Taste of the Town: Country Garden Cuisine offers lessons
By NICOLE WESKERNA - email@example.com
ST. CHARLES – When it comes to cooking, Penny Newkirk teaches her students how to get back to the basics.
Through hands-on cooking classes at Country Garden Cuisine in St. Charles, she helps people learn how to make fresh meals using herbs, fruits and vegetables grown in her on-site gardens that surround a historic 1840s home on LaFox Road, where the classes take place.
“I wanted the food to come from a farm because people are forgetting. People can experience real food in its setting,” she said. “I wanted [the cooking school] to be like coming to the farm to cook with your aunt.”
Newkirk’s love of teaching and cooking combined to form her early career as a home economics teacher. After having children, she continued teaching cooking classes in the evenings as a stay-at-home mom. In the 1980s, she became an owner of the St. Charles-based cooking school, Cooking Craft. There, Newkirk said she specialized in teaching people how to make chocolate candies.
When the business started demanding 60 to 70 hours of her time each week, Newkirk decided to leave the retail sector and set out to start Country Garden Cuisine about 15 years ago. The cooking school now operates out of a home that was originally built in 1847 on Dean Street in St. Charles and was later relocated to the farm at Country Garden Cuisine.
Newkirk now teaches about two classes each week and hosts private group classes in between. Groups are typically smaller and often are limited to about a dozen or so people. Other events, such as the Farm to Fork dinners, can accommodate up to 35 people. The cooking school also has an alcohol license, which allows students to bring a bottle of wine or beer along.
Upcoming classes include lessons on how to make phyllo dough, sausage, savory pies and hearty appetizers, such as Asian chicken skewers with a plum barbecue sauce and smoked salmon bombs.
“We cook very healthy here, but we cook,” she said. “You don’t have to eat Lean Cuisine to cook healthy.”
Newkirk trained as a master gardener with the University of Illinois Extension and incorporates the food grown in her gardens as much as possible. She said at one time, her garden held 16 varieties of thyme. She said this year’s garden produced about 50 varieties of herbs.
She said a lot has happened to food since she entered the culinary field in the 1970s. She said that’s when she saw the first organic food movement as people realized they weren’t feeding their families well with processed foods. She said people are now more concerned about why organic is better and how animals are handled.
Newkirk said her goal is to teach people how to cook healthy meals from scratch without getting overwhelmed.
“It’s gonna be better because you made it,” she said. “It didn’t have to have red dye No. 3. I’m of that era.”
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