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Meet the Team: Cook Space Believes Culinary Confidence Never Goes out of Style

STORY + VIDEO EDITING BY RACHEL SCHWARTZMANN – Discover COOK SPACE–  PHOTOS + FOOTAGE BY BRIDGET BADORE FOR THE STYLE LINE

“Creativity is something we want to ignite at Cook Space,” says Nini Nguyen,

Culinary Director at Cook Space, the newly-opened Brooklyn-based culinary school, and event venue. “I do not think we can solve the world’s problems with a meal, but we can definitely start a new wave of thinking. Small conversations at the table can influence or teach others of different views and perspectives.”

We certainly gained a lot of perspective here at The Style Line during our recent meet-and-greet with the three women at the helm of this promising business. Enter Nini Nguyen, Lara Southern, and Michelle Mannix, all of whom enthusiastically invited us into their world.

As you’ll discover more of in this story, Cook Space’s mission is to instill a sense of “culinary confidence” in all those who attend events, workshops, and gatherings – but based on our experience within the space – attendees will leave with so much more. The trio contends that while Cook Space may be a destination for foodies to gather, create and learn, it is also an environment that fosters honest dialogue and discovery over what is arguably our most common ground: food. As Michelle (Cook Space’s stylish founder) aptly mentioned in our interview, “For me, the desire to help people build confidence in the kitchen comes from knowing the joy – and a meditative, creative flow that I can get into when I cook from that place. And when you cook from a place of confidence vs. someone else’s instruction – throwing things together based on what you have, you’re craving or curious about –  you are able to let your creative expression come through, develop your skills and hone instincts that are already there.”

From indulging in culinary curiosity to honing in on your personal style, we’re thrilled to share our full interview with Nini, Michelle, and Lara who kindly shared more on their respective stories, thoughts on sustainability in food, and what advice they have for the next generation. Discover it all below and enjoy beautifully-captured photos (and footage!) from our visit shot exclusively by Bridget Badore for The Style Line.

I’m Lara Southern, a little wanderlust and a rather

clumsy Brit living in Brooklyn. My role is to translate the message that Nini and Michelle have created with Cook Space. When not at work I can usually be found buried under a pile of travel journals, barefoot foraging in front of an open fridge, or mooching off the myriad wonderful qualities of my beautiful friends and family. Trying to whittle down what I value in life into one sentence or paragraph feels like an impossible task so I’ll just note a few – curiosity, compassion and a healthy dose of humor.

I’m Michelle Mannix, the founder of Cook Space.

I’m a mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, mentor, mentee, and seeker. I love to cook, I love to create and constantly tinker with interior spaces, rooms, and areas.

I love being outside. I can’t live without music. I love to have interesting conversations, to laugh and to be with family and friends. I love to paint and go to The Class by Taryn Toomey. I love kindness and wisdom.

My name is Nini Nguyen. I am a chef and enjoy making

ceramics in my free time. Anything aquatic fascinates and inspires me.  Happiness is something I value the most. You should surround yourself with things that bring you joy – this also applies to people.

Talk to us about what it means to find and harness “confidence in the kitchen.” How has launching Cook Space enabled you each to do just that?

LS: As someone who is often surrounded by professional chefs and the beautiful food that they make, I can definitely confess insecurities in my own abilities in the kitchen, although I love to cook.

I have the privilege of observing both Nini and Michelle share what they’ve learned (which seems limitless) in such an accessible way in their classes and it has completely reignited my passion for experimenting in the kitchen. Those key foundational tools and techniques, like proper knife skills and how to balance flavors, do so much to take the fear out of cooking and encourage you to play with your own personal tastes at home.

MM: For me, the desire to help people build confidence in the kitchen comes from knowing the joy – and a meditative, creative flow that I can get into when I cook from that place. And when you cook from a place of confidence vs. someone else’s instruction – throwing things together based on what you have, you’re craving or curious about –  you are able to let your creative expression come through, develop your skills and hone instincts that are already there. Launching Cook Space has provided me with even more passion for this topic. We’re on a bit of a mission! It’s been amazing to see the response that comes from our guests and students when they have an “ah-ha” moment or create a four-course dinner they are dying over – in about 50 minutes – without any recipes!

When I begin to think about why cooking means so much to me, what became very real for me is that I had the most fun and my food tasted the best when I relied on my instincts, often winged it. Like they say – fake it til you make it. When you do – you aren’t faking it – you are building skills and CONFIDENCE. In life and in the kitchen – it’s the same thing. Stepping into yourself and going for it!

NN: Confidence in the kitchen is really a mindset. It’s just thinking that you can do it and to believe that you know what you are doing. Fundamental techniques are what we want to teach people, to empower them, to have them know that they can cook.  Having confidence in anything you do helps you accomplish it.  Once you say “I can’t” the reality is you won’t.

We love how stylish the space itself is. Talk to us about the role personal style plays in the Cook Space ethos/how you think it relates to cooking in general? 

LS: I think what makes Cook Space so special is that it marries beautiful, thoughtful design with an air of invitation. Michelle and Nini did an incredible job of making the space beautiful without being austere by including personal, vintage touches and creating bright open spaces. They designed the kitchen in a way that combines form and function, giving it a natural flow. Personal style is such an important part of what Cook Space is about, providing people with space and platform to explore their own unique perspective.

MM: Thank you! I’m very proud of how the space has turned out! Personal style plays a big role in a variety of ways. In terms of how the space was designed – there was a lot of intention behind how space would make people feel. Function obviously plays a key role as well, but I’m a big believer in being able to make it work regardless of your surroundings. Often times we find excuses to not do things – I need a bigger kitchen to cook or better tools. No, you don’t –  you just need to give it a go! Just like anything in life, you only get better by doing it.

Personal style also plays a big role for everyone that takes a class at Cook Space. We are all about helping people find and develop their own culinary voice and expression. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is give people enough skills and experience to begin the process of developing their own culinary style – which is often an expression of themselves in ways they may not even realize. When you begin to see it that way, you begin to make small steps to find and develop one’s own culinary style. My personal style when It comes to cooking is pretty seasonal and simple. I have an 8-year-old son and it’s been very important to me to have family meals together regularly  – and for him to know that real food doesn’t come in a box, that it takes time and energy – but that it’s worth it.

NN: I think that my personal cooking style is rooted from where I came from and what I enjoy – I’m Vietnamese and grew up in New Orleans. I really enjoy simple food executed well. Salt, pepper, and oil go a long way, and with a squeeze of citrus or splash of hot sauce, I am there. Where I grew up, we love flavorful foods. Sometimes flavorful doesn’t mean to add a bunch of stuff together but instead highlight the beauty of the individual ingredients. I am very fond of 5 ingredients or less in my dishes – simple, yet bold. I think that’s my style.

Would you say sustainability plays a role in how you approach Cook Space creatively and from a business standpoint?

LS: Cooking resourcefully and making the most of your pantry teaches us to be more creative and more responsible in how we approach our daily lives as well as our grocery lists. We like to cook in tune with the seasons and support our local market vendors. I think when people are connected to where their food comes from, it shifts the way people approach sustainability.

One of my favorite aspects of Cook Space is that it will act as a platform to build awareness of local small businesses within the food industry, as well as a space to hopefully host event programs and discussion panels on current issues including sustainability.

MM: Yes it plays a huge role. I’m naturally very frugal and resourceful and I think both of those qualities are key drivers in creativity, cooking, design and so many things! Related to our mission we’re trying to teach people to use up what they have in their refrigerators and pantries first and to learn how to re-purpose food to carry ingredients and dishes over into new things. To me, sustainable food systems need to include the importance of cooking for one’s self. It is not only more affordable but it deepens your relationship with what you are actually eating, and how it’s made – and that will hopefully naturally translate to a more sustainable, mindful approach to cooking and eating. In our design there a few pieces that came from my restaurant Ted & Honey or yard sales. One of my favorite things to do is to find new purposes for old things. I love the old tool belt that now holds our whisks, for example.

From a business standpoint, I’m not only interested in supporting sustainable food systems (we get our food from farmers markets, a local CSA, a local butcher in addition the local C –Town!) but also creating events and programs for our community and sustainable jobs in the food business.

NN: Sustainability is very important at Cook Space. We encourage people to eat with the seasons, to cook with what they have and to be resourceful. It’s easy to create things when everything is readily accessible to you, but I feel like a lot of creativity happens when there are limitations. If you only have access to certain ingredients, what you make of it can be a new and unique outcome that would never happen if you weren’t limited. From a business standpoint, it is crucial to have sustainability in the people you work with. People are most productive and long lasting in a company when they are happy and feel significant. We believe in taking good care of our employees so that they can take care of the business.

How do you celebrate personal style?

LS: I’m a creature of comfort – whether it’s in my clothes or my environment, I like to feel good and make others feel good too.

Within that, I’ve always a bit of a split personality sartorially, one day tomboy, one day ladylike – the limited real estate in this city has definitely helped me whittle down to the bare essentials both at work and home, and make more out of less, which is kind of how we like to approach cooking at work. Looking at a set of ingredients that you have on hand or that you see at the market, and seeing opportunity rather than restrictions. I think personal style is something we celebrate in every class, every meeting and every space in the studio – life is too short to be anything but your own, unique, badass self!

MM: One of the things I love most about working in the food business is the ever-changing landscape both in the people you engage with regularly – and the food. I get so much inspiration from people and the ones that inspire me the most are the ones that are themselves – in whatever quirky, unique way that is. It’s very inspiring to me to see people comfortable in their own skin and really owning it.

NN: I am inspired by people who follow the beat of their own drum. That’s a goal of mine every day. My approach is to celebrate what you love and not apologize for it. I really love vintage things – from clothes to food, classic with a little bit of new.  And how I celebrate it is to apply it to everything I do.

What is one question you wish people asked you more often?

LS:  What are you listening to right now? I’m a bit of an odd duck in that I’m constantly torn between wanting to be surrounded by friends and meet new people, and also love my solitude, whether it’s time traveling solo or popping on some old socks and tucking into a good book. I love music and discovering new artists, podcasts, audio books, you name it – my commute gives me a little escape from the constant (and addictive) din of New York City.

MM: Hmm that is a hard one! I love curiosity and I’m a big asker of questions when I’m getting to know someone – so all are welcome.

NN: Sometimes, I wish people didn’t ask me what I like to cook, but instead, ask me what I like to eat.

How do you think creativity contributes to some of the world’s bigger conversations and what role do you hope Cook Space plays in this?

LS: I think this goes back to personal style. Everyone has something different and equally valuable to offer, whether it’s simply in the kitchen or on a much broader scale. We meet as a team as often as possible at Cook Space, to share and bounce ideas off of one another. I think our inability to listen to alternate viewpoints and perspectives is part of what’s created this alarming political chasm, not just in the US but globally.

Being close-minded stunts our growth, and ultimately our happiness. Creativity is at the core of Cook Space, as we hope to encourage others to embrace play and experimentation in the kitchen. It may seem small, but it’s a start!

MM: I think creativity is such a grounding, exhilarating, energizing thing and that it can be accessed so easily. We can all find ways to be creative and to look at how we can incorporate creativity into our lives in big and small ways. I hope Cook Space plays a vital role in helping people see cooking that way. When you let go of recipes you are really igniting something in your brain and spirit that is very freeing and creative!

NN: Creativity is something we want to ignite at Cook Space. I do not think we can solve the world’s problems with a meal but we can definitely start a new wave of thinking.  Small conversations at the table can influence or teach others of different views and perspectives. I think creativity brings people together and can somehow be a common ground to humanity.

How would you advise the next generation to leave an imprint in the world, simply by doing what they love?

LS: I would say just that – do what you love. When you pursue your passions with excitement and curiosity, I like to think it leaves a tangible imprint on what you put out into the world, and has a ripple effect of sorts. Little things make all the difference – I think when people focus on “leaving an imprint” it can often feel like such a huge and daunting task. I try to approach it with the campsite rule in mind “Leave the world a little better than you found it”. Oh, and pick up your trash.

MM: I’m super inspired by millennials and the next generation beyond them (I think they already have a name…it’s just escaping me!). I find they are empathetic, creative, kind, and really want to make an impact on the world around them. My advice would be to keep at it… maybe to put their phones down a bit more.

NN: I guess that would depend on what they love right? I think everyone knows right from wrong – generation doesn’t matter. Just be empathetic and kind and do the right thing. Maybe don’t leave an imprint on earth but leave one with the people who live on it? (a good one of course!).

“Personal style also plays a big role for everyone that takes a class at Cook Space. We are all about helping people find and develop their own culinary voice and expression.”

– Michelle Mannix, Founder of Cook Space