After a career in education, Lori Leinbach attended the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in 1995 and decided to make a career shift. Eight years ago, she founded the Culinary Underground, a school operating out of her own Southborough kitchen, focusing on cooking skills. “It was just very basic cooking lessons — knife skills, how to boil an egg, that kind of thing,” says Leinbach. As classes grew, so did her kitchen, through two expansions, until she finally moved into a commercial space on Route 9 in Southborough. Today she’s teaching a wide range of students, including a growing population of children whose interest stems from cooking shows.
Q. In this age of the celebrity chef, are you seeing a difference in the demographics of your students?
A. I think so. Kids watch [the Food Network] like we used to watch cartoons. They come in and they’re like, “I’m a Bobby Flay fan.” They’ll even say to me, “Oh, this is the way Bobby Flay does it.” But they’re really interested in the process and when they cook themselves, they’re more willing to eat it, which is huge.
Q. Are parents surprised by their children’s interest in learning to cook?
A. Yes, very much, especially those with kids like 8, 9, 10 years old. One of the things that got me started on teaching people to cook was I read something in the Globe, an interview with Marion Cunningham, the cook and teacher who redid “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” about 20 years ago, and I was struck in the interview that she said, “There’s a whole generation of people growing up that have never actually seen anybody prepare a meal.” That’s just mind-blowing when you think about it. So I have a lot of people who come in here and say, “I have a kid who watches the Food Network, loves to cook, my husband doesn’t cook, I don’t cook, I don’t know where this kid is coming from but he wants to cook.”
Q. What kinds of questions do you get from people cooking for their families?
A. They’re very concerned about the shelf life of things. I think there’s a lot of fear that they’re going to poison their families. They’re crazy on the subject of freshness dates. For example, milk, the date on that carton, it’s supposed to be fresh two weeks from that date. But people will see that date on that milk carton and throw it out. You have to understand that humans have been eating foods for millennia that wasn’t preserved or kept under refrigeration the way that we do now and they lived, so we have to relax a little bit about that. Food is too expensive to throw out just because you think it might be past its expiration date. And students are more concerned about doneness as far as food. How do you know when meat or poultry is done? And because they’re not sure how to tell, they’ll overcook everything, which is really a shame. One of the things we teach, especially to beginners, is how to tell when food is done. There are many ways to know whether your food is done without cooking it to death.
Q. In the spirit of preservation, if you wash lettuces and blanch vegetables on the weekend, how do you keep them and how long will they last?
A. There are a lot of factors at work here. One thing is your greens, lettuce will probably last a couple of days in your refrigerator, but something like a heartier green like kale is going to last far longer. It’s simply the nature of the vegetable. I tell people usually for greens I’ll likely wash them and roll them in paper towels or a clean dish towel and store them in the crisper and they seem to have a couple of extra days of shelf life that way. It’s easy to cut up carrots and zucchini and stuff like that and put them in separate containers and keep them in the refrigerator. I do that so I can do a fast stir-fry or salad.
Q. During this season, do you recommend doubling soup and stew recipes and freezing half so you have another meal?
A. Oh, absolutely. We’re all such busy people. It’s as much work to make a stew for 10 servings as it is for four servings, so I always tell people, the two hours that you’re going to spend getting a table and sitting around eating at the Olive Garden, you could be in your kitchen freezing things in portions and just having things for the week. I think it’s the smartest way when you’re busy.