THE FIRST RULE OF COOKING CLUB IS...
You'd better come hungry.
WRITTEN BY CLAIRE MCARTHUR
PHOTOS BY LOU MANNA
Jessica Shapiro adds the final touch, a sprinkle of cotija cheese, to a chicken tinga tostada
One Sunday afternoon in Reno’s Double Diamond neighborhood, I knock on the door of Scottacos food truck chef Scott Tackitt’s home with a dish of Mexican street corn salad in hand.
Inside, the kitchen and living room are packed with nearly 20 chefs and food enthusiasts buzzing around, putting out dishes for this gathering the cooking club has dubbed Give Them Something to Taco ’Bout.
Nancy Fitzgerald, wife of chef Kevin Ashton of ZOZO’s Ristorante in Reno, is frying up ground beef tacos before sprinkling them with Parmesan cheese. Chris Luke, owner of Reno’s Aloha Shack, is reheating the lengua (beef tongue) he cooked over a bed of cilantro, onions, garlic, and other spices in a pressure cooker. It’s headed for a corn tortilla topped with his homemade salsa.
Taco-inspired food covers every possible surface in the Tackitt home. The taco king himself has whipped up Native American fry bread — deliciously topped with homemade refried beans, pico de gallo, cheese, and tender, slow-cooked chicken. An Asian-inspired taco features fried wonton shell, tuna poke, and a crunchy Asian slaw. Aloha Shack’s Theresa Luke shares a pork belly bánh mì taco paired with butter mayo, pickled daikon, carrots, cilantro, and serrano peppers. And Ashton has wrapped marinated ribeye in tortillas for crispy taquitos served alongside a dish of chile relleno. Nearby, taco-shaped biscuits are stuffed with papas con chorizo and drizzled with chorizo country gravy.
The Give Them Something to Taco 'Bout event included such contributions as Jay Barsenas’ papas con chorizo in a biscuit shell with chorizo country gravy (bottom right) and a multitude of taco fillings and toppings
For the past three years, this growing group of friends has gathered every month to cook elaborate feasts based on a theme. It all started with a Facebook post about homemade pastrami.
“Kevin wrote a post on a local food group saying he was making house-made pastrami at ZOZO’s, and I cure meats myself, so I had to go try it myself,” Tackitt recalls. “That’s the first time we met.”
“During that first year of friendship, tacos were a big driver,” Ashton adds. “We made taco Tuesday our thing. We would have different friends that would come. Every Tuesday this group grew stronger and stronger just eating tacos once a week.”
Soon after, they hosted their first official gathering, Bacon Fest, with a variety of recipes for curing. Next was a pig roast featuring a 50-pound hog turning slowly over a charcoal fire for 16 hours in Tackitt’s backyard.
“That took a little longer than expected,” Tackitt says with a laugh.
Over the years the group has grown to include friends of friends, family members, and co-workers. They’ve had a Pasta Palooza, with pounds of homemade pasta and more than 20 different sauces cooked by club members. The international potluck featured traditional cuisines from around the globe. Nearly 80 pounds of chicken wings were cooked and dunked in an array of sauces for Wing Fest, and at Christmas each year, the group has a tradition of making bagna càuda, an Italian dipping sauce of garlic, anchovies, and olive oil served similarly to fondue.
“The best part is trying things I’ve never tried before,” says Colin Richards, owner of Scoopers in Reno, over the massive tray of churros he’s brought after testing them three times before deciding the recipe passed muster for the group. “All of us come from these different food backgrounds. The other night we had oxtails. When I first saw it I was skeptical, but when I tried it, it was delicious.”
While the group is comprised of members of the Reno-Tahoe food industry — including Jessica Shapiro, kitchen manager of Reno’s The Cheese Board, and the owners of the former Lavender Box Bakery in Sparks, Anthony and Faelon Amar — others simply are cooking enthusiasts. For example, Rick Hanson, who met Tackitt while they both worked at Intuit in Reno, says the cooking club gives him the opportunity to explore his sausage-making hobby. His Give Them Something to Taco ’Bout contribution is a chorizo verde sausage made with pork shoulder, poblano peppers, serrano chiles, and other spices.
Between events the group communicates through a private Facebook group, sharing photos of meals they’ve made and recipes they are testing for an upcoming gathering.
“Last summer we hosted the Super Top Secret Potluck. We love to talk about our food as it’s getting ready and take pictures of it and really build the hype, but for this you could bring anything you wanted. You just couldn’t tell anybody what it was until you showed up with it,” Ashton says. “Honestly, I think we just got really lucky with all of this. We’re all really passionate about food.”
Cooking clubs are not a new concept, but they are definitely growing in popularity. In fact, The Prospectors’ Club, Nevada’s oldest private social club, established in 1947, has roots as a cooking club. Today the exclusive Reno club has more than 600 members and a six-year waiting list for membership, including access to its dining and entertainment events.
Americans are cooking at home more than they were 10 years ago — 82 percent of meals in the U.S. are prepared at home, according to researcher NPD Group Inc. — and it’s no wonder they are opting to do it with friends.
Cookbook clubs are cropping up as an alternative to the standard book club, for foodies who want to try out new cuisines and learn new techniques. Each month someone chooses a cookbook, and every member of the group picks out one recipe to cook and bring to the gathering. The concept got a boost this past October when staffers at food magazine Bon Appétit formed their own cookbook club, which they write about and broadcast through Instagram stories each month.
But for one group of women in Tahoe and Truckee, regular books have proven to be a constant source of inspiration for cooking elaborate meals together.
For the last 16 years, 10 North Shore women have read more than 160 books and hosted an equal number of dinners with menus inspired by the cuisines in the books.
“It started as a book club so that we would read more books, but we were all interested in food being a big part of that, so we tend to choose books around food,” says Karen Honeywell, a Tahoe Vista resident.
After reading Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer — a story of a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain making a life in Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon — the women cooked a Vietnamese feast with shaking beef, green papaya salad, spring rolls, bún chả (grilled pork and noodles), and other traditional fare.
Kevin Ashton’s contribution to the cooking club’s Give Them Something to Taco ’Bout gathering is taquitos, made of homemade tortillas filled with hand-sliced, marinated ribeye steak, rolled and deep-fried
The Spy, a novel set in Paris about dancer and courtesan Mata Hari when she’s accused of espionage during World War I, inspired a menu with a selection of Champagnes, pâté, a French cheese platter, winter cassoulet with sausage, vegetable soufflé, and croque monsieur.
Even seemingly foodless works of nonfiction are included in the club. While discussing Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the women ate a meal comprised of recipes from the Supreme Court justice’s husband, Martin Ginsburg. Using Chef Supreme, a book of his recipes compiled by the Supreme Court Historical Society, the women centered the meal on a pork loin roasted in milk — RBG’s favorite — and made accompaniments such as red pepper boats, gravlax, homemade French baguettes, orange-scented biscotti, and ratatouille.
“Once we sit down to dinner, we talk about the book, and the person who chose the book the previous month leads the conversation and tries to provoke with her opinions and more pointed questions, depending on the subject of the book,” explains member Julie Barnett.“I think that it’s a lost piece of our culture: people sitting down and enjoying a meal together without the TV, without their phones. We have a really beautiful meal that people put a lot of effort and thought into, and we talk about interesting topics.”
The women agree that it’s pushed them to expand their cooking skills and explore new cuisines. They’ve watched YouTube videos in an attempt to master Vietnamese fish stew; found new appreciation for Ethiopian cuisine and its traditional spongy flatbread, injera; and explored Korean markets in search of just the right ingredients.
“My book club really appreciates whatever I bring each month,” Honeywell says. “We talk about the food, too. We want to know how they made it. I really can’t imagine our book club without the food. It makes it special.”
Start your own cooking club
The cooking club calling itself Gatherings comes together for its Give Them Something to Taco ’Bout event at the home of Scottacos food truck chef Scott Tackitt
Interested in forming your own cooking club? Us, too. Here are a few tips to get you started:
Find your crew.
Your friends may not all be as enthusiastic about cooking as you are. It’s OK to only invite your pals who are genuinely interested in cooking to join your club, while tactfully explaining to the “I’ll bring napkins” friend why it might not be a good fit.
If you’re in search of like-minded foodies to connect with, join a local food-focused Facebook group, such as Reno Foodies, Tahoe Food Scene, or Reno Sparks Tahoe Carson Foodies.
Hash out the details.
Will you cook around a theme? Who chooses the menu? How often will you meet? What day of the week works best? Where will you host it? Will you cook at home and bring the dishes or cook together? What do you hope to get out of this club? Consider setting up a happy hour with your future cooking club members to hash out the details of how you’d like your club to run.
Set up a private Facebook group.
Do your email inbox a favor and set up a private Facebook group where your group can stay connected between gatherings, ask for cooking advice, exchange recipes, or even share restaurant recommendations.
Consider a cookbook club.
If you’re not sure where to start with your cooking club, consider starting a cookbook club. Every month a cookbook is selected — it could be a new discovery or an old favorite — and each member chooses a recipe from it to cook. It’s a great way to discover new recipes in cookbooks that may be gathering dust on your shelves, or to discover a new type of cuisine or cooking method from a cookbook you wouldn’t have thought to look through.
Rich Phelps displays his fried wonton and tuna poke tacos topped with crunchy Asian slaw
Alyssa Luke, age 9, daughter of cooking club members Theresa and Chris Luke, helps herself to a meal
Tina Wu’s Chinese barbecue pork tacos topped with Asian slaw