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Alicia Explores the Southtowns: Cooking, sharing culture and conversation at class

Krista Van Wagner demonstrates proper knife technique during her knife skills class at the Be Healthy Institute in Hamburg.

HAMBURG — “The claw” is one of the most significant techniques I have ever been taught.

My earliest memory of cooking was when I was so small, I had to stand on a chair next to my grandfather – my Papa – while we made pancakes.

For my entire life, my father has been working in various food industry jobs. Sitting down for a family meal did not always begin with just chit-chat about our day, but first would often start with a history lesson.

My brothers and I would learn about the culture of the dish, the origin of the ingredients and why the combination of each allowed it to come together in a beautiful, delicious way. In a sense, it has always been a matter of training our brains and our palettes.

After he started his own catering business, our family would assist. In my very early teenage years, I would find myself up before the sun and in the kitchen with my father, to help with prep work.

Prior to working at The Sun, while living in Syracuse, I spent some time swirling serious ice cream cones, working the line and making espresso drinks at a café and slinging sandwiches at a deli.

When I have the time, I cook meals at home, often homemade sauce with pasta.

In addition to “always clean your station,” my father taught me the value of knowing how to use a knife. Now, when I see others holding a vegetable wrong as they chop, my shoulders tense and I cringe, hoping that I don’t see a splatter of blood.

Chef Krista Van Wagner, former chef at Curly’s Grill & Banquet Center, frequents the Be Healthy Institute in the village of Hamburg to teach various cooking lessons. After interviewing Van Wagner for a previous edition of The Sun, to preview a Caribbean cooking class she held, I felt inspired to explore the Be Healthy Institute and step up my cooking expertise.

On July 28 at the institute, Van Wagner taught a knife skills class. Attendees were given a cutting board, a damp cloth (or mopeen, as my family calls it), a bowl of fresh food to cut and some of the most beautiful tools of the trade I have ever seen.

Those were products from The Culinary Institute of America, located in Hyde Park near the Hudson River just outside of New York City. At this class we were given a peeler, a paring knife and a chef’s knife. After picking up and using these tools, I think it is safe to say I am embarrassed by my knives at home.

“Do you feel the power?” Van Wagner asked the crowd. Each attendee picked up the chef’s knife, holding it in the correct fashion and feeling its weighty significance.

Van Wagner and Jill Chiacchia, founder and director of Be Healthy Institute, worked as a team, throughout the class. As participants sliced, diced and julienned, Chiacchia prepared health-conscious dishes with the cut up products, while also explaining the benefits of eating more organic.

We began with the simple task of peeling and slicing an apple for an apple crisp.

Next, we moved on to dicing an onion. With approximately 20 people in the room, each with their own onion, many were left teary eyed. Although I have had my fair share of onion dicing, Van Wagner taught a few techniques that I found will make my cooking a bit more efficient.

We also practiced dicing a pepper. While Van Wagner walked around to assist people with the rocking of their knife or how to guide the knife by keeping it up against the knuckle, I stopped her to ask her about julienne and blanching.

Now, I already knew a bit about the chef prior to the course, just from our interview for my previous article. But regardless, if there is one that comes through right away, just from her energy, is that she is overflowing with passion. She loves what she does and she is enthralled by teaching it to others.

Van Wagner brought a surprise treat for her temporary pupils, and one that I couldn’t have been more thrilled about: Spar’s European Sausage, whose shop is located on Amherst Street in Buffalo.

The group tasted three types of sausage, along with the peppers and onions that we chopped. To put it simply, it was delicious.

We then went on to practice chopping with a wedge of cabbage to make coleslaw and slicing and julienne a carrot.

With my base knowledge from my father, I was able to take my knife skills to the next level. I also sincerely cannot stop thinking about how beautifully crafted that chef’s knife was.

The room, which began quiet and slightly timid, was overflowing with smiles and conversation by the time it ended.

Cooking is sharing. It is sharing a history, a culture, a story. Cooking is teaching techniques and sharing knowledge. To share a meal is (more often than not) an intimate moment between two people or an entire group. Conversation begins and relationships are formed.

Van Wagner will be teaching a summertime fun cooking class from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 18. Call 648-340 to learn more.

Be Healthy Institute is located at 40 Main St. #3 in Hamburg. For more information, visit

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