Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Meet my Friend & Mentor: Rick Rodgers of the Online Cooking School Coffee & Cake


Rick Rodgers
I met Rick Rodgers early in my career as a recipe developer and food writer when we were both contributors to the Epicurious blog. Not only is he a lot of fun to hang out with, but he has also been incredibly helpful to me and is usually the first person I call when I’m floundering with a project, client, or cooking quandary. His interpersonal skills, business experience, and cooking acumen explain why he’s been recognized as one of the top cooking instructors in America. Literally. 


You built a career as a cooking instructor and cookbook author. How many cookbooks have you written? 

I was asked recently to make an official count, and It looks like an even hundred. Many of those were collaborations with chefs, restaurants, celebrities, bakeries, and business entities, such as Tommy Bahama, Williams-Sonoma, and Nordstrom.  I made it known that I was available for collaboration work, and my phone literally rang off the hook for quite a few years with editors and agents looking for help with novice writers or those that wanted a branded book. 


Which cookbook(s) are you most proud of? 

There are three books that I get fan mail for almost every day: Kaffeehaus (where I explore the desserts of my Austrian heritage), Thanksgiving 101 (a deep dive into America’s most food-centric holiday and how to pull it off), and Ready and Waiting (which was one of the first books to take a “gourmet" approach to the slow cooker). These books have been in print for 20 years or more, which is a beautiful testament to their usefulness to home cooks.  


How did you get started as a cooking instructor and what are some highlights of your teaching career? 

I was a theater major at San Francisco State College (now University), so getting in front of a crowd held no terrors for me. When more brick-and-mortar cooking schools opened in the eighties, I was ready for prime time. During that period, there were at least twelve cooking schools in the Bay Area, so I made quarterly trips here a year from the east coast, where I had moved.  My Thanksgiving classes were so popular that I taught every day from November 1 to Thanksgiving, with a couple of days off for laundry and travel. The absolute pinnacle of my teaching career was being named Outstanding Culinary Instructor of The Year by Bon Appétit Magazine’s Food and Entertaining Awards, an honor that I share with only a handful of other recipients, including Rick Bayless and Bobby Flay.     

Flódni
Flódni


How have cooking classes changed since you started? 

Because there are so many classes available, I can teach at any level of experience. At the cooking schools, we tended to walk a fine line between too difficult and too easy.  The exposure to different cuisines and skill levels on TV also has seriously raised the bar. Unfortunately, students want to walk before they can run.  They want to learn how to make croissants when I doubt that they can bake a pound cake correctly. It is best to build on your skills instead of going right to the top. That being said, in my online classes, I am concentrating on the more challenging recipes because that is what the market demands of me.   


Tell me about your baking school, coffeeandcake.org 

As much as I loved my cookbooks and in-person classes, I knew there was a more modern way to reach people who wanted to cook with me, especially since so many cooking schools had closed. I retired the day I got my first Social Security check. But…as I was warned by my friends who knew me better than I did…I was bored, and wanted a new project. I heard about online classes through other teachers who were having success.  I found an online course specifically for cooking classes (Cooking Class Business School at HiddenRhythm.com), got the nuts and bolts down, and I finally entered the 21st century!  


How do you decide which recipes to teach? 

I felt there were plenty of other places to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies and banana bread—just take a look on YouTube alone. I had a specialty of Austro-Hungarian baking thanks to my Kaffeehaus book, so I decided to niche into that category.  I have branched out to a few other locations, but my goal is to expose students to something new and out of the ordinary.  I also survey my students on what they would like me to teach, and those answers are amazing. People are truly interested in the more difficult desserts.   Perhaps it is because so many people discovered baking as a hobby during the pandemic? 


For students who have your cookbooks, what are the advantages of taking an online class? 

There is no substitute for seeing a cook in action.  Plus you get to answer questions during class.  In a recent class, I made six-layer Dobos Torte in two hours’ real-time to prove that you can do it without giving up a week of your life. And we don’t have to travel to each other to be “together.” My classes are videotaped so you can watch them at your convenience.  


What are some highlights of your upcoming schedule of classes?

Honey cake
Honey cake

In October, I am teaching virtually all Hungarian desserts, things that will be new to most people. I am making one of my absolute favorites, Flódni, which is a Jewish bar cookie (almost a cake) with layers of apple, poppy seeds, and walnuts between thin sheets of wine-flavored cookie dough.  San Franciscans in particular will be happy to see a master class that I am teaching with the delightful Michelle Polzine, owner of the late and lamented 20th Century Cafe and author of Baking at the 20th Century Cafe. We will be making her (in)famous 12-layer honey cake on two coasts, with me doing the heavy lifting in New Jersey and Michelle guiding me from the west coast.  That is going to be fun!  In November and December, I am switching over to holiday baking and a few savory recipes for Thanksgiving, including my fail-proof turkey and gravy, which I have made over 300 times in classes over 30 years’ worth of teaching. It ought to be perfect by now




Head to Coffee and Cake to sign up for classes or learn more.