Ding-a-ling-a-ling! The Taste Chase Goes Back to School

Photo credit: Renata Barnes

It’s that time of year again. There’s a crispness in the morning air, leaves are starting to form soft blankets on driveways and yards. Flip-flops and sleeveless shirt have given way to sensible shoes and hoodies. Morning routines are in full-swing, with packed lunches, backpacks, and rushing to make the bus. Ahhhh, and those days of trying to find something for the kids to do are a thing of the past, at least for a few months. Yup, it’s back to school time.

We here at The Taste Chase have decide to crack a few books — cookbooks that is — and head over to The Farm Cooking School in Titusville. Grab your aprons and a clean spatula. Class is in session.

Pleasant Valley Road is a winding country lane, right out of a James Taylor song, complete with hills and dips, revealing fields and mountains, lush and verdant, reminding me of how beautiful this area is.

I turned onto the driveway of the Roots to River Organic Farm, for what would be a most fortuitous adventure.

Full disclosure: I was on my way to surprise my mad-scientist friend, Lynn Kaiser, in her “lab” at the Barn at Gravity Hill only to find she was away that day. On my way back to my car, I saw a sign leaning against a wall, “The Farm Cooking School.” I had never heard of it. Why had I not heard of this before?

The rustic building seemed unassuming enough and, with few cars in the lot, I wasn’t sure what I would find.

Earthy aromas of growing herbs and honeysuckle lazily drifted on a late summer breeze past me as I walked through the door and down a hallway into what looked like a large open room. I called out, “Hello?” and a response in kind greeted me in a tone that was welcoming and warm.

As I entered the room, a long lightly tanned cooking table or bench, about 20 feet long, stretched before me, laden with all manner of bowls and pots, jars, and vessels. Behind it was a man, lithe and toned, with striking blue eyes. His grey t-shirt read, ”The Farm Cooking School.”  After explaining why I was there, I expressed my pleasant surprise and dumb luck in discovering what would turn out to be the proverbial “pearl of great price.” I introduced myself, explained about The Taste Chase and its mission, all the while trying to hide my excitement in the hopes that he would indulge me. He did.


The School

Looking around, there were spices, various flours, canning jars filled with all manner of summer bounty, shelves with cookbooks, signs displaying items for sale at their weekend farm market, and endless utensils. The kitchen was well stocked and quite prepared for its intended use.

“We try to cook with the seasons here. If it’s not in season, we usually don’t use it unless we canned it or preserved it in some way,” said Ian Knauer, teacher and co-founder at The Farm Cooking School.

The “we” Knauer was referring to was himself and his business partner, Shelley Wiseman, a classically trained chef with a French pallette and a Mexican soul. One thing that Knauer and Wiseman emphasize is utilizing, organically, locally grown, raised, and cultivated food using local orchards for seasonal fruits, nearby farms for meats, in addition to herbs, vegetables, and other edibles grown on the Roots to River Farm, where they are located.

Roots to River Farm CSA, also on the property, is run by Malaika Spencer, Knauer’s wife.  In 2005, Spencer had been looking to expand her existing CSA in Solebury and, after a serendipitous meeting with the prior owners of Gravity Hill Farm, bought the property with the intent to continue the vision: as a farm market center and a place for agricultural education, while expanding with Roots to River CSA.

In addition to The Barn at Gravity Hill and the Farm Cooking School, the Roots to River community includes Locust Light Farm (an herbal farm run by Amanda Midkiff) and Blossom Hill Flowers (run by farmers Natalie Hamill and Josh Perslweig who are integral components to the mission and the experience at The Farm Cooking School). These separate businesses are all a part of one vision of community, working and relying on each other to make sure the all thrive.

“In our classes, we have up to 16 students of varying levels.” The classes cover a wide variety of cuisines, techniques, and skills including a bread- and cheese-making course, a Fall Indian cuisine class featuring Punjab vegetarian, a sausage workshop, and one just about hors d’oeuvres. Knauer also informed me that they will be offering a homesteading course focusing on canning and pickling.  

Though Knauer and Wiseman teach many of the classes, they also enlist the expertise of other chefs from various cultures and culinary disciplines to The Farm Cooking School, to provide a fuller, richer experience for their students.

Some other offerings include “Boot Camps” for kids and adults, where students plant as well as pick vegetables and learn about medicinal herbs and plants, the basics of farming and gardening, as well as learn to develop a taste and love for home grown and prepared food. This year, they took at group to France where they spent a week learning French culinary techniques at a cooking school. This is something they are passionate about and plan to do again in the future, possibly to Mexico.

The Farm Cooking School also serve another purpose besides the obvious. Knauer and Wiseman take seriously the idea of community and it importance in our lives. Food offers a gathering point from which community both starts and culminates.  

With the idea of forming community and using culinary magic to do so, Wiseman and Knauer host farm-to-table dinners monthly.  Drawing from cuisines all over the world and working with their students, Wiseman and Knauer teach culinary techniques along with ingredient gathering and preparation, all of which culminates in a jointly prepared and presented 5-course meal. The Farm Cooking School presents one or two these BYOB feasts once or twice a month.


The Teachers

Ian Knauer

As syncopated drops of water fell into a metal bowl from some cheese cloth containing freshly made fromage de chèvre, Ian Knauer shared with me the story of The Farm Cooking School. Born of a passion he tried to bury in the dizzying busyness of the Big Apple, it was only a matter of time that this passion would refuse to be ignored. Though it was not disillusionment, per se, that led him out of the world of high finance but an unfulfilled desire to do something that he loved, everyday. Raised on a farm in Chester Pennsylvania, Knauer could not wait to get as far away from that world as possible. The sweat and the non-stop farm duties made working the earth a drudgery he couldn’t wait to abandon. So, the farm boy went off to the big city with a fancy job hoping to find what we all hope to find when we journey away: who we are.

As it happens with journeys, a fork (literally!) presented itself. Realizing that where he had landed was not at all where he wanted to stay, Knauer left the world of forecast and spreadsheets behind for the unknown.

“I’d always enjoyed cooking when I was growing up. I enjoyed being with the family around the table and eating what we grew and raised on the farm.”

Serendipitously, Knauer found himself at Gourmet Magazine working in their test kitchen executing recipes, making sure that home-cooks, like himself, could recreate them. It was at Gourmet Magazine that Knauer met his future business partner at The Farm Cooking School, chef Shelley Wiseman, who was working as the travel food editor. Eventually, Knauer became a food editor at Gourmet and traveled the world honing his cooking skills at both CIA campuses and in Napa Valley.

Fast forward a few years to the closing of Gourmet Magazine and both Ian Knauer and Shelley Wiseman were at yet another fork.

“I had to regroup so I went home to the family farm,” said Knauer.

There, Knauer immersed himself in farm life, tilling soil, tending chickens, planting and harvesting, and discovered that what he saw as arduous in his teen years was, now, the very thing that fed and nourished his life and his soul. This awakening gave birth to a vision that encouraged Knauer to challenge how we see food and the art of cooking here in the west. In the kitchen, Knauer’s limitless imagination exploded into inventive dishes teeming with fresh, natural ingredients that transformed commonplace meals into dishes that could rival anything he had tasted anywhere else in the world.

Shelley Wiseman and Ian Knauer

This realization, coupled with the knowledge he gathered throughout his years with Gourmet Magazine, gave birth to his first cookbook titled, “The Farm.” Defining this cookbook was easy for Knauer, “It’s just classic American food done really well.” This venture gave way to a 13-part series on PBS, also called “The Farm”’ and chronicles food ingredients from their beginnings, be it in soil or in a barn, to the table, culminating in one of Knauer’s own dishes.

“People would say to me ‘Where’s your restaurant?’ I don’t have one and don’t want one.” Knauer emphatically stated.  

What he was interested in was a school. When the property at Gravity Hill was presented, complete with an old school house, Knauer took the opportunity, fixed up the building and started teaching.  He invited guest chefs to come and teach his classes but there was one person he really wanted to reel in. Shelley heard what Ian was doing and wanted to come and see.  Ian thought he would throw down the old proverbial gauntlet and said “Do you just want to see this or do you want to do something more than just guest chef?” Long story short, Wiseman took the leap and moved down here. Her first night as a guest chef was the beginning of The Farm Cooking School.

“I really enjoy cooking Italian food. Its emphasis on fresh ingredients give you a kind of freedom to be committed to preserving that freshness in the taste of the dish as well as the presentation.”

When asked what his favorite thing is to make, Knauer said without hesitation, “Bread — all you have to do is bake a beautiful loaf of bread and present it to someone and they’re are happy.”


Shelley Wiseman

Shelton “Shelley” Wiseman is a veteran of some of the most prestigious restaurants in New York City and Paris.While affable and gracious with an armful of fresh flowers just picked from the fields, I knew not to let that “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms” image fool me. The woman who stood before me was erudite, well-traveled, and sophisticated. An art and philosophy major, Wiseman spent a great part of her formative years growing up in Mexico and other parts of Latin America, including Brazil. After graduating from Cornell University, Wiseman went on to work for Conde Naste in the art department of House and Garden magazine. It was then that she started taking cooking classes at Peter Krumps Cooking School (now known as ICE) and realized her artistic interests tended towards culinary expression.

Shelley Wiseman

Wiseman moved on to a job at Le Plaisier where she said, “I became the pastry intern in a matter of weeks.” It was there that she met famed French trained Japanese sous chef, Masataka Kobayashi.

“I didn’t sleep that first week but boy did I learn a lot.” As she honed her craft, she became known for her pastry creations, which in itself is an accomplishment but, according to Wisemen, “Women in the culinary world tend to get pigeonholed into being pastry chefs.”

Wiseman was having none of that. When things changed at Le Plaisier, Kobayashi offered her an opportunity to become the pastry chef. She stayed but only if she could learn other disciplines in the kitchen — tarts, sauces, souffles, and the like. When Le Plaisier closed, Wiseman took a job at Le Cherche Midi with Sally Scofield.    

Her next move is a testament to her moxie and tenacity. After taking some class in traditional French cooking, Wiseman up and moved to France. Not knowing the language, or really anyone, she found a place to live and immersed herself in the task of not only finding work in the male-dominated French culinary world, but adding to what she had learned in order to master the art. After many closed doors, she eventually found work in a 5-star resort called “La Castra” in Paris. Later, she was able to find work at Aun Quais d’Orsay.

“They had this amazing prep room where all kinds of game were broken down — things like whole wild boar, deer, pheasant, as well as scallops in shells, and so many other really wonderful ingredients I’d never worked with before.”

Widening her experience, Wiseman moved on to Lo Bistro D’Hubert, a fromagerie or cheese shop, where foie gras terrines were a holiday favorite. Wiseman left France after six years with a wealth of knowledge, fluency in another language under her belt, and a new mission. Heading back to Mexico City, Wiseman taught French cooking initially out of her parents’ home and then in a space of her own. “Mexico City has a very rich and varied culinary culture”.

Eventually, she found herself back in the United States and working at Gourmet Magazine where her experience with both traditional French cooking combined with her love and knowledge of Mexican cuisine created a foundation for which Wiseman would broaden her reach and introduce many to love of cooking.

“I want people to get inspired. I want them to take away that cooking is fun and a great way to spend time with people,” she said. 

One of the offerings at The Farm Cooking School is an “Experimental Kitchen.” “It’s part- competition, part-experiment, part-learning,” Wiseman stated excitedly.

Students take the same ingredients and come up with recipes using the techniques they have learned in class. Think Iron Chef. In the end, they pick a winner but the big prize is that they get to have a wonderful meal and expand their culinary acumen.

When asked what her favorite thing to make is, Wiseman confessed, “Sauteed sweet breads with truffle vinaigrette” is a favorite.

A broad smile spread across Wiseman’s face when I asked her what is the most important thing to her that The Farm Cooking School offers. “Community, bringing people together.” she said with conviction. “I’m a hostess at heart and being able to come to a beautiful farm, learn something, and enjoy an amazing dinner with people…” Wiseman continued with a smile, “Yeah, that’s very important to me.”


The Bibliography

Alright my fellow culinary students, put your smartphones and computer mice away. Pick up your mixing bowls, wooden spoons and pasta makers and head over to The Farm Cooking School for one of the many classes offered by Chefs Shelley Wiseman and Ian Knauer. Also check out the farm market on Saturdays from 10am to 2pm, showcasing the bounty grown on the Roots To River CSA, where you can also try Chef Knauer’s incredible brick oven artisan pizza. Hey! Keep your eyes on your own recipe!  Yum it up. Tell all your friends.

The Farm Cooking School, 67 Pleasant Valley Rd. Titusville New Jersey 08560. Check them out online:  https://www.thefarmcookingschool.com/

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Renata Barnes
Renata is the author of "The Taste Chase," MercerMe's own food review column. She's a lover of all things poetic, colorful, funny and inspiring. A native New Yorker, who grew up in Hopewell Valley and spent the better part of her adulthood back in NYC, currently finds herself in a growing love relationship with “the Valley”. Latin food, Indian saris and mehndi, French perfume, African music, Middle Eastern spices, South American jewels, Asian fabrics and anything from just about any island (maybe not Riker’s Island) are things that remind her to go out and taste the world, live passionately and always wear deodorant. The mother of one rambunctious boy and the wife of a mellow fellow, Renata tries to put her too many years of university and her film and writing talents to good use here in NJ. “I’ve spent too much time trying to fit in some where when I probably belong everywhere. That slow revelation has been freeing.”

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