For many, Whole Foods still automatically means “Whole Paycheck,” but Min Liao is set on changing our thinking that fresh, organic food and fine dining are reserved for just a few. Min is the Culinary Center director at the Whole Foods Market (WFM) on Bowery and the brains behind the school’s incredible course offering where menus range from handmade pasta dishes to “Les Essentiels-Chocolate” and whipping up eggs the way the Israelis do. The center is a delight designed specifically for the average New Yorker, focusing on growing culinary confidence, even in a small kitchen that might not have all the right tools. And best of all? The classes are inexpensive and often cost no more than $50. (There are even free ones!)
We recently caught up with Min to find out how she got into the business of food and to find out what makes the WFM Culinary Center different from other cooking schools in the city. Keep reading for our interview ahead, and if you want to give a class a try, enter our latest giveaway. Min and her team are hosting a “Dumplings of the World” private cooking class for eight 6sqft readers at the center (enter here).
Inage via CityRealty
You’ve lived in NYC for a while but you’re not a native. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Taipei, Taiwan. My parents came to the U.S. in the late ’70s, and I was lucky enough to be raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. Northern California is SO beautiful—the produce out there is ridiculous—and I’ve got great memories of growing up there.
I moved to NYC about 30 seconds after high school, in 1994. Just celebrated my 20-year anniversary of being a West Coast transplant! It really felt like different city back then, and I’m grateful I was able to catch a glimpse of that particular version of New York before it faded pretty quickly, you know? And man oh man, does it keep fading. Since you’re a real estate blog, I just have to tell you: I had a cute, spacious studio on East 9th and First Avenue for $850! Insane! Then I lived on Kenmare and Mulberry in a REAL two-bedroom (not railroad!) for seven hundred freaking dollars a month. At the time, cab drivers didn’t even know where Kenmare Street was.
I left NYC for a few years and moved out to Seattle with my then-boyfriend. The Pacific Northwest is gorgeous, and one of the best foodie-farm-to-table areas you could possibly ask for. But I missed New York too much and came back over ten years ago. Staten Island is home now. Been there since 2007 and I love it.
How did you get into cooking? Is this something you loved at a young age?
Nope. I could have cared less about food as a kid. I was a ballet nerd. All I remember is that I had a freakishly huge appetite. I grew up eating a strange mix of typical ’80s junk and processed crap, but then combined with traditional Chinese meals with my folks.
What really got me interested in cooking was my job in high school at a local restaurant, just snooping around in the kitchen and watching the whole operation. That’s when I started cooking, learning ingredients and all that, and really grew to love it.
Then when I came here to New York, I worked in a bunch of different restaurants and bars all through college—both front and back of house. In Seattle, I was the managing editor and food columnist for The Stranger, which is a weekly paper run by a bunch of smart, funny wise-asses, including Dan Savage, who really encouraged me to write and report about the food scene out there. This was pre-blogs, all print media! Crazy, right? Seattle was where I really started getting obsessed with food, cooking, agriculture, the whole thing.
When I returned to NYC and did the NYU Master’s Program for Food Studies, Nutrition, and Public Health, I was like, “OK. I guess this is a real, grown-up thing now.” I waited tables through grad school, did some food styling, and also worked in community nutrition and public health–yep, always with a cooking focus. I’ve been with Whole Foods Market since 2009. My entire working life has centered around food.
What’s the goal of the Bowery Culinary Center at Whole Foods Market? How do you differ from other recreational cooking schools in the city?
I’m so glad you asked, because our goal is pretty deliberate: We want to make cooking approachable and affordable! There’s a tendency to lump Whole Foods Market in with upscale foodie categories…you know, “Whole Paycheck” and everything else. The program here really challenges that.
Our classes are all about getting people to learn the actual techniques behind each dish. Nothing fancy or complicated, just, you know—how do you hold a knife correctly and cut efficiently and safely? How do you navigate the timing of a meal so you don’t get super-stressed while prepping, and everything comes out hot and seasoned properly? How can you tell when something is done? Do you roast versus sauté? And what does searing mean anyway? What are some tricks for cooking in a tiny apartment kitchen with zero counter space and a temperamental oven?
The emphasis is on practical, scratch cooking for urban home cooks who don’t have a lot of time or money, but who want to eat really well and grow their culinary confidence. You show up, you learn and practice, and then you get to eat a fabulous meal with fellow New Yorkers. Of course, this is all happening in a kitchen-classroom above an amazing supermarket right downstairs.
Do you apply a personal philosophy to the way you cook/approach food? Where do you draw inspiration?
The coolest thing about this industry is that there is never a knowledge plateau, right? You never stop learning, and things constantly change. But what’s funny is, the more I know about food—especially in recent years, with crazy-fast trends, and a huge cultural shift towards fetishizing food, documenting it, elevating it, exploring every inch of where it came from and how it got here—the simpler and more bare-bones my own personal culinary preferences have become. It’s actually borderline embarrassing how basic my own meals are when I am cooking off the clock, but I can’t help it: I just want, like, buttered noodles and perfectly roasted broccoli. Maybe an egg on top, slightly runny yolk. Done.
As someone who encounters people from all walks of life on the job, the thing I always keep in mind is that food is so intensely personal and subjective and yes, socio-economic. What you want to eat and how you prepare it speak volumes about who you are, how you grew up, what you decide to prioritize, and what you can afford, both with your money and your time. And as a culinary instructor, I have a really deep respect for that before I begin any class.
Is there anyone in the industry that you look up to or admire?
I’m inspired by cooks who have been around the block; who have that hardcore, I-don’t-mess-around work ethic. Sara Jenkins can do no wrong. I love keeping up with what Amanda Cohen is up to, both at the restaurant and with her writing. I’m in awe of Vivian Howard—A Chef’s Life is the only food TV thing I watch. Nigel Slater‘s Appetite is like my cookbook bible, he really nails it for me. As far as philosophy goes, Laurie Colwin has already said it all…and she said it years and years ago. Lately I’ve been cooking my way through A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus. I met Renee Erickson years ago when I was a food writer in Seattle, when she was at a very different stage of her career; her success makes me so happy to witness.
Where do you like to eat when you’re not cooking?
To be honest, I like cooking and eating at home the most. I know, so boring. I am happiest when I am making a gigantic pot of soup, drinking a glass of wine, preferably wearing comfortable pants with an elastic waist, my boyfriend dozing off on the recliner. That is heaven to me.
If you live on Staten Island, you are forever trying to decide which pizza is better—Denino’s, Lee’s Tavern, or Joe & Pat’s. I can’t. I just keep rotating all three. I also love working my way down the menu at No. 7 Sub. How do they come up with those sandwich combos? Genius! My yoga studio is near Chinatown, so I’m constantly stuffing my face with beef noodle soup at the Taiwan Pork Chop House on Doyers Street. It used to be called the Excellent Pork Chop House, but they changed their name all of a sudden, which cracks me up—why would you stray from a name like “Excellent?”
I appreciate Michelin stars and the “Eater 38,” but give me a really, really good diner any day.
Your favorite food?
Artichokes, hands-down. I go absolutely bonkers for artichokes.
Whole Foods Market
95 East Houston Street, 2nd Fl
New York, NY 10002
NoHo, Lower East Side, Nolita
Whether you’re the worst cook in the world or a seasoned top chef, it’s always fun to cook with others and learn more about the craft. We’ve partnered up with our friends at Whole Foods Market to host a private cooking class for eight lucky 6sqft readers in their Bowery Culinary Center! In this two-hour class you’ll learn how to whip four delicious dishes—made with fresh and yummy products right from Whole Foods—in their state-of-the-art kitchen alongside pro chef and Culinary Center educator Chef Wai Chu. Wai will be teaching his hit class “Dumplings of the World“, a fun, very hands-on course that will afford you plenty of Instagram-worthy moments alongside your delicious creations. You can check out the menu for the class here.
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