Taos Chef Chris Maher encourages playing with one’s food; that’s the best way to get to know it.
“No watching allowed — everybody cooks,” Maher says Dec. 17 in the garden kitchen of Blackstone Ranch — a space he rents to host in-depth cooking classes for his Cooking Studio Taos. “It’s the only way you learn.”
Cooking Studio Taos is Maher’s “cooking consortium” — where his students learn to cook cuisine from a variety of cultures in a few hours by doing.
This evening, Vietnamese is on the menu: stuffed squid, Vietnamese shrimp soup, spring rolls, and shredded cabbage salad.
First, chef and his novices sit down to break the ice at the kitchen’s harvest table.
“Where are you from?” Maher asks Mi-Lai Heubeck, a student seated next to him.
“Vietnam,” she grins.
“Yeah, I know,” Maher says. “Little intimidating. I’m hoping I can learn from you today.”
In truth, Maher doesn’t have to sweat. A former medical student turned actor and chef, Maher learned to cook as a kid watching his mother and grandmother in Egypt, where he was born.
“They were both great cooks,” Maher grins. “Lots of emotional blackmail.”
It was the beginning of a whirlwind career in the kitchen. Once Maher left medicine for the Playhouse Theater in New York, he supported himself working at the prestigious Tavern on the Green, where he got an education.
“That was a brutal kitchen. They’d throw plates and want to hit you because I told the chef his sauces sucked,” Maher said.
Refining his culinary skills led Maher to helm several ventures in Los Angeles that built his reputation, including catering and dessert companies, a café and a restaurant. In Taos, Maher is probably best known as the chef behind Momentitos de la Vida and the Caleb and Milo products. Vida was recognized in both Gourmet and Bon Apetit magazines and was awarded the AAA Four Diamond Award six years running before Maher sold Vida in 2006.
The attention culminated with Maher’s invitation to cook at the James Beard House in New York City in 2005.
These days, it’s all about teaching for Maher.
“If you teach people, you have to trust that they’re going to learn,” Maher says of his approach. “I like it when I see a light go on about food. It’s about communication. I want to make you happy through food.”
Maher makes it all look easy and runs his class more by trial and error than demonstration: Each student illustrates what they can do and Maher weaves through them making subtle adjustments, like the strongest thread in a rope.
“Cooking is art. It comes from heart and soul. It’s never about being exact,” Maher said.
His attitude toward recipes is similarly laid-back.
“Imagine if this were a painting class and everyone had a blank canvas,” Maher explained. “I wouldn’t tell you how much black or white to use. There’s no exactness. It’s about feel.”
And the feeling Maher is after is comfort in classics. The best food, he says, has the heart of a peasant — even if it’s only three bites and looks like it could walk a red carpet.
“That’s the sign of a good dish: You’re finished and you want more,” Maher says. “Having said that, there’s something sexy about a plate that’s pretty.”
With the feast spread out before him at the table, Maher looks at Heubeck.
“Do you like it?” he asks.
She sighs as her eyes move over the platters and bowls covering the table.
For more information and a class schedule, visit cookingstudiotaos.com