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Entrepreneur Gives Lessons in American Food Habits

May 19, 1988|CATHERINE SEIPP | Catherine Seipp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. and

There was once a princess of Beverly Hills who was at her wits' end. She toiled not, nor did she spin, and she had a staff of live-in Spanish-speaking servants. So what was the problem? Well. . . .

There was the young houseman, for instance. "He brings back crummy fruit!" the princess complained. "I send him to the best places and he comes back with crummy fruit!" Bruised pears at $3 a pound may not be as aggravating as a pea under a pile of mattresses, but they're pretty close.

And then there was the cook whose specialties, as the princess put it, seemed to be "overcooked fish and dead veal."

Empty Calories

The princess also worried that her teen-age sons were in danger of starving on empty calories since the only snacks provided were the Cheez-Its, etc., that the houseman brought home from the market. He wasn't much older than a teen-ager himself, so this stuff looked pretty good to him.

This sad state of affairs might have continued indefinitely since the princess, her sons and their father spoke no Spanish, and so could not communicate their finer dietary needs.

Then, out of West Hills, came Robin Denker to the rescue.

Denker, who teaches cooking classes at Williams Sonoma in Woodland Hills and speaks fluent Spanish, began a business called Gourmaids just over a year ago. Its mission? To teach foreign-born servants how to cook to please American employers. So Denker walked the houseman through Gelson's for 1 1/2 hours. She showed the cook how to make nutritious "pizza bagels" for the sons to snack on. Then the cook and the houseman both got a diploma saying they'd learned how to do things the Gourmaids way. And everyone lived happily after.

The preceding story happens to be true. But Denker, a cheerful, heavyset woman ("You can tell how much I like to cook," she said with a laugh) emphasizes that most of her clients aren't quite so privileged. Rather, they're working couples with children who need help because they don't have time to do all the cooking themselves.

And they don't generally have a houseman to do the shopping. So when they hire Denker to come to their house and give their housekeeper a four-hour lesson, they have to make sure that groceries are supplied. A lesson costs $195 and includes a three-ring binder full of customized bilingual recipes.

Shopping Option

Denker will shop for the lesson's ingredients herself for an extra $50 an hour, but she doesn't like to. "I should charge extra for lugging," she said as she toted bags of food up the steps of a house in the Encino hills.

The door was opened by Sylvia, a bubbly 24-year-old from El Salvador. Her eyes shone when she saw Denker. "Oh, I really, really like cooking with her," said Sylvia, a live-in housekeeper for an attorney, his dance-teacher wife and their two small children.

Sylvia doesn't speak much English, so she puts a lot of feeling into the English words that she does know. "Yes, I really, really like cooking," she added warmly. "It's my favorite thing."

Sylvia had already taken Denker's elementary "Back to Basic" class, which covers such things as working the coffee machine and other American appliances, setting the table ("They often reverse the fork and knife," Denker explained), and making sure fruits and vegetables are thoroughly washed. Sylvia was on to "Kitchen Classics": barbecuing, dipping strawberries in chocolate and slicing kiwis into Chinese salad.

Denker looked worried as her student started peeling the kiwis with a huge carving knife. "Don't you want a smaller knife, Sylvia?" she cautioned. "I don't want your fingers in the salad."

Business Run from Home

Although Denker, 32, goes to the employer's house to teach, she runs her business from her home, where she lives with her husband, Neil, who works in the financial department of an entertainment company, and daughter Elissa, 2. She worked in marketing and as a department store buyer before she realized that she could combine her cooking skills and fluent Spanish (she also speaks Italian) to fill a gap in the market.

"I never used to look at it as a business. It was a hobby," she said of her cooking. "Our friends always said, 'Oh, invite Robin. She'll bring something wonderful.' "

Gourmaids has taught between 30 and 40 housekeepers and cooks how to cater to American tastes, from basic needs to detailed expectations. The most advanced class, "The Ultra Gourmaid," familiarizes the cook with such niceties as veal roast, goat cheese salad and balsamic vinegars.

Although each client gets a customized menu, certain rules crop up at each lesson. "Maybe the most difficult thing for them to understand is how we eat: an entree, a vegetable, the four basic food groups," Denker said of the servants she teaches. "Many people from poor countries make one big thing--a chicken stew, for instance. We like to have a salad and eat it first. We eat lots of desserts."

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