Immigrant Women in NYC Share Their Global, Family Recipes with League of Kitchens

On Location

Three women holding dishes

Spruce Eats/ Todd Coleman / Amelia Manley

Welcome to On Location, where we talk to the coolest cooks and makers around the country about what's inspiring them right now.

League of Kitchens isn’t your typical cooking school. There are no classrooms, no fancy equipment, and no chefs. Instead, classes are taught by immigrant women from countries around the world and are held in the instructors’ homes in New York City. It’s an intimate way to learn traditional family recipes and experience another culture firsthand while eating delicious food.

Lisa Gross started League of Kitchens in 2014, and as it has grown over the years, she estimates the company has taught between 6,000 and 7,000 students. “There is something really magical about helping people make something that they otherwise wouldn’t have the confidence or knowledge to make,” says Gross.

How did League of Kitchens get started?

The idea came out of my own experience. When I was growing up, my Korean grandmother lived with my family, helped take care of me, and cooked all of this amazing Korean food all of the time. But whenever I would want to help her, she’d always say “don’t worry about cooking, go study. Studying is more important.”

After college, when I really started to cook a lot on my own, I wanted to cook these recipes from my family and my childhood. My grandmother had passed away, so I tried to teach myself from cookbooks and the internet, and nothing ever tasted as good as when my grandmother made them. I realized so often there are small details and ways of doing things that are the difference between something being good and something being amazing, and those details are often left out of written recipes. So I kind of had this fantasy of a Korean grandmother teaching me all of her recipes.

Later, this idea came back to me, and I thought "what if I could find amazing home cooks from all around the world that could teach family recipes in their home kitchens?" This experience could be just as much about creating opportunities for meaningful, cross-culture exchange as it about getting this incredible culinary education and eating and drinking social experience.

How do you find your teachers?

In any way we can. We have relationships with a few different organizations, like the International Rescue Committee and the Center for Family Life in Sunset Park. A lot of people have come to us by seeing media about us.

I always hire based on the individuals. Of course, there are certain cuisines that I would love to be able to offer classes in, but I’m looking for really exceptional individuals. Not just good home cooks, but really exceptional home cooks that do everything using traditional techniques and methods from scratch. People who are charismatic and warm, are comfortable sharing their stories, and, pre-pandemic, who are comfortable having strangers in their home.

What has it been like transitioning to all online classes?

Initially, when the pandemic started, I thought we just needed to hold off for a few months. We had to cancel six weeks of sold-out classes which was scary. I hadn’t intended to do online classes because the in-person experience is so much about this intimacy. You and five other people are in someone’s small NYC apartment for hours and something kind of magical happens in that time.

But I realized if we don’t move online, we’re not going to survive this. It was like creating an entirely new business. We did a pilot with a couple of our instructors, and I was very happy to discover that the online class experience was actually phenomenal. I didn’t realize this until I cooked along as a student, but because you are in your own kitchen using your own stuff doing every step yourself start to finish (while being live coached by the instructor), it’s an incredible culinary education experience. You really learn.

Is there a dish from one of your classes that you make a lot?

I make our Afghan instructor’s tomatoes and eggs all the time. So many cultures have a tomato-egg situation, but there are so many little twists to how she does it. You cut the tomatoes into quite large pieces, and you basically deep fry them in oil for about 30 minutes. Then you add large chopped garlic and jalapeños towards the end. Then you add the eggs on top, kind of like shakshuka, but you break up the whites and yolks separately so that there are bits of each through the tomatoes. Then you eat it with bread with fresh mint, and every bite is supposed to have a mint leaf. She always serves it with sweet cardamom tea, and together it’s an incredible flavor combination.

What's the best thing you've eaten lately?

I live in Kensington, Brooklyn and it’s a very diverse, predominantly immigrant community. There are all of these culturally-specific little grocery stores everywhere. I like going to this stretch on Church Avenue with a Polish store, a Halal butcher with lots of Middle Eastern things, and a Russian-Jewish post-soviet store. I’ve gotten really into exploring all of the jarred vegetable spreads like ajvar, different kinds of pickles, different kinds of jams, and spoon sweets. 

I think one of the most unique things I’ve tried recently that’s fabulous are whole green walnuts in the shell marinated in sugar syrup.

Lightning Round