For many of us, watching cooking shows is a comforting escape from everyday life. Turning on the TV after a long day in the office or at home and watching professional cooks craft mouthwatering dinners or amateur bakers compete for star status can be both soothing and instructive.
Sure, these cooking shows can inspire you to whip up something in the kitchen, but have they ever inspired you to change careers?
In October, Charlotte resident and chef Mara Norris opened The Foodie School in Fort Mill. The school offers classes for aspiring chefs and food lovers to create delicious meals with family and friends. Norris is supported by a team of professional chefs who help students create the perfect dish from beginning to end. Students can choose from classes that specialize in cuisine from around the world, celebrate the holidays with delicious baked goods or explore recipes inspired by a favorite movie or TV show.
For Norris, her love of cooking shows — especially “Food Network Star” — helped send her down a new career path. Already more than just a home cook with a blog, Mara Norris decided it was time to leave her job as a voice and performance teacher and pursue her passion for cooking by attending culinary school.
Norris became director of Salud!, the cooking school at Whole Foods, where nearly every class sold out. “I thrive off of being able to do different things,” Norris said, which is why she wanted to stay in an educational setting instead of being delegated to the back of house in a restaurant. A classroom allows Norris to translate her vocal training and breath skills into a new job, especially in a loud kitchen, where things don’t always go as planned.
Salud! closed down this past July due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Norris and her coworkers had an inkling for the past year that the school might be shutting down, so the idea of creating something of her own was already in the back of her mind.
The Foodie School opens
Norris told CharlotteFive that after Salud! closed down, she allowed herself a week to wallow in self-pity and then got to work. Norris is accompanied at The Foodie School by many of her colleagues from Salud!, including Chef Aleks Kanclerski, who Norris said was by her side throughout the process.
The Foodie School was able to get up and running at lightning speed – with lots of hard work and a little luck. Norris rents space at a TRUE Crafted Pizza commissary kitchen in Fort Mill, which she describes as a fluke. One of the owners’ wives emailed her and offered the perfect space, pre-fitted with kitchen appliances, to build her very own culinary school. Not only have the owners been “incredibly accommodating,” but TRUE has a dining area attached that Norris and her team have made their own for students to enjoy a hard-earned meal at the end of class.
Norris and her team have a collection of over 2,000 recipes to work with, as well as class ideas from over six years at Salud!. Norris, Chef Whitney Davis and Chef Michael Harrington sit down to map out a calendar — often filled with themed nights complete with punny names including “Date Night with Dracula” – that they work recipes into.
Some of the greatest hits for students are the Homemade Pasta and Sauce classes and the Sushi Workshop. For baking lovers, there are French Patisserie and Great British Baking Show inspired classes. The Foodie School also has lots of movie- and TV-themed classes, including ”Friends,” ”Elf,” ”100 Foot Journey,” ”Julie and Julia,” and ”Harry Potter,” which are definitely fan favorites.
Norris said her favorite skill to impart to students is how to properly use a knife — chopping an onion is an essential skill for those who want to be proficient in the kitchen. But if she could choose her legacy, it would be salt. Norris emphasized how important it is to season your food. “It’s the reason why restaurant food tastes so good.”
Norris said that personally, she is “a sucker for anything braised.” The chef also enjoys making pies, though she calls herself a savory chef at heart. She hasn’t strayed far from her love of cooking shows and competitions. She still enjoys watching “Top Chef” or anything on the Food Network and is an avid collector of cookbooks.
Norris even created her own take on a cooking show competition: Sliced! The concept originated at Salud! and has now moved to The Foodie School. She describes it as a combination of “Chopped” and “Iron Chef,” where local Charlotte chefs compete. Students can sign up to view the competition live and judge the chefs’ creations. Norris is still modifying Sliced! to work in the new space, but she plans to hold the competition every one or two months.
The Foodie School also offers virtual classes, which started at Salud!, but are now more pertinent than ever during COVID-19. The school sends the recipes, ingredient lists, preparation lists and necessary equipment beforehand, but the experience is similar. Even through a screen, the chefs are with the students every step of the way.
For those wanting to venture out yet to stay within their COVID-19 pod, The Foodie School offers private classes. Masks are required, and dining tables are spaced 6 feet apart. You can also reschedule your class if you need to cancel for COVID-19-related reasons.