by Mel A. James
photos courtesy Cooking Studio TaosThe house has an inviting old-world style, from the stone floors, plastered walls and wooden vigas, to the bright, open windows that offer views of nearby El Salto Mountain. The art is vibrant and varied, and includes many local artists, like the large Thom Wheeler piece that declares, “It’s okay to PLAY with your food in this kitchen!” Brightly colored Italian pottery sits on the rustic dining table and atop intricately carved wooden cabinets. But none of it feels stuffy — this is a house that is lived in and loved. It’s relaxed and open, but not overly large. The kitchen features an antique stove and an oversized island, where many cooks have prepared many meals.
This is where Chris and Valerie Maher of Cooking Studio Taos live with their son, Milo, and where most of their classes take place. The outside is just as beautiful and relaxed as the inside, with a large recessed fire pit, an outdoor kitchen with a pizza oven, and large bar seating. The chicken coop and vegetable gardens are just on the opposite side of the patio. While the Mahers often host events such as bachelorette luncheons outside on the lawn, today’s class will be in the house kitchen. Although they can accommodate as many as a dozen people in their classes, today they have a small group, including myself, and Gail and Andy from Portland, Oregon.
Before we actually get to cooking, we take seats in the living room to share a little bit about ourselves, including where we are from and what sort of cooking experiences we have had. After learning about us, Chris tells us a little about his background: in addition to being a self-taught chef who once had four simultaneously successful food businesses in Los Angeles, including a restaurant and catering company, he is also a prolific actor. If you’ve seen any movies or television in the last 30 years, chances are very good that you’ve seen Chris on the screen — he’s had too many appearances to mention here. His natural charisma lends itself to teaching, and his talents are evident in spot-on imitations of characters that are peppered into the stories he tells. But while he intended, in his younger years, to be an actor first, his love of cooking was always there — and it began to play a more important role in his life as time passed. At the request of some of his restaurant patrons, he started teaching classes and found he really took to it.
As the conversation moves back toward the class itself, he shares with us his philosophy of teaching: how he believes that recipes are not to be followed (at least not verbatim) and that we should try something different if we find ourselves without listed ingredients. He encourages us to have fun and feel free in the kitchen. “My goal is to open your spirit up to more cooking.” he says, “It’s about creating… it’s more about the heart than the head.”
While we visit, Chris’ wife, Valerie, is efficiently whipping out a large number of ingredients and placing them upon the expansive island in the kitchen — our workspace. There is an array of spices plus garlic, onions, green chile (today’s theme is New Mexican), meats, pasta and rice. She moves quickly as she has to take their son to
soccer practice and won’t be able to stay for the class today. I begin to see that she has done a lot of preparation, including making the packets of recipes we hold in our hands. When I had a chance to visit with Valerie, she talked about working with Chris: “I handle the business side: marketing, sales, the behind-the-scenes organizing. Chris and I feel like we have such an amazing partnership. I do the things that Chris would really have no interest in. And I like to eat. So it’s perfect,” she says laughingly. “He really is talented, he’s amazing.”
After we’ve gone over the recipes, which for today’s class include green chile stew and chicken adovada, we are each given our tools: an apron embroidered with the Cooking Studio logo, a dishtowel, knives, bowls and pans — but there seems to be a lack of measuring devices, which I suspect is not entirely unintentional. This is a hands-on class, and while we are meant to do all the work ourselves, this doesn’t mean we are left to our own devices. On the contrary, Chris gives suggestions on everything from how to properly clean the work surface and hold our knives to tricks for peeling garlic and chopping onions.
These classes make up the bulk of what Cooking Studio Taos does. In addition to private groups like this one, they regularly hold public classes and host corporate team-building events. They also put on a weeklong youth camp every summer for kids aged 6 to 16, which culminates in a luncheon for the adults where the kids cook, set the table, and serve their guests.
And these events are not just held at their home outside of Taos. The Mahers also travel quite a bit, hosting secret suppers in Texas, California, or anywhere they are requested. When I met with them, they had just returned from Arkansas, where they had held an intensive workshop for 45 children at a private charter school that provides scholarships to low-income kids. Valerie expressed, “What we love most about what we do are the people that we meet and the interactions. It is so rewarding.”
One of their more popular events in Taos is the secret supper, their version of a pop-up restaurant. One night a month, they plan a five-course dinner to be served at a private venue, the location of which remains a secret until the day of the event. The May supper was held at a vacation rental high in the hills in Valdez. It was a soaring log home with large windows and an expansive back deck surrounded by aromatic pine trees. What struck me most about the event was the sense of community, despite the fact that many of the participants had never met before that evening. But the atmosphere invites connections; you sit with strangers and engage in small talk first, but it isn’t long before the talk becomes livelier. A bit of wine, a bit of time, and lots of incredible food means that conversation becomes much more interesting. My table neighbors and I discussed everything from birds and wildlife to the infrastructure of Taos, and down the table, I heard politics being covered. The food is a hot topic, of course — from the amuse bouche to the pork milanese, everything was expertly prepared and served by the Mahers and their competent staff. One diner expressed to Chris, “I think you raised the concept of cauliflower to a religious experience.” Another aspect of the food worth mentioning: everything they serve is all organic and natural. The Mahers are adamant that this is a crucial part of their mission.
There is something magical about being in the presence of people who love what they do; a joyous energy permeates the experience, and it is apparent when you spend time with the Mahers that they are doing just that. The atmosphere they create, whether in the classroom or at the dining table, is infectious and fosters a feeling of connection and community. Whether you are enjoying a mouthwatering dinner prepared by someone else or creating one yourself, the joy of shared food brings people together and creates new friendships. As Chris said to our class, “Food is the thread that connects the whole planet.”