in the community discussions, though, that a lot of the real learning goes on, Spinks said. Not only does Umansky engage with students on the boards, but students interact with one another, often solving problems before an instructor gets involved, Spinks said. That student interaction also acts as a motivator, helping solve one of the key problems of online learning: retention. In self-paced learning programs such as those offered by Coursera, Spinks said, as few as 7 percent of students actually finish the curriculum from beginning to end. Feast’s inaugural class last winter attracted 75 students, and more than half participated up to its conclusion.

The company’s spring semester starts next week, offering a new kitchen basics class as well as a new course on vegetarian cooking (both $60 for four weeks). Feast has also begun offering a free mini-course on fermentation, where you can learn how to make kimchi, Korean spicy preserved cabbage.

Feast has also managed to attract the attention of Dave McClure’s 500 Startups, which accepted the company into its accelerator’s sixth batch of startups.

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