With the notion that food is an equalizer and knowledge is power, Jilah Kalil gives back to the community through her social enterprise, Cooking Up. Cooking Up teaches home cooking skills that give people the knowledge (and therefore the power) to cook simple, healthy meals on a budget. Holding a fine arts degree, Jilah has worked as an educator for students with special education needs, then as a homeschool parent for her two children. Her first culinary venture, teaching cooking classes to low-income people in the community, came in the form of a non-profit. Today, the mission is the same, to transform lives by teaching basic cooking skills, but the business is profitable. Every class you register for through Cooking Up donates a class to low-income members of the community. Not only will you walk away from one of Jilah’s classes with tools to meal plan, navigate your pantry and cook without relying on recipes, you will be giving the same tools to your neighbors. Welcome our newest FACE of Nashville.
How did cooking come to be a big part of your life?
I have no formal training. I am a home cook. Cooking is something you do every day. When I was homeschooling my kids, I did it three times a day. But even before kids, I was cooking and reading recipes. There were always too many ingredients, or ingredients I didn’t know. I started to do a lot of modifying. The amount of cooking I was doing, plus having a Delvin Farms CSA, really pushed my boundaries. I tried everything, and some things failed. But I got to a place where I was no longer using a recipe. There is a core “formula” for the food you are cooking. Once you figure out that “formula,” the options open up. Plus, cooking is a creative outlet. I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree then went into teaching special education. With kids, I was no longer able to be creative, so my creativity came through in the kitchen. Cooking is a way to express love, to be creative and to try different things, and just like with art, some things are a complete failure but you learn from those.
What inspired you to share your culinary knowledge with others?
I had a nonprofit for five years that offered cooking classes to low-income communities, only. I had programs to help children, parents, older adults and those in transitional housing. The gift of knowledge is power. Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. But it was not fiscally sustainable.
I wasn’t looking to start a new business, but I am really passionate about people eating well. You can change your health by changing what you eat. People assume that cooking is more expensive, it takes too much time, recipes are complicated, and it is stressful. I want people to see that it is none of those things. With the right skills, you can save money and time. Cooking is a gift of love.
Tell us about Buy a Class, Give a Class.
Cooking Up is a social enterprise, where part of the profit funds not-for-profit classes — meaning I don’t have to give up my love of teaching everyone to cook. Cooking Up partners with faith and community centers to bring classes to those in need. The classes teach basic cooking skills to those who have qualified for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, a government food assistance program. By buying a class, you can provide a family in your community with a class that will teach them to cook simple, healthy meals on a budget.
How are these classes making a difference for those in need? What is the message you are trying to get across when it comes to nutrition?
I have a passion for helping the low-income community, who has the hardest time affording food and finding access to food. I help people learn beyond the “recipe.” In the classes, you cook together. This creates a community. That is what eating a meal together is supposed to do. I learn as much from them as they learn from me.
Where are your classes held?
I am hosting a series at the Nashville Farmers’ Market for the next few months; I have hosted classes at NRhythm, churches, community centers and Nashville Rescue Mission. I am looking to do something at St. Luke’s in the fall. I will teach anywhere! People’s homes are best. I do one-on-one, couples, girls’ night out, friends who want to cook together, parties, baby showers, bridal showers. I teach based on what is seasonally available. Anyone who wants to learn to cook can contact me at [email protected].
I could be giving away more classes, but I need to work on building the for-profit side. I have to be careful to build in a way that is fiscally sustainable, so I don’t lose the business — which would be a disappointment to me, but also the community.
How do you describe the style of cooking you teach?
The easiest way to describe it is home cooking simplified. I teach people how to cook simple food they can throw together in about 30 minutes — from start to finish. You can make it as easy or complicated as you want.
When you aren’t working, where can we find you hanging out around town?
Outside! Running at Shelby Bottoms, cycling or sitting and reading a book, outside.
What is one ingredient we can always find in your kitchen?
There are two: onions and garlic. They are a team. You can put onions and garlic in anything, and it is automatically better.
What produce are you most excited to play with this summer?
I love the varieties of greens we grow here. Nashville Food Project has the most amazing greens. You can eat them raw or cooked. Throw them in a soup or sauté them and toss them in a bowl with a drizzle of olive oil.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Soup. It is a one-pot meal. You can make gazpacho or hot soups and stews. I also really love salad. You can take rice and roasted veggies and toast them together with a chutney and have a warm salad. I thought salads were only cold with greens, but really you can make cold soups and warm salads — and they can be made in one pot.
What local restaurant is at the top of your must-try list?
I mostly cook at home, but I have recently heard about Peninsula. I haven’t gone yet, but I love food from the Iberian cuisine. The spice combinations from that region are a treat. I grew up in Miami, where there is a variety of foods from Spain, Cuba, Latin America — you just don’t get that here.
Is there a hidden culinary gem in Nashville that we must know about?
Miel. Seema, who owns Miel, has created such a beautiful, ethical community. The food is divine. Chef Andrew does great things. They are also very much against food waste. It is really good food and a beautiful atmosphere.
What do you think distinguishes Nashville — and its culinary scene — from other cities?
Our culinary scene is new, and it has seen pretty intense growth. We have chefs, whether local or famous, who really care about the community. In communities who have an older culinary scene, they have had to work for that. Here, it is at the forefront. Look at what Philip at Folk and Rolf and Daughters, Fort Louise and others are doing. People are looking to build community.
One disadvantage of blossoming quickly is that restaurants are short on quality staff.
What is the best piece of advice you have received, and from whom?
It was from my parents. It was: do good, be kind and do something you love – something that makes you happy. Life is too short not to be happy.
What books can be found on your bedside table?
Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised by Tamar Adler; The Power by Naomi Alderman and The Atlantic and The New Yorker
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
An independent bookstore, an independent wine seller and a local farmers’ market. I have to be able to cook, drink and read a book!
Thank you, Jilah. And thank you to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos.
We sat down with Dr. Mitul Patel, an orthopedic spine surgeon, about his experience at TriStar Summit Medical Center, and in honor of Father’s Day, what it is like to juggle the roles of both dad and surgeon. Get to know our newest FACE of TriStar!