Seattleite Spotlight: Culinary Expert Vanessa Volkman

The director of Blue Ribbon Cooking School dishes out kitchen and catering tips.

All photos courtesy of Blue Ribbon Cooking & Culinary Center

We all gotta eat, but the fact is that many of us simply don’t know our way around the kitchen. Thankfully, Northwest native Vanessa Volkman is here to lend a hand. A former private chef and culinary consultant, Vanessa today oversees day-to-day operations for Blue Ribbon Cooking & Culinary Center (an institution founded by her mother, Virginia Duppenthaler, in 1995). Blue Ribbon’s weekly group classes cover everything from sharpening knives to preparing Béchamel, while the center also offers event catering services, kid-friendly programs, and facilities for corporate team-building exercises.

Who introduced you to cooking?

Both of my parents. They enjoyed spending time in the kitchen. When we were growing up, everyone came together to prepare meals, rather than just sitting at the table to eat.

Is it true that you once did a televised cooking special with Julia Child?

I did an apple pie special with Julia Child at age 12, and it was an amazing experience. She was so full of life, so much energy and personality. I got to meet her again when I was 16, and she was exactly the same – very excited about food, even after all of her years of experience.

When did you realize that cooking was not just a passion of yours, but also a potential career choice?

I always wanted to cook for and entertain people, so I knew my career would involve those two things. As I was growing up, I wasn’t sure about joining the family business. But as I got older, I realized my mom had an amazing profession. Every day, people have a great time thanks to what we’re doing.

Your mother founded Blue Ribbon in 1995, and you began working there five years later. How has the company evolved in the last two decades?

At first, we were really focused on the cooking school. We taught kids camps and adult series classes, as well as some corporate team-building. Our cooking school is still going strong, but in 2000 (the year I joined the company) we also began opening our doors to the world of social and corporate catering. We offer all-inclusive weddings and other events, and we’ve also opened several Blue Ribbon venues and events facilities in the Puget Sound area.

How many venues does Blue Ribbon currently oversee?

In addition to the Blue Ribbon Culinary Center on Lake Union, we operate the Weyerhaeuser Estate in Tacoma and Velocity in Capitol Hill. We’ve just launched Salsa con Todo in Fremont and The Landing across from University Village. We are also one of three partners that operates the Lake Union Crew space.

Any plans to expand further?

We are always looking for new venues and great opportunities!

How many different courses does Blue Ribbon offer to the public throughout the year?

Our goal is to offer one per week, so 52 per year. We might not do any during holiday weeks because people tend to be out of town.

What are some of the skills that students learn during Blue Ribbon cooking classes?

Pretty much everything from proper knife skills to barbecuing and grilling fundamentals to learning classic culinary terms. We offer classes in traditional French mother sauces and international cuisine, as well as cocktail mixology. There’s a wide array.

How are these courses structured?

Each class is three hours, and people who sign up spend that time learning skills associated with the theme of that class. If we offer a class on knives, for instance, students learn about different types of blades, terminology, sharpening, and other related skills.

Where do people tend to struggle the most when it comes to cooking and managing a kitchen?

The number one struggle I see with people learning to cook is getting organized, or thinking through the recipe before getting started. Another thing I see over and over again is people not realizing that the kitchen welcomes creativity. If you’re missing an ingredient or a tool, you can be creative and the kitchen will work with you – most of the time, anyway.

As a self-taught chef, what tips do you have for culinary novices who want to master the art of cooking?

Definitely play in the kitchen as much as possible; don’t take the kitchen too seriously. Don’t stress your fails, and keep experimenting and trying new things. Taste everything you have the opportunity to taste, because new flavors inspire people.

In your opinion, which culinary style is the easiest for beginners to pick up? What about the trickiest?

That’s a tricky question, because I think whatever culinary style people are most interested in will be the easiest one for them to learn. Probably barbecue or traditional American cooking is the easiest style to pick up. On the other hand, I would say traditional Asian cooking is the trickiest to learn, mainly because the ingredients are unfamiliar to most people and rice-based food can be unforgiving for beginners.

Which skill level(s) do your classes cater to?

We have all different levels of cooking classes. A lot of people will call up and tell us they don’t have any experience, and we can recommend different classes for them. Our classes start with really basic ones – we call them ‘boiling water classes’. We also offer intermediate and advanced classes that launch into French cuisine, julienne and other fine knife techniques, baking and pastry work, and other skills that require a little more experience from students.

Blue Ribbon offers professional team building courses throughout the year. How does cooking help strengthen the bond between co-workers and business associates?

We get a mixture of corporate groups; we’ve done everything from recruiting events, where companies want to see how people interact within a group, to team morale-building. Working in the kitchen is a really great canvas for building positive professional relationships because it requires timeline allocation and logistical planning, as well as a clear understanding of different leadership roles.

Making catering arrangements can be a frustrating experience. What advice do you have for people who are trying to plan a big event?

The number one thing is to think delicious, but also recognizable. Catered meals need to be approachable to the masses. You can highlight flavors of the Northwest with fresh and locally sourced ingredients, but definitely think about what your guests will enjoy eating – fancier doesn’t always mean better. We’ve found that a lot of events succeed by serving comfort food-based dishes. Another area would be making sure the dishes you select are good at any temperature, since it’s impossible to get each person in a large group to eat at the same time.

Tell us about Food Truck Wars and Cooking for a Cause. How can Seattleites get involved with these programs?

These are two of Blue Ribbon’s newer programs that we’ve just launched. We’ve found that a lot of groups want to give back, as well as experience the team-building element we offer with cooking classes. In a Cooking for a Cause event, groups come together and prepare dishes that are then donated to one of the shelters in the area, as well as making a dish they get to sit down and enjoy.

Food Truck Wars is our Iron Chef­-inspired program. Participants are paired up and given a different food truck theme, such as lumpia or empanadas. Then they have to compose the whole concept for a food truck, as well as preparing several dishes. Then our judges evaluate each concept, and prizes are awarded to the best selections.

Visit the official Blue Ribbon Cooking & Culinary Center website to view their class schedule and register for an open seat. Upcoming courses include ‘Cooking with Cabernet: The Magnificent & Charming King of Red Wines’, ‘Date Night Couples: Heat up the Night Southeast Asian Style’, and ‘Gluten Free Comfort Food Made Easy’. The site also has information about catering services, team-building accommodations, and kids programs. You can also follow Vanessa on Twitter (@Vanessavolkman).

Blue Ribbon Cooking & Culinary Center | 2501 Fairview Ave. E, Seattle | (206) 328-2442