In February BC19, chef J. Chong gave her then-boss Katie Button, owner of Cúrate, a two-month notice on her intent to venture out on her own. “A brick-and-mortar wasn’t on my radar,” she says. “I was thinking of setting up a dumpling cart at markets and breweries, doing more pop-up dinners at local restaurants and teaching cooking classes.”
Well before her notice expired, the restaurant industry in America shut down, and Chong was forced to reevaluate how to carry on professionally. It didn’t take long for her to move to Plan B. “I get bored very easily and needed to find something to do,” she says with a laugh. “My wife, Danielle [Wheeler], and I were brainstorming, and she said, ‘How about a virtual cooking class? Put yourself out there and stay connected with the community?’”
Faster than producer/director/camera person Wheeler could bark, “Action!” jchong_eats debuted on IGTV on Instagram. Filmed live from their home kitchen, the energetic, fast-paced segments open with a musical bed and pan across the recipe’s mise en place on the kitchen counter before Chong dances onto the set and segues into instruction.
All of the classes on her personal channel — which air every other week — have focused on Cantonese cuisine, including veggie lo mein, hot-and-sour soup, egg drop soup, fried tofu with scallions, garlic and ginger sauce, and dumplings. “Teaching Cantonese food is so important to me,” says the first-generation Chinese Canadian. “I want people to understand that it’s simple, clean and delicious.”
Chong also contributes cooking segments to LGBTQ nonprofit Campaign for Southern Equality’s Front Porch virtual gatherings via Zoom, the first of which was famously interrupted by Zoom bombers hurling racist and homophobic slurs at her. “I was making spinach pesto, and suddenly this started, and it took a couple of seconds before we realized what was happening and the communications people could shut it down to get them off,” she recalls. “It was shocking, but it’s important to talk about.”
The only thing bombing chef Meherwan Irani’s Chai Time cooking tutorials are the family golden doodle, Rosie. “She has become a bit of a celebrity on her own,” says the owner of Chai Pani restaurants in Asheville and Atlanta. “She has found her way into every segment but one, and then people asked where she was.”
Irani started the video cooking classes a couple of weeks after closing his restaurants. “What do you do after you’ve been hit by a freight train? I just needed to cook and have a distraction, for myself and for anyone watching.”
Like Chong, he relies on his wife, Molly — aka @ChaiPaniMom — to be the one-woman production crew, shooting in front of a bank of windows in their home kitchen. “When we bought this house a year ago, we bought it for the kitchen. The first thing guests would say when they saw it was, ‘This is the perfect setting for an at-home cooking show.’ Well, what do you know?”
Irani naturally focuses on Indian cuisine, specifically on Chai Pani classics like buttered chicken, sag paneer and vindaloo, and tries to make recipes accessible and relatable to amateur home cooks. “The ingredients aren’t things you have to run to the Asian market on the other side of town to get,” he says. “I suggest substitutes for items people might not have, but everybody has vegetables on their last, shriveled legs, so let’s turn that into pakora. I think after all this time, people are maybe bored with 87 things to do with pasta and are open to trying something more exotic.”
New Chai Time segments, which run about 30 minutes, debut Saturdays at 4:30 p.m. on the @spicewalla Instagram account. Chai Time Quickies run on Wednesdays and are short how-tos of Indian food foundations like ginger-garlic paste and tandoori marinade. “It keeps me from getting bogged down in the Chai Time segments and getting too professorial. I could do 15 minutes on salt. My daughter calls it ‘dad-splaining.’”
Meal Kits with Katie & Felix
Button’s video classes, Meal Kits with Katie & Felix, are shot with an iPhone on a stand in her home kitchen and are also a family affair, with wine pairings and suggestions from husband and partner Felix Meana, spontaneous set-crashes from their toddler son and off-screen commentary from their daughter. The meal kits are among the items available through La Bodega by Cúrate, a concept launched the first week of May that offers semiprepared Cúrate favorites, pantry goods, charcuterie, Spanish wine, beer and Cúrate’s new Spanish-style cider collaboration with Botanist & Barrel.
The meal kits are prepped from scratch in the Cúrate kitchen, ordered online and picked up at the Bodega, which operates out of Button & Co. Bagels on South Lexington Avenue. They offer two kits per week, and Button demos one on her @ChefKatieButton Instagram.
“I like it better as a representation of our food because I’ve always been disappointed in the way our food travels for takeout,” she explains. “The meal kits let people cook it at home. The videos are meant to show people how easy they are. We don’t think them out; it’s just us and very natural and personal. They are not intended to go deep and teach people how to cook. It’s just fun and gives people a little insight into our everyday life. Every mom has cooked with a kid on her hip!”
Chong’s videos have helped her kick-start Plan C: selling her dumplings. “We’re at the [River Arts District] Tailgate Market every Wednesday with two kinds of frozen dumplings and sauces,” she says. “It was so great to be out there again, just thrilling to be in that environment with other locals showing their passion for food.”
Irani has also found a positive in the pandemic. “Cooking at home, not just for the classes, but all the time, I have rediscovered the sheer joy of cooking. Not as the business that consumes us, but the real pleasure of it.”