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Cooking the Simple Gourmet Way

Two chefs—one a Hermosa Beach resident—turn a local catering service into a classroom for aspiring cooks and a teambuilding service for businesses.

Whether planning a creative "date night" with your significant other or a unique bonding experience for your sales team, either events could all be part of . 

Hermosa Beach resident Melanie Barsuk, 48, founded the Redondo Beach-based catering company as a chef/teacher who wanted to appeal to aspiring cooks, couples, children and businesses—as well as those throughout Los Angeles and Orange County who require catering services.

While catering and teambuilding consume the lion’s share of the company, "cooking classes are the favorite thing we do," Barsuk said. "It’s a little more intimate; it’s local, only here in South Bay."

An exuberant woman, with Farrah Fawcett hair and lively blue eyes, Barsuk left a successful marketing and sales career in 2003 to devote her time to her first love, cooking.

"I started Simple Gourmet teaching cooking classes in my kitchen at home," said Barsuk, who lives in Hermosa with her architect husband, Peter, and two children, Jenna, 10, and Zachary, 12. "I’ve been cooking since I was 11. I went to cooking classes with my mom as a child and always did some cooking on the side, either catering small parties or teaching."

As much commercial kitchen as classroom, Simple Gourmet on South Pacific Coast Highway boasts all the necessary equipment to prep meals for weddings, society galas and corporate events.

But the voluminous kitchen, backed by industrial ovens and centered by a huge, stainless steel prep table, also converts to a gathering place for gourmets wanting to learn tricks of the trade from famous guest chefs or for residents who simply want to know how to make cheddar cheese scones or gluten-free pot pie.

The recipes spring primarily from the mind of Barsuk’s business partner, Taji Marie, 36, Simple Gourmet’s executive chef, who—like Barsuk—fell in love with cooking at an early age.

Tall with dark ringlets and a full, bursting laugh, Taji Marie, who was named after the Taj Mahal, lives with a partner of 15 years in Los Angeles and commutes to Redondo.

"I’ve just been cooking my whole life," said Marie, part of a Sonoma County family that cooked everything from scratch. "I started working in restaurants when I was 14 as an after school job [and], by the time I graduated college, I was managing the little café I worked at."

Marie and Barsuk met nine years ago at Sur La Table in Los Angeles, a retail culinary chain that offers everything from cooking classes to pots and pans. Barsuk was a volunteer in the culinary program ("I wanted to learn about the industry, meet some chefs, see how good instructors work," she said), and Marie was one of the culinary managers.

Influenced along the way by such luminaries as Julia Child (who took a liking to Barsuk’s baby) and Rachael Ray (who never met a dog or fireman she didn’t like, Barsuk said), Marie and Barsuk discovered they had a lot in common.

Both had grown up in northern California and attended Cal State Northridge, although at different times. Marie, a journalism graduate, went on to cook in the Caribbean and write food articles, and Barsuk headed for a marketing career and teaching and catering from home.

Deciding they were "business soulmates," they opted to team up, Marie said. "We started doing the teambuilding, and then those clients wanted us to cater for them, then it just kind of snowballed."

The teambuilding idea grew out of Barsuk’s 20 years of corporate experience, working as a buyer for May Co., for example, and as a regional sales manager for handbag manufacturer Coach.

"I realized there was a huge niche for corporate teambuilding," Barsuk said. "Since I had a corporate background, I understood what the corporate client needed."

Describing cooking "as a great teambuilding exercise," Barsuk said she and Marie began creating events for "the big guys, like Sony, Disney and Warner Bros."

One teambuilding event, held in one of the many spaces they operate out of in L.A., involved a Disney marketing team.

"We’ve done many events with Disney over the years," Marie said. "But one of the most fun was a cake [decorating] challenge event.”

The 25 or so people in attendance were divided into three groups, and each team was given baked cakes, frosting and lots of decorative items.

"It was like being a kindergartener again," Marie said. The teams were asked "to create a cake masterpiece" in the allotted 45 minutes. "They have to first strategize and plan, because most of them have never decorated a cake before."

The surprising thing is, she added, "The cakes always turn out amazing. In one case, they made [a cake that looked like] a huge hamburger and French fries." Another cake was built to look like the "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror" ride at Disney Studios in Hollywood.

But the heart of Simple Gourmet, which now employs a staff of nine—from culinary assistants to chefs—is teaching South Bay locals the best kept culinary secrets in a variety of classes, whether they be "date night" sessions every Friday, Vitality City and comfort food classes, or children's camps.

The calendar determines some of what’s on the Simple Gourmet menu. Barsuk and Marie build classes around holidays, health and weight loss considerations, the new emphasis on gluten-free diets and local programs like the Healthways-Blue Zones Vitality City initiative.

"Vitality City is a movement," said Barsuk, who is deeply involved in encouraging low-fat, low-sugar, plant-based eating in the various Vitality City demonstrations she conducts around the South Bay. "Their whole mantra is to try and make healthy eating choices."

To that end, Simple Gourmet designs a new Vitality City class once a month. One such is a meatless Mediterranean menu, which includes butternut squash orzo with tomatoes. Another is built around black bean soup and whole wheat pasta with chard.

"People are pleasantly surprised at how tasty it is," Marie said.

The Children’s Summer Camp program, Barsuk said, "is the section I love the most because I have kids." One of her children is "a great eater," she said, while the other is "a terrible eater."

Or was a terrible eater until Barsuk "threw" daughter Jenna into one of her classes. "Now, she is my testimonial [and] actually taking ownership of making proper food choices," Barsuk said.

The children’s camps run five days, cost $400 and include an "Iron Chef Friday," in which kids between 8 and 14 purchase produce for their menus at a local farmer’s market and "get to use the culinary skills they’ve honed all week," Barsuk said.

Kids also get a Simple Gourmet tote bag, a recipe scrapbook and etiquette class. (Two-day camps are available throughout the year, as are children's birthday parties.)

For more information as to catering, classes, children’s camps and teambuilding, visit the Simple Gourmet website.

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