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Immigrant grandmas and mothers will teach you how to make prized family recipes in this new L.A. cooking class

You won't find any chef’s whites in Elmira Avetian's cooking class. There are no mirror-polished, stainless-steel workstations or pre-weighed mise en place. There's just Avetian in her snug Glendale kitchen, standing in front of a four-burner stove on a floor mat that reads "Mom's Kitchen Always Made With Love."

Avetian is one of the cooking instructors for the League of Kitchens, a unique cooking school where students learn regional specialties from immigrant women who happen to be exceptional home cooks. Founded in New York City in 2014, the idea came to founder and Chief Executive Lisa Gross after her Korean grandmother passed away. Gross longed for her grandmother’s cooking and regretted not learning by her side. After trying to teach herself to cook from books and internet tutorials, Gross determined there was no substitute for the sensory cues that are often left out of recipes, so she set out in search of hired grandmas and aunties from all over the world — Nepal, Uzbekistan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Argentina and Afghanistan — who could teach curious home cooks in the manner that daughters and sons and cousins have been taught for generations, standing alongside their elders at the stove.

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This October, the League of Kitchens will launch its first workshops outside of New York, in Los Angeles with two instructors — the Tbilisi-born Avetian, who specializes in Georgian and Armenian cuisine, and Smitha Sindagi, who hails from Karnataka, a state in southwest India where she earned the title of roti-master in her family.

Elmira Avetian shows students of the League of Kitchens cooking class how to prepare the  ingredients for a Georgian dish right out of her own home.
Elmira Avetian shows students of the League of Kitchens cooking class how to prepare the  ingredients for a Georgian dish right out of her own home. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The workshops, which range from 4 1/2-hour weekend immersion courses to shorter weekday sessions, are taught in the instructor's home, which is why on a Sunday afternoon in July four students sat around a table in Avetian's living room preparing Armenian tolma, wrapping young grape leaves around a mixture of rice and ground beef, scented with coriander and speckled with cilantro, parsley and dill.

"You want to wrap them like a baby," Avetian instructed the students before taking a stack of swaddled bundles to the stove to steam. It's the type of gentle instruction that you can expect from her workshops, which marry the atmosphere of Sunday supper at your friend's house with a full menu of new recipes and a slew of practical home-cooking techniques that are rarely taught in books or professional classes.

Need to keep a weight on those tolma while they boil on the stove? Use an upside-down dinner plate. Want to know the fastest way to peel tomatoes? Massage the edge of a paring knife along the outside of the fruit to separate the skin from the flesh before stripping away the outer layer. Have to clean a fish but don't want to scrub scales off your walls for the next two days? Fill the sink and scale the fish under water (a serrated paring knife does the job just fine).

Whereas other cooking classes emphasize the "right" way to do things, Avetian's workshop is a master class in how to make exceptional food in a kitchen that might resemble your own, where counter space is limited, improvisation is inevitable and you have to contend with your 19-year-old son pilfering the occasional cup of beef broth from the stove.

A hallmark of the Georgian table, pkhali incorporates a mixture of ground vegetables. Avetian's version is made from kidney beans with pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top.
A hallmark of the Georgian table, pkhali incorporates a mixture of ground vegetables. Avetian's version is made from kidney beans with pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Every workshop includes a recipe booklet, but Avetian teaches with her senses. "The Georgian ways of mixing things is with your hands and your eyes," she says, "but the main tool is love. My grandma always said, if you’re in a bad mood don’t go to the kitchen."

Beyond advancing culinary skills, Gross' ambition for the League of Kitchens is to better value immigrants’ knowledge and the richness of their cultures. "We are recognizing women home cooks who have been doing this work for their whole lives," she says. "Many of these women are taken for granted by their families and communities, but have incredible expertise that's not valued culturally or monetarily. They are just as unique and special as any French chef," and without the League of Kitchens, their knowledge wouldn't be accessible outside their own families.

While diners in Los Angeles have long championed immigrant cooking, rarely is it available to the public outside of restaurants, and in the case of Smith Sindagi, Karnataka-style cuisine doesn't exist in any bricks-and-mortar in L.A., so her kitchen may be the only place Angelenos can learn about usali, a sprouted bean curry with tomatoes, coconut and spices. Similarly, you won't find Avetian's red-bean pkhali anywhere outside her Glendale kitchen. The mixture of ground vegetables — often beets, spinach or beans — with pureed walnuts, herbs and spices, is a hallmark of the Georgian table, and Avetian's version made from kidney beans is fragrant with the quintessential flavors of her home country: cilantro, coriander and fenugreek.

Pkhali is one of six dishes that lands on Avetian's dinner table when the workshop winds down and students gather over a feast of plump Armenian tolma, electric red borscht, Mediterranean salad and a whole trout baked with no less than a window box worth of tarragon.

Turkish coffee is prepared with Georgian dessert during a home cooking class.
Turkish coffee is prepared with Georgian dessert during a home cooking class. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

After the savory courses, Avetian will serve Armenian coffee with gata, a flaky sweet bread, and read everyone's future in their coffee grounds, but for now she looks around the table and worries what will become of all the leftovers.

"You'll have to come back tomorrow," she says to the students who laugh until her expression reveals that she's serious. "You don't believe me, do you?"

Classes offered

Type: Immersion

Price: $175 per person

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Hours/days: 4.5 hours on weekends from 1 to 5:30 p.m.

Details: Hands-on cooking instruction for a group of six students

Type: Taste Of

Price: $120 per person

Hours/days: 2.5 hours on select weekdays, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or 7 to 9:30 p.m., and weekends from 1 to 3:30 p.m.

Details: Hands-on cooking instruction for a group of six students

Type: Shopping Tour*

Price: $95 per person

Hours/days: 2.5 hours on weekends from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Details: A guided tour where the instructor takes a group of six students to her favorite — and oftentimes secret — food stores, shops and eateries.

*This is a new workshop category for both New York and L.A.

To sign up for classes and to learn more, visit www.leagueofkitchens.com.

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