You just never know where in the world you’ll find Natural Gourmet graduates spreading the word about health-supportive cuisine. If you’re living in or visiting Budapest, Hungary, for instance, you might want to check out MakiFood, a cooking school opened by Chef Training graduate Maki Stevenson and her husband, Endre Béky.
Maki graduated from NGI in 2004, and one day later started working under the Japanese master chefs of the highly revered MEGU restaurant in Tribeca. From there, she moved on to the line at Tom Colicchio’s Craft. In the fall of 2006, Maki and her husband moved back Budapest, and the idea of a cooking school in Maki’s home was born.
“We first looked for a kitchen to rent, but we soon realized that such spaces were not available in Hungary,” Maki says. “Then we looked into renting a commercial space but couldn’t afford the prices. The next logical thing was to search for a flat with a kitchen big enough to hold the classes in our own home. Looks like the ‘homey’ atmosphere is what people find charming about our school.”
Fortunately, Hungarian health codes don’t require any particular or special permits for cooking schools. Maki tore down a wall last summer to expand the kitchen and prep space to 60 square meters. “When classes are not in session,” says Maki, “the area can also function as a spacious living room.” Over the years, Maki collected professional-grade kitchen equipment, so the initial investment was mostly for smaller things – cutting boards, knives, mixing bowls, spatulas, aprons, side towels – and a 3-meter long stainless steel work table with three custom-made stove tops.
MakiFood, according to Maki, “encourage[s] students to cook more on weekdays and not just on weekends or special occasions. We also encourage them to use as many local ingredients as possible, to shop at traditional green markets instead of supermarkets, and reduce the amount of refined grains and sugars in their diet. We are not a vegetarian school but do stress the importance of reducing daily consumptions of meat (Hungarians’ average consumption of meat is more than double of neighboring countries in the region.).”
The most popular course at the moment is knife tech class. “We were the first to offer such a class in Hungary and have noticed that other schools have also started to offer them after seeing our success,” Maki says. Maki’s vegetarian and Japanese home cooking classes are likewise very popular. She also recently launched kids’ classes for 6 to 8 year olds with a certified instructor.
Most of MakiFood’s business comes from word-of-mouth and the internet. She’s had students from the city, the countryside, and abroad (including a student from New York City!). The school has garnered significant media attention: a monthly column in the local edition of Marie Claire and mentions in several other cooking magazines. Maki finds that print magazines are useful to build her brand: “Instead of spending money on ads, we hired an assistant who helps us to write articles, take recipe photos, and send them to media outlets that can use our content if MakiFood is mentioned in the article.”
Maki is pleased with the business and how it’s growing: “We trust in the slow, healthy, organic growth of the business. We don’t plan on changing the format of the classes either, which includes small groups (10 students), all hands-on and no demos, and food tasting at the end of class. It’s important that students who come here actually learn to do some cooking and not just watch someone. You can, after all, do that at home by watching any cooking channel, no?” This fall MakiFood will have more guest teachers with various specializations, including Chinese medicinal cooking and modern Hungarian cuisine.
While Budapest has 3-4 other recreational cooking schools, MakiFood is the only one offering vegan and vegetarian classes and focusing mostly organic/locally grown ingredients. Maki is fortunate to have Budapest’s green markets near her flat where villagers bring their produce in from their own gardens. “I know on which days the egg guy comes, the salad lady, the herb ladies, and so on,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to develop a face to face relationship with the people who actually grow your food.”