In the world of cooking, I know I make a mean salmon dish and a tasty omelette. But I knew there was more out there to learn. After hunting around Google and Instagram, I came across Gather Culinary and chef Melanie Underwood and discovered she teaches classes. On a recent Sunday morning, Melanie graciously invited me into her home and beautiful kitchen where my journey into learning how to create some amazing dishes began.
We started preparing Melanie’s “One Bowl Brownies” with zucchini. That’s right . . . zucchini! I told Melanie I wasn’t a huge fan of zucchini, but it might be a whole other story when you’re talking about brownies. Melanie told me about her new book, “Rule Breaking Baking – Baking without Recipes,” and said that the brownie recipe calling for about 1 to 1-1/2 cups of shredded zucchini was a perfect example of breaking the rules. She said you can decide how much or how little of the zucchini you’d like to add. Of course, Melanie said that incorporating veggies in baking is a great way to disguise them for kids. She has a great Pavlova recipe in which she added beets. While I was mixing the brownies, we laughed at the fact of combining baking and fitness in one opportunity. Melanie said her students look past the zucchini and still want to lick the bowl. After sprinkling yummy chocolate chips on top, it was off to the oven to bake. Melanie stated that while at the Plaza Hotel, she told everyone to use each of the racks in the oven so they would learn which rack worked best for a certain dish. Good tip.
We moved on to roasting butternut squash and cauliflower for the next two recipes, “Lentils with Butternut Squash and Arugula,” and “Roasted Cauliflower with Chickpeas and Arugula”. If you are able to compost, it’s a great way to handle your unused veggie parts. Melanie keeps a compost bowl on the side to collect all the leftovers.
I asked her how the kids in her classes respond to cauliflower. She said that once roasted, cauliflower becomes a bit sweeter which kids and adults enjoy. “I like to expose young people to things they are not usually exposed to. It often opens their eyes. When they are having it prepared and it’s crispy, they say it’s delicious.”
Melanie also loves the fact that her students (young and older) get into their cooking using their hands. Getting a feel for the food they are preparing is a very sensory experience. Another great tip Melanie offered while we were chopping Shitake mushrooms, was to practice your chopping technique on onions and carrots, to learn how to maintain consistency in size so everything cooks evenly. While the lentils simmered away, Melanie sauteed the mushrooms until they were super crispy and actually tasted like bacon!
As Melanie prepared the chickpeas for roasting, she spoke about her experience growing up on a farm in Virginia and what led her on her culinary journey. “I think just growing up on a farm and cooking everything and picking your own vegetables was so important. We rarely had rice or pasta because we grew our own potatoes and sweet potatoes.” She went on to say that everything was there. They had a huge garden and her granddad was always around – they were very close and connected. It made her feel super connected to people. That’s why her company is called Gather Culinary, because for Melanie it’s all about gathering together around great food.
Melanie originally wanted to be a lawyer. But once entering college, she realized it wasn’t what she wanted to do. Her mother asked, “What is it that you love?”
She replied, “I love to bake and l love to cook.” Her mom told her to pursue that because it could be her career for the rest of her life. Melanie said that it was probably one of the best pieces of advice in her life.
Melanie began working in hotels as a pastry chef. However, making a real impact was important to her. So, she needed to move on from the Four Seasons Hotel. After some needed surgery, Melanie worked at the Institute of Culinary Education through a friend. The owner approached her and suggested that she teach. While a little skeptical about the idea, Melanie conducted a few classes and quickly realized that it was, “amazing and opened up a whole new world.”
An important moment for Melanie was right after 9/11. She had to teach a week-long class the next day and her students thanked her at the end for allowing them to have a moment to not think about what had just happened. She learned that everyone is coming in with their own issues or things they are dealing with, but with cooking, sometimes it’s not just about cooking, it’s about taking a respite from the rest of their lives. “It’s super therapeutic.”
I asked Melanie if she had any influences in the culinary world. Laughingly, she said that there weren’t many and she looks more so outside of the culinary business. This was due to the fact that the culinary world is heavily impacted by men. Her style is more like a European kitchen where it is often quieter and has a more comfortable vibe. She admires Alice Waters for her philosophy about growing what you eat.
When asked about what she wants her students to take with them after completing her classes, she replied, “I want them to feel super connected to their food. I want them to also feel connected to themselves. For me, food is about sharing and being connected with others. I hope that I impart that to my students when they come into my classes. I want them to have a sense of belonging. For young people it definitely builds confidence.”
When developing new recipes, Melanie tries to think of things that are unconventional and traditionally things people wouldn’t put together. One aspect is teaching others the concept from her book because she knows how to bake without following exact recipes. It is challenging in itself to teach others.
I asked Melanie what she tells parents of children that show great interest in cooking. “Don’t hold them back.” Parents want to protect their children in the kitchen, so it’s a great idea to find alternatives to preparing some ingredients. For example, using a grater instead of a knife. Getting your child involved in every process of making a meal for the prep, cook and cleaning up, teaches them how to appreciate the meal and have more fun in the kitchen.
We went on to make an amazing yogurt sauce and vinegrette for the two dishes. I used a microplane to grate the garlic and zest a lemon. It might not be new to some cooks out there but it was a fantastic confidence builder for my young food journey.
I asked Melanie about how our readers can learn more about her books that are out now and the new one coming. She showed me her incredible book, “Making Artisan Cheesecake,” (available on Kindle). It has some mouthwatering recipes in it.
Her new book, “Rule Breaking Baking – Baking without Recipes,” is currently being developed and will be published soon.
In the meantime, Melanies’s Fall classes are held for 6 weeks (Mondays & Wednesdays) and another set of classes coming up are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
To find out about Gather Culinary and Melanie, visit www.melanieunderwood.com and on Instagram @chefmelanieunderwood
I had an amazing time in Melanie’s kitchen. She certainly impacted my life and my own culinary journey. I’m sure she will for many of our readers, too.