An interview with chef Ian Knauer
Among the hills east of the Delaware River sits a rustic farmhouse with ivy creeping up the sides, a garden in front and pastures all around. This setting has become the new backdrop for Ian Knauer’s mission to grow, cook and share food.
After working at Gourmet magazine as a food editor for ten years, Knauer published his first cookbook, The Farm: Rustic Recipes for a Year of Incredible Food, in 2012. He then went on to host his own TV series, “The Farm,” which aired on PBS from 2013 to 2014. On the show, in addition to cooking, he traced his ingredients from source to table.
Knauer recently moved to Stockton to start a new venture, The Farm Cooking School, inside the spacious kitchen of a 17th-century stone farmhouse at Tullamore Farms. The cooking classes are diverse and change depending on the season—but they always end with students and teachers sharing the meal they prepared.
Joining Knauer in running the school is Shelley Wiseman, a friend and former colleague at Gourmet. Knauer had originally invited Wiseman to help with the opening dinner. She loved the school, the area and Knauer’s mission so much that she asked if she could stay. The two have been collaborating ever since. Also integral to the school is the adjacent vegetable garden, designed by gardener Kate Douthat. Many of the cooking classes start in the garden, where fresh ingredients are gathered for the evening’s meal. On the day I visited, Knauer and Wiseman were busy harvesting lemon verbena, strawberries and sorrel for use in a panna cotta drizzled with syrup, and also getting ready to roast a Tullamore Farms lamb.
The Farm Cooking School is engaging in a centuries-old agritourism tradition. Many European farms have depended on the success of similar endeavors. The pastoral and isolating beauty of the farm, a diverse lineup of classes, and an apartment upstairs for an optional farm stay are some aspects of the school experience that Knauer hopes will draw in new students. He says that gathering to cook and eat close to the source of where food comes from is an intimate experience that often leads students to become friends and exchange phone numbers by the end of the night. For those who seek to engage with food in deeper ways, The Farm Cooking School is a new opportunity to make the connection.
Q: Before becoming a chef, what did you do?
I used to be a stockbroker. I quit after a couple years and found that the thing I really loved to do was cook. I’m a tactile learner and cooking lends itself to that. When learning to cook you touch, you taste, you smell and feel, and that’s how I learn, so it just makes sense to me.
Q: Why did you decide to start a cooking school?
My cooking career has always been about learning. My first real job in food was at Gourmet. I was hired as the dummy in the kitchen, as the person who would make the mistakes in the recipes like the readers at home would make. It was an unbelievable opportunity for me to learn. I was thrown into an intellectual arena and I was forced to think about food in a different way. After Gourmet closed, I wrote my cookbook and filmed my TV series, and that’s when people started writing to me asking where they could learn to cook good food, and that’s how the idea for the school came about.
Q: Do you favor any particular cooking style?
In the summer, when there is so much fresh amazing food, my philosophy is to do as little manipulation as possible, which is a very Italian mindset in the kitchen.
Q: Have you always felt strongly about sourcing locally, or was there a turning point?
I feel like it’s always been there. My grandfather grew all the vegetables that we ate, we picked all the fruit from the trees he grafted, and we ate the venison and squirrel that he shot. That was just the way it was, which I hated when I was a kid. I wanted to eat at McDonald’s with my friends.
Q: What is your favorite food memory from growing up on your family farm?
My grandfather was a meticulous gardener. He also had an enormous lawn I had to mow, which took about four hours. I remember one day he brought me this strawberry, the perfect strawberry. It was still hot from the sun and I was so thirsty. It was the best thing I had ever eaten, ever. Also, my grandmother was a prolific canner. After she died the pantry was stocked for years with her jars. One day I was working at my grandparents’ place and my grandfather gave me a bologna sandwich, with Lebanon bologna, which is a local Pennsylvania Dutch thing, and a bowl of peaches preserved by my dead grandmother. They were really special.
Q: What is your favorite wild edible?
I’m a hunter, and there’s a lot of great game wandering around in the fields. I’ve eaten Jersey black bear, and it’s really good.
Q: What is the most effective way to inspire people to cook at home?
We need to take away the pressure implied by food competition TV shows. I want to show people just how easy it is to cook, and inspire them to choose fresh foods.
Q: What are your hopes for the school in ten years?
Our goal is to continue to build the school into a communal learning space where people can cook together and learn about food. We don’t really have communal cooking in this country. We don’t have the bread oven in the village, where everyone bakes their bread. What happens in this space is that the community comes together and cooks together and then they all sit down to eat what they’ve cooked. If we’re just doing that, then I think we’ve done what we set out to do.
The Farm Cooking School
1998 Daniel Bray Hwy., Stockton