Written by Julia Levy
Yumday is thrilled to introduce you to Julia Levy, co-founder of Tradition Kitchens. Through her organization, Julia turns kitchens around the world into virtual community spaces filled with soul and stories. She uses the power of food and the camaraderie of cooking together to connect people across generations and geographies. Her events have introduced people to new cultures and cuisines, and they have also helped foster friendships around the globe.
Julia is incredibly passionate about community building and philanthropy; and in addition to Tradition Kitchens, she also brings people together through her annual National Muffin Day event, which helps to raise awareness of people experiencing homelessness. Learn about this year's event coming up on February 20th and sign up to be a "Muffinteer" to help bake and #GiveMuffins for good here!
What I’ve Learned from Organizing 85 Cooking Classes
A retired librarian in Hawaii, a former consultant in Australia, a snack subscription startup founder in Austin, a food tour guide in Vietnam and a college student on sabbatical from Harvard. What do each of these people have in common?
They are five of the teachers who have taught 85 classes over the past two and a half years with Tradition Kitchens. Together, we’ve gathered thousands of students from 20+ countries, learned from more than 30 cuisines and raised money for different causes.
When I set out to transform kitchens into classrooms in July 2019 with my mom, this was not what we had planned. But, I’m so glad it turned out this way! Initially, we focused on foods from our culture and the serendipity of meeting in kitchens around our city. We gathered in different neighborhoods, bringing together multi-generational guests while learning the stories behind foods and noshing (Yiddish for snacking) together – noodle kugel with Leslie, hamantaschen with Debbie and challah with Sara were just a few of those special in-person events.
We also experimented with the blending of cultures with pastrami egg rolls hosted by Aaron and Ron on a night when their popular restaurant Lazy Betty was not serving guests who snagged the most sought out reservation in town. It was this class that really made me realize the power of cultures coming together through food.
In March 2020, when life moved online, our classes transitioned too. Suddenly, our teachers, students and cuisines expanded in unexpected ways. In a virtual world, we could learn from anyone who lived anywhere and had a food story to share. Like everyone else, we missed the ability to taste food together, smell the aromas in the same room and interact with each other. But, this was a different type of transformational experience. I began to meet people from around the world who joined at different times of their mornings, afternoons and evenings to learn with us. Some people chose to cook along with us while others tuned in as if watching a food show on TV. Clarification: we are not an official food show!
This creative culinary journey has sweetened my life and given me a purpose beyond my original intention. To celebrate 85 classes, I took a look back at eight lessons that I’ve learned from this delicious side project experiment.
#1 Food Fuels Friendship
There’s something about food that brings us together. Tradition Kitchens embodies that feeling – it’s about getting to know the people who you are cooking with, the stories behind the foods we are making and learning as if you are just hanging out in your neighbor’s kitchen.
Organizing Tradition Kitchens classes has given me the opportunity to deepen friendships in meaningful ways with teachers – Lucy, her husband David and daughter Margaux, Dena, Aaron, Olga and her family, Parul and her mom Geeta, Karon and more. It’s also been a chance to reconnect with old friends – Heidi and her family, Taniya, Andy and others. Quite spectacularly, it’s been the chance to make new friends – Sri in Hawaii, Rash in Australia, Elaine in Florida, Ploy in Massachusetts, Na in Vietnam and many more. I have quite the list of places I hope to travel in the future to meet these incredible teachers!
While I haven’t met most of our teachers in-person, by learning their stories and joining virtually in their kitchens, I feel like I have met them. It’s the same feeling for the returning students who have joined us as familiar faces – Sandra, Janet, Dani, Susie, Janey, Thomas and more. For each new person who joins, I hope the same feeling of connection will continue.
Here’s what one of our teachers, Thu Pham of Emma’s Torch, shared about her experience that I hope others will feel too:
"I had an understanding more about 'food is love.' Thank you for an amazing experience in the class. I felt good energy, sharing, caring, connecting, and nostalgic moments in the class and beyond." -Thu Pham
#2 You Never Know Until You Ask
I’ve asked hundreds of people to teach. Many have declined. But, I never stopped asking because the people I’ve invited have each brought a unique story to share. It’s just about finding that person ready to talk or helping them on that journey.
I’ve encouraged our Kitchen Ambassadors (volunteer hosts) to take that same approach – leading to Lauren securing the prominent social justice advocate and former nonprofit CEO Ruth Messinger to teach her favorite granola recipe to Mira inviting social media food influencer JC Phelps to teach tomato pie. That’s how I invited Kerry and Thu from Emma’s Torch to teach after seeing their story on CBS Sunday Morning!
It’s been inspiring to see chefs with expertise share knowledge with others. It’s been just as exciting to watch old friends share skills I never knew they had. I never would have known unless I asked. The impact that it’s had on them and the attendees has been meaningful.
“Participating in Tradition Kitchens last summer was an exciting experience bringing my family's cooking from Tunisia into my one bedroom apartment in NYC. My husband and I learned together how to make my grandmother's classic recipe, and it was a fun activity to do together.” -Zohar Bachiry
#3 Define Your Values
There are so many people who teach cooking classes, what makes Tradition Kitchens different? Because it’s mission-driven. I volunteer my time as do others who have organized and taught our classes. I have encouraged many classes to have a philanthropic twist as a cooking for a cause by giving to organizations in need.
Most importantly, I created values that drive every decision I’ve made – embrace inclusivity, put people first, champion creativity and foster community. The Kitchen Ambassadors and I recorded a “Pass The Spatula” video – created by past Ambassador Emmy – that shares more about the why behind these values.
When it comes to putting people first, Heidi also experienced how teaching latkes and shakshuka reiterated the meaning of cooking together as a family and passing on traditions to her children.
“Participating in Tradition Kitchens events, both teaching and taking a class, has really made me aware of how important food is in my family and my culture. When working on the plan to teach and when registering to take a class I couldn’t imagine doing either without my daughters. We love to cook together but I never realized how important and valuable that time together is until we got involved with Tradition Kitchens!” -Heidi Wunsch
#4 Cook up Community
When you attend a Tradition Kitchens class, you become part of our kitchen crew. We feature guests on the “Kitchen Cam” to spotlight them by introducing and continuing the conversation in the chat box. In addition to a new recipe, I hope that people leave with a special connection and a recipe to bring into their life.
“I was so proud and honored to teach a session for Tradition Kitchen and to share with others some of the important lessons I’ve learned through baking. Food is such a powerful way to connect to others, to ourselves, to our values and our shared histories. Tradition Kitchen inspires everyone – the participants and the instructors – to search for and celebrate our commonalities and to elevate the mundane into something holy through community.” -Dena Shaffer
#5 Celebrate Diversity Through Food
We welcome everyone into our kitchen – all cultures, generations and neighbors. Karon taught us about soul food and the Civil Rights movement while sharing her favorite fried chicken tenders and biscuit recipes. Olga taught classic Russian dishes – borscht and blitzes – and the stories of her family’s roots in the region. Rash Kaur taught many classes featuring influential foods from her Northern Borneo, South Asian and Southeast Asian experiences.
While the teachers shared their knowledge with attendees, it was often just as meaningful an experience for those who taught. Lia Ballentine, the Founder of Yumday, a snack box subscription service reflected on that feeling from teaching:
“I’m proud to be Filipina, but it took me a long time to get here because as an immigrant kid who grew up in a predominantly white community, I remember being bullied for being “other.” Those negative experiences made me hide those Filipino parts of myself when I was young, and it wasn’t until some years ago that I started to rediscover my roots. Every day, I grow prouder; and having the opportunity to share my family’s recipes with the Tradition Kitchens community has been such an amazing experience. I felt seen and welcomed by everyone who joined our classes, and it has been a joy to share my heritage and family stories in such a unique — and delicious — way.” -Lia Ballentine
#6 Discover and Share Skills
While our teachers were sharing their special recipes with others, they also learned a lot from the experience. It reiterates the joy in discovering and sharing skills.
"Until now, I had one trusty recipe for masala chai and I stuck with it. This chai class with Traditions Kitchens inspired me to experiment with chai as I had never done before. I spent many gleeful evenings in the last few months making masala chai concoctions with different brands of tea leaves, ratios of spices, and recipes. This class enabled me to do what I had wanted to for years; to dig deeper into the world of masala chai and share that love with people from around the world. I'm ever so thankful to Julia at Tradition Kitchens for trusting in me and the people for showing up." -Divya Raghavan
"Through this incredible opportunity I've realized that I have amassed a wealth of culinary knowledge and experience that others stand to benefit from – which I continue to share through Tradition Kitchens virtual classes all the way from Australia where I get to interact with folks on topics ranging from cooking techniques to dietary needs and even cultural heritage. I love the global classroom setting which invites questions from all walks of life, which I personally relish as it challenges me to continuously learn, and grow my repertoire! I am so grateful to Julia and the Tradition Kitchens family for creating a thriving community !" -Rash Kaur
“I knew I had a skill of making key lime pie for so many years! I was hesitant to host a program on it, thinking only of the "what-ifs", what may go wrong. Julia, your gentle prodding got me through that, and I am so glad it was you who hosted with perfection. As a speech/language teacher (SLP) for thirty years, I know that I enjoy teaching! I was pleasantly surprised how many "students" wanted to learn how to make this pie! The group observing was so nice, which made it less intimidating. I also was so grateful that my husband was in the background (off screen). Mostly I learned how grateful I am to be able to learn so much online during this pandemic, very interesting things, cooking and all topics. I am so glad that I did this!” -Elaine Marlin
#7 Host with Your Heart
A key ingredient in Tradition Kitchens has been fun – fun for the teachers and fun for the students. As our lives have become ever more virtual, these classes have helped me become a better host. It’s made me extra intentional as I think through the experience we share together while we are a part. I bring my heart to each class as do the teachers.
“Teaching a pasta class with Tradition Kitchens helped me learn how much you take for granted when you've done something many times. It forced me to really think through and verbalize each step of the cooking process like I'd never done it before to help others replicate the dish. It also reinforced why I love cooking so much – and that's for the enjoyment of others.” -Chris Viscount
“I learned how much variation people bring to making each recipe and how I have my own biases in the ingredients and way I prepare food based on my own personal tastes. People like different things or have more or less experience with certain techniques and it all leads to creating the dish in a different and personal way. There’s no wrong answer and it’s fun to see how each person approaches the food in their own way.” -Aaron Meyers
#8 Empower Ambassadors
I am thankful for the students who invested their time and talents into Tradition Kitchens. They’ve each brought a unique approach, creative ideas and fun energy. I brought us together to share lessons on social media, community building and career explorations while discussing best practices and experimenting with ideas together. Thank you to Steven, Ruby, Briana, Lauren, Mira, MacKenzie, Lucy, Emmy and Alana.
Thank you to each of the teachers who contributed their reflections to this article. Thank you to all the students who have participated. I hope to see you in our virtual kitchen in 2022! Message me if you’d like to teach or I might just ask you first – we never know what exciting direction it might take!
Many thanks to Julia for contributing this piece to Yumday! Please follow @traditionkitchens on Instagram and subscribe to the Tradition Kitchens newsletter for the latest news on upcoming events.