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Cooking Up Classes with Jilah Kalil

A new cooking class offers a buy-one, give-one model—and lessons for a lifetime.

Written By:  Caroline Leland

Photographers:  Nashville Lifestyles Staff

Jilah Kalil has been cooking for as long as she can remember. When she was still a kid, she won prizes for her food at the Florida state fair. Spanokopita is one of those prize-winners she’s particularly proud of; Kalil handmade the filo dough. But she had so many ideas, so many great dishes, she felt restricted by the state’s limit on two submissions per person.

“I made my sister submit in her name, so she could win prizes for me,” Kalil laughs.

And, now, some 20-plus years later, Kalil is cooking more than ever—and is eager to share that passion with others. This year, Kalil launched a new business venture, called Cooking Up. Through a buy-one, give-one model, Kalil’s customers either pay for a cooking class or attend one for free. Kalil recruits participants from the neighborhood where the class is taught. Right now, that’s inside the Nashville Farmers’ Market, and the ticket cost covers the cost of a class for someone in the same neighborhood who wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“I realize that most people just don’t know how to cook,” Kalil explains. “My vision [with Cooking Up] is that eventually we wouldn’t need a cooking school, except for the gourmet end. This is just basic, home cooking.”

People get confused and overwhelmed, she explains, when they see a recipe with 12 steps and 20 ingredients. “They think it costs too much money, takes too much time,” she says. “None of it should be taking more than 30 minutes from start to finish. It should be fun; it should be creative; it should be easy.”

Kalil cooks without recipes and teaches without recipes. At Cooking Up’s first class, this past September at the Downtown Farmers’ Market, a group of six cooked and ate a vegetable lasagna together. “We had a lot of fun,” Kalil says. She expects the classes to gradually grow in size as word travels.

“I think [cooking] is a basic human right,” she says. “You can choose not to cook, but, if you haven’t been taught, it’s not a choice. The whole foodie thing, to me, is a status thing: It’s, ‘You can only like good food and eat good food if you have a lot of money.’ [Cooking up shows] that it can be healthy, it can be easy, and it can be inexpensive. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a really good meal at home. I think everyone should be able to do it.”

Backed by her years of research on healthy behaviors, her years as an academic teacher, and her years leading a hands-on cooking nonprofit—Kalil spreads that message everywhere she goes. To catch a sample of her culinary expertise, look for her pop-up classes at the farmers’ market every fourth Saturday of the month.

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