Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Chef's Corner: Nancy Michali

Owner, Ojai Culinary Studio
315 N.Montgomery Street

Urban design to menu design. Subways to souffles. Los Angeles to Ojai. Nancy Michali has moved from one world to another and is pretty much loving every minute of it.

Ten years ago, Nancy Michali probably wouldn't have envisioned herself doing what she's doing now: running the quaint, adorable, and successful Ojai Culinary Studio. Yet after 20 years of working as an urban designer in Los Angeles, Michali was looking for a change. Having grown up around food in a Pennsylvania Dutch family and entertaining friends on a regular basis in LA, going to culinary school and moving to Ojai to open her own cooking school were somehow the logical next steps for her.

Open since 2006, Michali's business continues to evolve as she learns more about what her clients want and as the times change. She offers a variety of fun cooking classes to the community, from "Wine and Tapas," to "Italian Quick Gourmet," to ""Cooking with Trader Joe's." The cost of most of her classes is $45, and she usually has space for 12 students. For these classes, she draws clients from Ojai, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and even tourists visiting Ojai for the weekend.

The other chunk of her business comes from custom parties. Michali loves these because she knows exactly what the client wants and can perfectly tailor her class to that end goal. She provides a different type of party experience- one where a small group gathers to both socialize and learn new skills. She's done a class for a group that wanted to learn about souffles, another class on cooking with figs, and even done classes for corporate groups looking for a unique teambuilding experience. On the day I visited with her, Michali had just finished a party for a group of 22 women, a send off for their dear friend, Patti, who was moving away. They talked, learned a few things, prepared a few dishes, talked some more, drank some wine, and enjoyed a nice lunch and got to bask in the fruits of their labor.

Michali speaks about the "Experience Economy" and the notion that in this economy customers are seeking out memorable and transformative experiences more than ever. Her clients seem to be looking for more than a typical dining out experience where the chef prepares food behind closed kitchen doors. Perhaps they are seeking opportunities to expand their horizons, get their hands dirty, or want to take a new skill or a new recipe home with them. And in these tough times, Michali explains that people have different interests and "don't want to cook gourmet." While they can't afford to dine out as much, they still want to eat well and want to make great simple fresh food at home, and she's the perfect teacher.

So why does she do it? Because of the people she gets to meet. As she explains,"Food and wine bring out the best in people." And it must be the relationships she builds, with both regular and one time clients, that keeps her going during the long hours of running her own business. She also strives to illuminate the relationship between using local ingredients and good taste. She stresses that if you start with truly fresh ingredients like broccolini from Oxnard or fruit from the produce stand on Baldwin Road, then they only need minimal preparation to taste really great because their freshness speaks for itself.

So whats ahead for Nancy Michali? She's bringing in a few local cookbook authors and their unique expertise, check them out:
  • June 14th - A cooking class with Komali Nunna, Camarillo resident and author of "Entertaining from an Ethnic Indian Kitchen"
  • June 21st- Grilling with Dad
  • June 28th-Lavender themed lunch

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