Sunday, February 04, 2001

A spirit of cooking

Director of P&G's new Culinary Sol an energetic advocate of good food

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Amy Tobin is director of the new Culinary Sol cooking school.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Those who question Procter & Gamble's wisdom in opening Culinary Sol, a stylish, state-of-the art retail boutique and cooking school combo in Norwood's Rookwood Commons, have little reason to doubt the spirit and skills of the woman creating the classes and training the teachers.

        Culinary director Amy Tobin has been writing cooking school curricula for more than five years. She loves to cook at home and honestly believes that, if the facility is top notch — which it is — and the classes are creative and entertaining, students will come.

        “One of my friends I hadn't talked to in a while called and I told her I was running a cooking school,” Ms. Tobin says. “She said: "That's so you!”'

        It is. Her outlook is positive and her enthusiasm infectious. And incredibly, Ms. Tobin swears she drinks very little coffee.

        The best cooking teachers can “go off the cuff,” she says, and Ms. Tobin also loves to improvise. A couple of days before opening the school last month., she decided to turn the first tapas class into a public open house. Anyone who stepped into Culinary Sol that day could observe and eat. Hungry passersby mobbed the school's cushy 40-seat amphitheater.

        “The teachers were really good about me changing things at the last minute,” she says.

"Gave me full rein'

        The job offer from P&G came in August, after Ms. Tobin had returned from vacation in Europe. She was working only part-time, then — teaching private cooking classes and doing a little catering. But she has immersed herself in Culinary Sol.

        “They gave me full rein here,” she says.

        She has taken full advantage, creating classes such as “Family Matters,” which encourages families to learn to cook together, and another series that combines cooking and swing dancing lessons.

        “Yes! The swing class was a hit!” Ms. Tobin says, pumping her fist like she scored a winning basket.

        She hasn't earned a certificate from a culinary school (her degree is in business administration), but her cooking education goes back to home ec classes in suburban Detroit where she grew up.

        “I remember when I was in seventh grade, I made this almond-stuffed chicken breast for my family,” she says. “I loved it!”

        When she and her husband lived in Chicago, she learned to appreciate fine restaurants and entertaining at home. They moved to Montgomery in 1995, and Ms. Tobin took a sales job at Cooks' Wares in Symmes Township. Soon, she was helping prep food for the store's cooking classes.

        “When someone says you have to make 50 crepes on the spot, you learn really fast,” she says.

        For the next five years — until last spring — Ms. Tobin wrote the curriculum and scheduled teachers for the Cooks' Wares school.

        Still, she realizes her limitations as a teacher.

        “I know baking and desserts, and I love to make soups and pasta,” she says. “But there's no way I'd pretend to teach a butchery class.”

        “I think I'm good at this because I have an eye for detail,” she says, trying not to sound immodest.

"See what works'

        During the “Family Matters” class taught by chef Meg Galvin, Ms. Tobin sits glued to the video monitors overhead, wondering out loud whether the camera angles needed to be tweaked. When the pot of pasta water on the stove is slow to boil, she jumps up to dig out a lid, then ducks back into the production kitchen to check on the progress of prep for the next day's classes. Only then does she pause to munch a muffin and call her kids (Sean, 11, and Katie, 9) at home.

        “I told them they wouldn't see too much of me the first few weeks,” she says. “I have to be here to see what works.”

        Despite her long hours, a few in the business community wonder how long Culinary Sol will survive. P&G claims it ventured into the world of retail and culinary education — not to sell its upscale line of Culinary Sol cooking oils, herbs and spices — but to encourage people to cook at home and buy more cooking products.

        The company points to the public's growing interest in food and cooking as justification for starting up Culinary Sol. But everyone knows there's a big difference between watching Emeril Lagasse on the Food Network at home and shelling out $25 to $100 for a cooking class.

        So can Culinary Sol attract enough students to justify the new electric cooktops, refrigerators and warming drawers in the school's 1,100-square-foot kitchen?

        “I don't look at life that way,” Ms. Tobin says. “If it (Culinary Sol) doesn't work, it was just an experiment.”

        Deep down, of course, she has little doubt her cooking school will succeed.

        Information on Culinary Sol: (513) 841-2665;


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