How To Do A Cooking Demonstration

There a came a moment on Saturday at The Baltimore Book Festival where I looked out at the crowd and down at the food in front of me and realized: “Holy (expletive): I have to cook something for all these people!”

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. When I was first invited to The Baltimore Book Festival, I was under the impression that all they wanted me to do was read from my book (which, incidentally, comes out in paperback tomorrow!) I’ve read from my book several times, to various crowds, and the lessons I learned from those various experiences–read slower than you think necessary, lift your head now and again–had little application when I learned that in addition to reading from my book, the Baltimore people also wanted me to cook.

They called a few weeks before the festival to ask which ingredients I needed.

“Ingredients?” I stammered. “Oh, you must think I’m cooking; no, I’m just reading from my book.”

The woman on the other end was just as baffled as I was.

“Um, Adam, we have you slotted for an hour–you can’t just read from your book for an hour.”

When I realized I’d be on a stage with cooking equipment, and that a few hours before me Martin Yan would be on the same stage and that I’d be followed by the Hearty Boys, I realized I might be in over my head.

What to do? What to do?

“Well,” I offered, “I recently learned how to make omelets, maybe it’d be funny if I tried to make omelets in front of everyone?”

“Are you good at making omelets?” asked the woman.

“Not really,” I said, “but that could be part of what makes it entertaining–watching me struggle to make an omelet.”

The woman let out a tiny laugh and said “ok.” I told Craig what was going on and he was dubious: “Do you really want to make something you’re not good at making in front of 70 people?”

A week before the festival, that same woman called and talked me down from the ledge. “Listen,” she said, “I just looked through your book: why don’t you make something you know how to make really well? Like the tomato sauce from the first chapter?”

As much as I still thought it’d be funny to sending flying chunks of egg over the audience’s heads, I realized this woman had a point.

“Ok,” I said. “Let’s do tomato sauce.”

I told her the ingredients I needed–canned tomatoes, garlic, basil, olive oil, salt, pepper, cheese–and that I’d be doing a faster recipe I know, one from Lydia Bastianich’s book that’s my go-to sauce when I’m in a hurry (the one in my book is the one I use when I have more time.)

On the Wednesday before the festival, I practiced my sauce. I thought the sauce over and remembered that the last time I made it, the sauce didn’t really adhere to the pasta; so, in my experiment, I added tomato paste at the beginning. And the finished dish came out perfect:


(Note: because readers complain when I have a messy stove, I used Photoshop to make it look much cleaner than it really was. Can you tell???)

I e-mailed the Baltimore people and asked them to add tomato paste to my list.

On Friday night, Craig and I journeyed to Baltimore. We arrived at 11:30 and caught a re-run of the debate, before passing out from our travels.

On Saturday–the day of my presentation–it was pouring. I arrived at the festival hours early, I wanted to scope it out. I watched Martin Yan win the crowd over with his charming repetitions and audience interaction; I heard Brooke Parkhurst explain to the audience who The Minimalist was; I wandered around, poked my head in the McSweeney’s tent, grabbed coffee from Donna’s, flipped through vintage copies of Moby Dick and Pride & Prejudice and finally, 3:15 rolled around. I was going on at 4.

So here’s how you do a successful cooking demonstration.

(1) Introduce yourself to everyone backstage. I met all the people who’d be helping me, made friends with my co-emcee Kevin (a chef in Baltimore) and somehow, by chitting and chatting, I felt much less nervous and much more excited–it’s the difference between performing for strangers and performing for friends;

(2) Be anal about having all the stuff you need to cook; think over all the steps. “How will I strain the pasta?” I asked. They set out a strainer and a bowl. “Is there a can opener to open those cans of tomatoes?” They dug one out. “What about cheese?” “It’s in a bag on the kitchen counter.”

(3) When the time comes to go on, come out with lots of energy. Most of my energy wasn’t the good kind of energy, it was nervous energy, but somehow I parlayed that into a quick bond with the audience: I told them who I was, held up my book, told them about the blog and the book and hosting a show for the Food Network online. Then I said, “And this is my first cooking demonstration ever, I hope I don’t burn down this tent!” They might’ve run away screaming; luckily, I think they found it charming.

(4) Actually, telling the audience that this was my first cooking demonstration ever was the smartest thing I could do. They were immediately on my side. I called up a volunteer to help me open cans; I started talking about this recipe and why I like to make tomato sauce. I read the first part of the first chapter of my book and they were really laughing along. Somehow a bond had been established and the more I went on, the more I felt at ease in front of everyone.

(5) When it came time to cook, I had to do the thing that most aspiring Food Network stars have trouble doing: talking and cooking at the same time. Somehow, I made that work; I smashed garlic and explained the easiest way to get the garlic out of the skin (cut the end off and smash it with your knife.) I turned the stove on and got the pan heated, added the olive oil and the garlic and then the red pepper flakes and tomato paste and finally the tomatoes. I asked if there were any questions; someone asked if I should also add sugar. I said, “That’s a good idea, but I think the tomato paste will help sweeten it.” I made sure the pot of water was boiling for when I added the pasta later.

(6) Once the sauce was simmering, I read a little bit more from my book, from the introduction. I realized that the real skill here, the thing that makes cooking stars cooking stars, is their ability to fill the air with noise in the downtime between cooking steps. It sounds silly–is it really that hard to keep talking when you’re not doing anything worth talking about?–but the answer to that question explains why Rachael Ray has a multi-million dollar empire. There’s an actual skill there, to make the audience feel like they’re spending time with a friend; if you were standing with a friend in the kitchen and they finished throwing everything in the pot, would you just stand there in stony silence? No, you’d keep chatting and that’s the skill I discovered I needed to survive my first cooking demonstration.

(7) When it came time to add the pasta to the boiling water, I lifted the lid and it didn’t look like there was enough water in there to boil two pounds of pasta. Panic! The helpers came on and started boiling a separate pot of water, but I knew that if I waited for that pot to come to a boil the sauce’d be done and I’d be up there with my pasta killing even more time. So I added as much pasta as I could to the water that was there and it ends up that there was enough water for all of it. I tried to time it perfectly so the pasta would be done when the sauce was ready.

(8) Actually, timing is the most important thing. Whatever you’re cooking, whatever you’re planning to do, make sure that everything times out; that you start the pasta at a point where the sauce is already halfway done. You don’t want the pasta to be done before the sauce is ready. This is a good tip not just for cooking demonstrations, but for home cooking.

(9) Keep asking the audience if they have questions; when they have questions, answer the ones you know and the ones you don’t know, throw back to the audience. For example, someone asked what kind of pasta to cook with different kinds of sauce. I know Italians have strict rules about pairing pastas with sauces but I forgot what those rules were, so I threw it back to the audience and someone near the front answered the question very smartly. I was so nervous, I completely forgot the answer.

(10) Cooking a dish on stage gives you a natural structure for shaping your presentation. Obviously, once the dish is done, you’re done! Towards the end, get the crowd excited. Make them cheer for their food; have someone come up and taste the sauce. I had my helper who helped open the cans come up and taste the sauce and she said it needed more salt. “Ok,” I agreed, “let’s add more salt.”

And that’s it. Before you know it, your cooking presentation is over and people are lining up to try your food (that’s the picture you see at the top of this post.) And here are the helpers helping serve my food:


There was this extraordinary feeling, this giant rush, when I realized that the food I just cooked would feed all those people in line. I watched the first person carefully, to see if she took more than one bite. She did. So did the others.

I took my mic off and breathed a sigh of relief. “How’d I do?” I asked the first people I recognized. “You did great!” they said. One of the women selling books said I was the most charming of all the presenters that day. Home run!

So thanks to Baltimore for trusting me enough to do a cooking demonstration; and thanks to all the kind people who came. To Emily Farris (who did a cooking demonstration the next day), to Ruth and John, and to all the Baltimore food bloggers who came out–The Baltimore Snacker, Strawberries in Paris, and a few others (sorry, I can’t remember them all!)–and, of course, Craig. When will I do another cooking demonstration? Give me a year to recover, and I’ll let you know.

Those of you are anxious to hear about our Baltimore crab experience, tune in tomorrow. And those of you who want the recipe for the tomato sauce, here you go…

Adam’s Take on Lydia’s 15-Minute Tomato Sauce

This is a fast and loose version; for the more exact version, check out Lydia’s books.

1. Get a big pot of water boiling;

2. Take a few cloves of garlic, depending on how garlicky you like it, and cut them into slivers or bits (slivers for less garlicky, bits for more garlicky); add them to a pan coated thinly with olive oil (about 1/4 cup) and turn up the heat to medium/high.

3. When the garlic starts sizzling, add red pepper flakes to a hot spot and let them toast a bit; then stir them in with the garlic and add tomato paste to another hot spot. (I use 2 Tbs of tomato paste, appx.) Toast the tomato paste by stirring it around in the oil until it’s orange and then stir it in with the garlic and red pepper flakes. Make sure, no matter what, that the garlic doesn’t get past a light golden brown; if it’s getting too dark too fast, jump to the next step.

4. Add a big can of whole-peeled tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) that you squash, first, in a separate bowl.

5. Turn up the heat to high, bring to a boil, season with salt, take a stalk of basil and submerge it in the sauce. Put the lid on and lower the heat. Let it bubble and burst with the lid on for 10 minutes.

6. Five minutes in, add your pasta (1 lb for 1 big can of tomatoes)–I like fussili or penne–to the boiling water and a handful of salt. (Actually, add the salt before the pasta; it raises the water temperature.)

7. When ten minutes have expired, take the lid off the tomato sauce. Let it continue to bubble and reduce; it should thicken up before the pasta’s done.

8. Remove the basil.

9. Taste your sauce, does it need more salt? More pepper? Adjust it now, we’re about to add the pasta.

10. Taste the pasta as it boils; you want to catch it right before it’s fully cooked, when it’s just a little too al dente but mostly cooked. At that point, strain the pasta (or lift it out with a spider) and add it to the bubbling tomato sauce. Let it finish cooking in the sauce.

11. Stir, stir, stir; ideally, the pasta will finish cooking as the sauce evaporates and when you’re done, you can drag your spoon across the bottom of the bowl and there won’t be any sauce left–the pasta will be fully coated.

12. Turn off the heat, add fresh basil to the pasta, some more chili flakes, a little olive oil and lots of cheese (I like Pecorino, but Parmesan works too.) Stir, serve, and enjoy.

14 thoughts on “How To Do A Cooking Demonstration”

  1. I’m glad you did well! I’m so upset that I missed it, but I’ve been reading the posting from the local bloggers that attended the event, and they LOVED you.

    You are always welcome back to Baltimore.

  2. Congratulations, Adam!!

    It sounds like you did a marvelous job. ‘Wish I could’ve been there. Now that you’ve practiced, you need to do a cooking demo in NYC…

  3. Adam! You were fantastic! It was great actually getting to meet you after reading for so long. You didn’t seem nervous at all — you were adorable. I felt all special answering your question about pasta! (The answer, by the way, was thin sauce, thin pasta like spaghetti or angel hair; thick sauce, rigatoni, penne, ziti, something with ridges or that will hold the sauce). And I’m really excited about the new FN show. Can’t wait!

  4. I am glad that I stuck around in the torrential downpours to see you speak. Your demonstration went very well indeed… although I was nervous for awhile you would light yourself on fire with the random burner that was on for the majority of your demo! It was fun to hear you in person – weaving in stories just like you do on your blog and book. Can’t wait to hear about where you ate for the rest of your stay!

  5. Adam,

    Thanks, it was good meeting you and Craig! I think Elizabeth (Strawberries) has the photo up on her site of all of us and Julie (Kitchenography) that someone took with her camera. Despite the torrential downpour I enjoyed the experience very much. And I am looking forward to finding out how you liked our recommendations (or if you found better ones, I hope y’all liked those).

    Now you see, you did just fine with your first cooking demo. And I have bought the tomatoes (or ‘maters as we call ’em here) and am planning to make that tomato sauce this week.

    On a related note: I did get your book dried out! I had to spend an hour or two hand-drying each page with a hair dryer but it’s perfectly readable :)

  6. Adam,

    Thanks, it was good meeting you and Craig! I think Elizabeth (Strawberries) has the photo up on her site of all of us and Julie (Kitchenography) that someone took with her camera. Despite the torrential downpour I enjoyed the experience very much. And I am looking forward to finding out how you liked our recommendations (or if you found better ones, I hope y’all liked those).

    Now you see, you did just fine with your first cooking demo. And I have bought the tomatoes (or ‘maters as we call ’em here) and am planning to make that tomato sauce this week.

    On a related note: I did get your book dried out! I had to spend an hour or two hand-drying each page with a hair dryer but it’s perfectly readable :)

    (I tried to post this before but it didn’t post. Sorry if this becomes a re-post.)

  7. Hey Adam,

    It seems with each passing year you tackle more and more challenges- things which you probably never really dared to dream about. Well, maybe you did, in the way that I daydream while driving the 25 minutes from home to work and then wonder how on earth I got there since I was lost in my dreamworld of running my own little cafe. Wait, I’m getting off the subject….:)

    What I’m trying to say is, you’re doing great things that I imagine surpass even your wildest daydreams. I love the process you take your readers on- the anxiety you feel as you find yourself on the brink of each new challenge, that moment of self-doubt, the focus to jump in and do it and then the wave of relief and pride washing over you once you find yourself on the other end of the challenge, victorious and amazed at yourself that you did it and did it well. Life should be a series of these events; wait, a GOOD life should be….and your life is.

    So congratulations on living the truly Good Life. Thanks for taking me on the journey with you.

  8. Yay! I’m glad to hear that everything went well. Also, you are a trooper for braving the weather on Saturday. I drove past the festival on my way to visit my brother, and everything just looked so droopy and wet. I couldn’t convince my brother to go anywhere but the mall. I’m glad people came out to eat your very yummy-looking pasta. =)

  9. What an interesting overview. You never really think about all that quiet time that needs to be filled for the audience–but now that I read this post, I think back to a local event I attended a couple of years ago. It was a cooking demonstration and the chef–though fantastic–failed to do anything but say the steps. There was a lot of unfilled space that made it seem very boring, even for me! It is a real talent to connect with an audience while demonstrating a dish correctly. It sounds like you did a great job!

    (A lot of italian-american cooks will talk about adding sugar to sauce. I was raised to add a splash of vinegar instead, which is my favorite way to add a little sweetness to the tomatoey flavor.)

  10. i’m impressed that you were planning to do something you aren’t good at in front of the audience. i think it would have made great theater for you to struggle through making a classic omelette. i recall the FN dish episode when you were in a restaurant kitchen and awkwardly trying to cook and plate a dish for a seriously famous chef. that was the most charming and memorable episode for me.

  11. I’m glad I got to see your debut!

    I can’t tell you how nerve wracking I think it would be to have to get up and cook for a tent full of people, but you were charming and handled the whole cooking thing with aplomb.

  12. Adam,

    I’ve gone and tried to make the tomato sauce you made on Saturday. I had a little trouble and only some of the tomatoes are San Marzanos, but I did indeed have some success with it in the end. It’s my Oct. 2 post. Thanks again for coming to Baltimore!

  13. I loved hearing about your first cooking demo! I have my first one in a few weeks, and your pointers are wonderful! I’m nervous and excited, but seeing your success makes me realize I might be able to do it too!

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