By Monica I. Johnson
Don’t you love it when you find the right combination of a fun, educational and unique experience all rolled into one amazing package? It’s more than fair to say that this is what the Baltimore Chef Shop is. Owners/husband-and-wife team, Chef Scott Ryan and Gwynne Ryan, operate the shop, which is succinctly summed up on the Baltimore Chef Shop website as providing “intimate-sized recreational cooking classes, rigorous hands-on learning, and a focus on traditional culinary techniques from around the globe.” So if you make a reservation, remember that you are not going to a restaurant but rather you are going to have an experience and learn something great like Knife Skills 101 or how to make Korean street food. Intriguing, right?
The Baltimore Chef Shop is located in Hampden, and if you know anything about Hampden—home of Miracle on 34th Street and Café Hon—the location alone is a little slice of Baltimore’s eclecticism. The journey to open their shop was a decade-long process beginning with the fulfillment of Chef Scott Ryan’s education and occupational experience.
Chef Ryan graduated from Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in Cambridge, MA. He always knew what he wanted to do—teach. He never had an interest in going into the restaurant business. In fact, before opening the Baltimore Chef Shop with his wife Gwynne, Chef Ryan began teaching classes at the recreational program at his alma mater, which is similar to the work they do at their own shop today. He also taught at the Art Institutes in Arlington, VA. and then at Stratford University in Baltimore, MD.
As many dreamers can attest, even when they are not pursuing the dream, the dream is pursuing them. It doesn’t just go away, and Chef Ryan’s dream to have his own kitchen never left his mind during the decade that he was teaching in other schools.
When Chef Ryan and his wife Gwynne Ryan moved to Hampden, the Baltimore transplants decided to pursue the dream sooner rather than later. Gwynne Ryan speaks about the experience of getting started, recalling that they wanted to see what the demand was so they put up a chalkboard sign on their front porch offering cooking classes in their home. Ryan laughs recalling, “And people started coming! We would sell out!” Their kitchen could only hold about six people but no matter, they had accomplished part one of their plan—establishing whether there was a demand. Check!
Now the rest is folklore, urban Baltimore legend…well maybe not but it is a good story. It was fairly obvious that with their newfound demand, they were going to need more space. So as the perfect coincidence in a feel-good story goes, there just so happened to be a space that opened up a few blocks from their home. Gwynne and Chef Ryan agreed to try it and see what happens.
In the beginning, they thought it would just be the two of them with Chef Ryan handling the teaching and Gwynne handling the administrative aspect of the business. Gwynne even kept her full-time job in D.C., but upon opening in 2015 they realized that this was going to be bigger than what they anticipated. They now have 30 employees and all the instructors are professional chefs. On a normal basis (before Covid-19) the Baltimore Chef Shop was offering about 80 cooking classes a month; they are now doing their classes online because of the pandemic.
When speaking to Gwynne, it’s evident that there’s a pride in the work that her and her husband are doing, and the details are very important to them. One such important detail was keeping the feeling of their home. “We realized, what was so desirable to people was to be in a space that they could feel comfortable and a space that felt like a home,” Ryan said.
She also spoke about the importance of how they wanted the students to be able to interact with each other as if they were cooking in their own home …not a cold, unwelcoming, sterile, industrial kitchen. Gwynne explains, “When we set up the kitchen space down the street in our shop, we very intentionally designed everything to look just like home.”
Although the kitchen space must have certain commercial grade equipment like vents, the equipment used for classes is all about attainability for the student (Those Ryans and their details). The equipment at the Baltimore Chef Shop is home-scaled so any student can use the equipment from class at home as well. You can find the same blenders and mixers at places like Target or Sur La Table.
The total experience is everything! For instance, classes stay small and intimate so timid cooks can be empowered. Though there are those who are fierce in life, some of those same fierce souls can be timid in the kitchen. It’s something that Gwynne Ryan relates to, especially since she, unlike her husband, has no culinary background.
Ryan says, “My contribution is actually that of the perspective of the client. I’m the type of person that when in the kitchen I get so overwhelmed, everything is happening so fast and I need to read through the recipe and really understand…I’m the one that gets really, really anxious.” She adds, “I’m always trying to make sure we are approaching people like me. If I read this recipe is it going to make sense to me or is it all written in ‘Chef-speak.’
Her contribution is invaluable to Chef Ryan. It goes a long way in helping him when he’s developing classes and forming the curriculum and recipes for the classes. Why? Because Gwynne is the Beta-tester. She makes all the recipes and gives feedback about whether it is accessible enough for the students. The students are making the recipes themselves and need to understand what to do.
Chef Ryan really enjoys teaching the Asian (Chinese and Vietnamese, among others) and Spanish cuisine classes. When the Baltimore Chef Shop opened, the classes were heavily geared in that direction. As the staff has expanded and more chefs were added to the mix, they now offer an impressive myriad of classes with a ton of variety in cultures from East to West.
They now offer classes in Indian cuisine, Cajun, Creole, Moroccan, vegan and there’s even a class in making southern fried chicken. Those interested in baking can take classes like Classic French Dessert, Puff Pastries, Mastering the Art of Chocolate and so much more. Take a look!
The Baltimore Chef Shop has had to make some shifts during the time of the pandemic. A month before the orders were given to shut down, the shop had just expanded to include another kitchen, double the size, one door down from their primary location. Gwynne admits that they were reeling, like many other business owners, trying to figure out what it meant for their business.
After a few weeks of panic, they went into action-plan mode to determine what they needed to do. Like any major change, you either adapt or wither away. Although it’s been challenging and a learning experience, this time has made the little local neighborhood spot spread its wings. With online classes, and summer camps online, they have seen their reach grow past the borders of the Baltimore area to places far beyond.
The Baltimore Chef Shop will continue to operate in this manner until restrictions have been lifted. Although, pre-pandemic, students went to the kitchen location in Hampden, for the summer camps and hands-on classes, now their first online summer camp has ended but one can still join a class or reserve a class with friends via Zoom.
The ongoing implications of running a business with Covid-19 restrictions, has also changed how they work with their students. Typically, a Baltimore Chef Shop class provides the ingredients for students but with restrictions in place, classes are remote. So the question is ‘What to do?’
Now, these eager students can do one of two things. They will either be provided the list of ingredients ahead of time to shop on their own, which may not be as easy as it sounds when it comes to finding some of the more unique ingredients. Option number two is —and here’s where that adapting comes in—students can purchase a Make-At-Home kit.
This is an entirely new effort to help students to be confident that they have what they need. Plus, they may not want an entire bottle or batch of the ingredient. Make-At-Home kits come with all the ingredients partially measured out for the recipe. (The chefs still like for students to participate in the process of measuring—it’s an experiential thing.) The response to the Make-At-Home kits was so good that they will continue making them after the restrictions are lifted.
Other moments of adaptation were based on filling a need. Although, totally out of their wheelhouse, Baltimore Chef Shop started providing take-out meals for a period of time. Also, as many of us remember during those first couple of weeks of the pandemic, grocery stores were like war zones so the shop filled another need by providing pantry items like flour, yeast and sugar—precisely the items that people could not get.
Gwynne explains, “It was really week by week changing our whole operations and everything…that first month was just exhausting…as things started to settle down, we were able to go back to what we do, which is teaching.”
The pandemic has taken the Baltimore Chef Shop to new and unexpected places but most assuredly it has also inspired new ways of thinking about the business. Find out more about the Baltimore Chef Shop and its classes, summer camp options, Make-At-Home kits and pantry items at BaltimoreChefShop.com.