Social Distancing—it is our mantra in these times of COVID-19. For the sake of our loved ones, our front-line workers, and our vulnerable citizens, we are all doing our part to observe the recommended guidelines for staying safe and healthy. That does not, however, mean we are shut away with nothing to do. Far from it! In these times where it is business-as-anything-but-usual, our business owners are creating new and ingenious ways to keep us all connected and enjoying the things we love… with a few modifications, of course. Think cooking classes are a thing of the pre-COVID-19 past? The Chef Upstairs invites you to think again with its virtual cooking classes, where you can enjoy all the social and instructional benefits of a traditional cooking class, while remaining safe and healthy in your own home.
For over a decade, The Chef Upstairs has been offering fun and interactive cooking instruction to people of all ages. Whether you are looking to improve your cooking skills, spend time with friends and family, or find unique ways to engage your kids, The Chef Upstairs has something for everyone. Chef Julian Pancer is co-owner with business partner Greg Heller, and certainly knows his stuff when it comes to cooking—he trained at George Brown College and has worked in restaurants and hotels around North America and Europe. Chef Julian first came on board approximately six years ago in the capacity of chef at the original Midtown location in Toronto. “I did everything from kids’ classes to adult cooking classes and birthday parties, camps, corporate team building events, and even at-home chef experiences,” he recalls. He loved the experience so much that, three years ago, he invested in the business and they opened a second location in Vaughan.
The Chef Upstairs is all about teaching people how to have fun in the kitchen. Classes are two to three hours long depending on the menu, and much of the cooking performed in class is done in groups or teams. There is much more to learn in class than just knife skills and stove-top cooking. “It’s things like training your palette, becoming more aware of what you’re eating, and what different types of foods there are from around the world,” Chef Julian explains. “As an educational facility, people love it. As a weekly routine, they love it.” In fact, some families love it so much that they send their children back year after year for camps and courses, and Julian has literally seen some of these children grow up over the past six years.
The Chef Upstairs’ Vaughan location has two studio spaces and an overall capacity of around 90 people (that’s enough room to host small weddings and corporate events). They’ve been wonderfully busy since opening, employ up to six full-time chefs and a team of servers, and run two almost-sold-out summer camps every year…
Of course, this year the world was introduced to COVID-19, and everything changed. Clearly, in-person classes have had to be suspended until it is safe to begin interacting again. When guidelines were first implemented for social distancing, Chef Julian and his team began to look at what alternative solutions could be developed to keep people cooking. The solution: virtual cooking classes.
It sounds like a logical change, perhaps even a simple one. But that is because the team at The Chef Upstairs has worked so hard to make the transition seamless. “It was like rebuilding a business from scratch,” Chef Julian says. “It was so much work, and I’ve got two kids under three years old at home, so that was an added challenge. Rebuilding all that content to upload to our website, creating menus and recipes that can be accomplished from home to account for the restrictions of people’s kitchens as well as the restrictions of the produce available and how you can obtain it—but we jumped in. Within two weeks we were running our first paid virtual cooking class.”
So how does one go about taking a virtual cooking class? The first thing to do is visit the website at www.thechefupstairs.com. Available classes are arranged for either adults or kids, with family classes spread between the two options. Once you’ve signed up for a class, you will see a large selection of differently themed menus for you to choose from. “We even have a Disney Frozen and a Superhero themed menu,” Chef Julian says. “We’ve linked up with a local acting and character company that is providing us with character actors in full costume singing Frozen songs.” Once you have registered, you will receive an email with a setup sheet and the recipes to allow you to shop for what you will need, and also to do some of the prep work before the class such as premeasuring, washing and cutting.
Because a cooking class is such a social activity, the structure of each session allows for thirty minutes of socialization time before the instruction begins. “Much of the time it is friends or family from different households signing up together, so they like to chat and catch up before the class,” Chef Julian explains. But friends and family aren’t the only groups taking advantage of this opportunity. Since putting together their virtual classes, The Chef Upstairs has seen participants from across Canada, and even into the United States—from places like California, Texas, Virginia and Illinois. “It’s a really cool mix, and that in itself stirs up conversation between people, discovering where everyone is from and sharing travel stories,” Chef Julian notes.
Venturing into the virtual world has been a wonderful success for The Chef Upstairs. Though virtual cooking classes will never take the place of in-person classes, and the team is looking forward to the day when they can safely welcome students back to the studio, the change has opened up an entirely new demographic of participants. Since COVID-19 has made social distancing necessary, they have been working hard to increase their traction on social media to engage and reach customers. As Chef Julian notes, “[Social distancing] has forced many businesses to break out of complacency. When business is going well, we rarely find ourselves in a position to want to innovate and stretch our abilities, to really be hungry and go for it. This has definitely put us in that high creativity, high mindset mode. We are going to be better business people, and all-around better people when this is said and done.”
For more information, visit www.thechefupstairs.com, or call (416) 544-9221. In York Durham Headwaters, The Chef Upstairs is located at 555 N. Rivermede Rd. (Hwy 7, East of Keele St.), Vaughan, ON L4K 4G8.
Story by Katherine Ryalen