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SOUL FOOD

Connecting people to their kitchens is Lara Ritchie’s bread and butter.

WRITTEN BY JESSICA SANTINA
PHOTOS BY JEFF ROSS

Edible 0038 mm

Any of Lara Ritchie’s former students at Nothing To It! Culinary Center will agree, Ritchie generously seasons her classes with plenty of humor. She is quick to laugh — usually at herself — and adamant that her students have fun and not take themselves, or cooking, too seriously.

But now, as Ritchie, culinary director at Nothing To It!, sips a cup of tea in the teaching kitchen and reflects on her students, she gets a little emotional.

“Teaching, to me … there’s nothing like it. I have met so many dear friends here, so many students that I care for. I care about all of them. I want them all to succeed.”

This spring marks Ritchie’s 14th year with Nothing To It! In that time, she has emerged as a one-of-a-kind culinary treasure in the Reno-Tahoe area, helping thousands of people connect with their kitchens and each other through the simple act of preparing a meal.

Food is memory

“I was lucky to grow up in a family that sat down and ate dinner together every night, and made dinner together,” Ritchie says.

Ritchie’s happiest childhood memories are suffused with delicious flavors and aromas — from her mother’s ham and cheese soufflé to berry-picking and canning at her great-grandmother’s house, to the impromptu cooking club led by a neighbor’s father.

Not that she always loved every food offered.

“Growing up, I thought God was trying to poison me with tomatoes,” she says, with a laugh. “I didn’t care for them at all. But the rule in our house was, you had to try everything once.”

Nonetheless, she didn’t pursue a culinary career until after graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in social work.

“I just enjoyed working with people, and thought maybe I had a skill for listening,” she says.

When she wound up on the waiting list for a master’s degree program, she instead opted to join a friend in Europe, where she finally understood all the fuss about tomatoes.

“I was like, ‘OK, I get it now!’”

Impressive credentials

After spending time away from school, Ritchie began to reconsider her career path. The combination of her upbringing, her months absorbing the culinary traditions of Europe, and her fascination with restaurant kitchens led her to the decision to become a chef.

“My whole family was like, ‘Duh! This is what you should have been doing all along!’” she says.

She enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute in Essex, Vt., liking the school’s profile as a working inn that hosted catered events and would provide valuable real-world experience.

As part of her education, she completed a six-month residency at acclaimed La Folie restaurant in San Francisco, earning her chops as a nameless rookie. All the while, she was bunking nights in a walk-in closet at the home of friends from high school. When her pastry work garnered accolades from renowned San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer, after he dined at La Folie, Ritchie was nameless no more.

After leaving school, Ritchie moved to Seattle, where her career began to take off, thanks to an opportunity to work at acclaimed Seattle eatery Flying Fish, as well as a position with Four Seasons Hotel Seattle, one of only a handful of the West’s five-star, five-diamond properties. She eventually went on to become the first woman in Four Seasons’ history to work on the hot line in its restaurant kitchen.

When Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta opened in 1997, Ritchie was transferred and promoted, becoming its sous chef.

Ritchie’s career was on a fast track, but she wasn’t so sure it was what she wanted. She had watched the executive chef spend every holiday at work, and noticed an increasing reliance on celebrity guest chefs that might limit her own opportunities. She left Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta in 2002, ready to embark on the next phase of her career but not sure yet what that would be. She decided to stay temporarily with her mother and stepfather, who were living in Reno, until she could figure it out.

The next phase

She joined Nothing To It! in May 2002 as head of the cooking school, thinking it would be a good way to bide her time until her next restaurant gig presented itself. But she soon realized that teaching was what she was meant to do. Although she also directed Nothing To It!’s special events catering (“I’m a sucker for weddings — I cry at every one.”) she found that teaching was enormously satisfying, and gave her a high like nothing else.

“I say we change lives here, and it sounds silly, but I really think we do,” she says. “It’s not just about the food. It’s about memories and connection, and it’s so powerful. If I can facilitate that for somebody, get them to sit down for dinner, maybe even change their health, it means so much more than a five-star, five-diamond rating. Don’t get me wrong, that was all great. But people come in here with all different backgrounds, and time and again I find this is what connects us. I’m amazed in every class that I can get strangers to come around a table and cook together. It’s so satisfying.”

Despite her high-brow credentials, in class she emphasizes real-world ingredients and everyday tools that are accessible to everyone. Although she emphasizes the importance of using seasonal, local ingredients, she also acknowledges that this may not always be feasible for students, so she will often recommend useful shortcuts, such as healthy, organic canned or frozen items.

“A good organic canned tomato works,” she says. “Would I love for you to be growing food in your own garden? Of course. But that may not always be practical. First, I need to get you cooking. The majority of households are one to two people, so if I want you to cook every day, I’ll expect you to have organic frozen vegetables; they won’t spoil and they’ll be good for you.”

Her students aren’t asked to prepare haute cuisine (unless they want to), but instead learn to make simple, affordable, delicious meals at home, and to make this more the rule than the exception.

She is an unabashed fan of butter, cream, bread, and chocolate — simple comfort foods. Her own favorite foods range from the complex flavors of Indian food to a humble eggs benedict.

“Probably my last meal will have buttered toast in it,” she admits. “It’s one of my most favorite things.”

This unintimidating approach makes a tremendous impact on students, who feel empowered to master a few basic techniques. She’ll even encourage children to use knives, so they’ll grow up comfortable with cooking, just as she was.

“For me, part of my history in food is cooking with family… I wouldn’t trade those memories for anything,” she says. “There’s something so connecting about food. It’s not just to nourish your body; it’s for your soul.”

Jessica Santina is managing editor for edible Reno-Tahoe. She has taken numerous classes from Lara Ritchie, and is endlessly inspired by her passion for and devotion to her students.

Resources

Nothing To It! Culinary Center
Offering a full range of culinary classes almost daily, Nothing To It! also is home to a kitchen store, gourmet deli, and catering business.
225 Crummer Lane, Reno
775-826-2628
http://www.Nothingtoit.com 

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