California native Amanda Nelson-Varnell, caterer and owner of Dish T' Pass cooking school, comes from a family of educators and teachers. She also comes from a family of good cooks.
"My grandmother was an exceptional cook and loved to entertain and worked for a portion of her life as a home economist for Pacific Gas & Electric and taught women how to use their new electric stoves," she says.
Nelson-Varnell now combines that family history of teaching and cooking with her new Dish T' Pass virtual cooking school, offering themed cooking classes for all ages and experience levels. But her love of cooking was realized long before that. Nelson-Varnell's mother was a full-time working mom and had little time to teach her daughter about cooking, so she was left to her own devices.
"I was fortunate to have two older women in my life from a group at church who, once I got serious about learning to cook, were gracious to take my midafternoon phone calls asking questions like, 'Now what exactly was I supposed to do with this chicken? What temperature did you say to set the oven to?' This was all pre-Google and Pinterest. We barely had dial-up internet."
But soon she found she had an affinity for cooking and started to build a file of recipes. "I absolutely fell in love with the magic that happens around the table." With four children, her home quickly became the go-to location for cookouts, weekend breakfasts, holiday meals and all the multi-family gatherings that take place each year. "It wasn't really that the task of cooking was always pure joy for me, but I loved what that task led to, so I honed those skills so I could get to the end product: memories created around the table."
In 2006, Nelson-Varnell expanded her small catering business to feature a series of monthly cooking classes at Brainerd Baptist Church. As word spread, her business, CookingLIVE, grew, and soon she was offering cooking classes around the region, from Chattanooga to Cleveland, Tennessee, to Dalton, Georgia.
"I really loved helping families do the family dinner table better," she says.
Ready to go virtual? Sign up for classes at dishtpass.com.
In 2012, Nelson-Varnell moved into her first brick-and-mortar location with the opening of Dish T'Pass Cooking School and Catering Co., a company that grew far beyond her plans — much heavier on the catering end than the cooking-class side. Four years into the business, she added a Grab-and-Go cafe offering take-and-bake meals.
"I loved our clients and I loved my staff, but my business had taken me so far away from my actual passion — teaching," she says.
Then COVID-19 hit.
She says 2020 was on target to be her first million-dollar year — until the lockdowns began.
"I was out of the country in mid-March when the shutdowns began, and on March 13, the cancellations started. Then it was like dominoes. I furloughed my staff on March 16, thinking that it was going to be very short-term."
Then in mid-April, "a couple of pivotal things happened," she recalls.
"Chattanooga experienced the huge tornado, and then the building my kitchen was housed in lost its major tenant, and management announced it was closing. I had rallied a team and helped raise funds to do some disaster-relief cooking for tornado victims and front-line workers. Working in masks, with so much uncertainty in the air, there was no joy in any of it for me. And knowing that I would have to look for a new space, I just didn't see myself doing this anymore. I didn't want to do large-event catering anymore. I was just done."
Nelson-Varnell says she decided instead "to pivot Dish T'Pass back to a recreational cooking school as well as launch a new venture, Cooking for Your Week (virtual, membership-based cooking classes) focused solely on the weeknight family dinner table."
Q: What's one of your earliest cooking memories?
A: Standing on a stool, helping my grandmother make cookies and candy at Christmas.
Q: What's the first dish you learned to make really well?
A: A simple roasted chicken and dressing with a pan gravy.
Q: What's your favorite cookbook?
A: I love crowd-sourced cookbooks such as old-school church cookbooks. And I enjoy Sara Moulton's approach to weeknight cooking — she has several books on the subject.
Q: What's your Achilles' heel ingredient — the one that gives you the most trouble when cooking?
A: Rice. For years I used a microwave rice cooker and now the Instant Pot. I want to cook rice on the stove, I really do, but it simply won't cooperate.
Q: What's your favorite food city to visit?
A: How can you pick just one? For me, it's New York City; Chicago; Bordeaux, France; and Sydney, Australia.
Q: What food is your guilty pleasure?
A: Currently, Trader Joe's Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups.
Q: Finish this sentence. If I hadn't chosen a culinary career, I would have been
A: A stage actor and director.
Q: What's your signature dish to make at home for family and friends, the one that they always ask for?
A: My go-to for years for at-home entertaining is one we call Fiesta Stack. It's a build-your-own kind of dish.
1 bag Frito corn chips
1 recipe beef-and-bean chili (recipe follows)
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
2 medium tomatoes, diced
1 medium white onion, diced
1 small jar sliced jalapenos, drained
1 bottle Italian salad dressing
To serve: Layer Fritos, homemade chili, cheese, shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes, diced onion, sliced jalapenos, and drizzle with Italian dressing — the secret ingredient.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 pounds lean ground beef
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 packages chili seasoning
1 teaspoons salt
4 cups beef broth
2 (15-ounce) cans petite diced tomatoes
2 (16-ounce) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
Add the olive oil to a large soup pot, and place it over medium-high heat for 2 minutes. Add the onion. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add garlic and the ground beef to the pot. Break it apart with a wooden spoon. Cook for 6-7 minutes, until the beef is browned, stirring occasionally.
Add tomato paste, chili seasoning packets and salt. Stir until well-combined.
Add the broth, diced tomatoes (with their juice), drained beans and tomato sauce. Stir well.
Bring the liquid to a low boil. Then reduce the heat (low to medium-low) to gently simmer the chili, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the pot from the heat. Let the chili rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.
Email Anne Braly at firstname.lastname@example.org.