Veteran Atlanta cook dishes out lessons
By Paul F. P. Pogue
Phil Hulst says he's nurtured a lifelong interest in cooking. He's learned gourmet tips here and there, including a weeklong class from Julia Child.
But recently, to polish his home-cooking skills, he returned to a teacher he worked with nearly a decade ago: Ursula Knaeusel.
"Sometimes the chef approach gets beyond the capability of an average person," Hulst says. "Ursula's recipes are very practical and doable, the sort of thing the average person could do and enjoy."
Knaeusel learned to cook under hectic conditions at an early age. She was taught by her grandmother, who cooked five meals a day for the family.
After Knaeusel escaped from East Germany in 1952, she studied and taught all over the world, including many Central and South American countries, before starting Ursula's Cooking School in Atlanta in 1971.
Since then, she says more than 300,000 students have taken her classes, including former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, and many more learned her techniques via her PBS series, "Cooking With Ursula," which aired nationwide in the 1990s.
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She continues to teach hundreds of students a year, who pay $110 (including food costs) for a four-session semester.
She likes to focus on practical elements that can go right home to the kitchen. Call it simple, call it elegant; just don't call it gourmet.
"Gourmet! I hate that word," she says. "They use it for so many things. You can make a bread and butter sandwich and call it gourmet."
Instead, she focuses on working with whatever is available in the home. "My classes are for hobby cooks, housewives, or anyone who's not professional in the business," Knaeusel says.
"I do have chefs and caterers coming because they've heard I make it quick, easy and elegant. I'll start with a can of cheese soup and keep adding ingredients until you'd never know it was cheese soup."
Hulst, who once ran a small catering business, agrees. "She combines off-the-shelf items with homemade ingredients," he says.
Knaeusel's longest-serving student is Debby Overstreet, who has been attending classes since 1974. "I'm afraid if I stop, I'll miss a great recipe or really good tip," Overstreet says.
"It's been very useful for my own cooking and entertaining. At Thanksgiving, my family will ask, 'What are you bringing from Ursula this time?'"
Anis Shaw took Knaeusel's class for the first time in 2009, and plans to return this year. "Everything she does is something you could do in your own kitchen," she says. "You can cook healthier if you do your own cooking."
Cooking schools such as Knaeusel's fill an increasingly important role in America's eating habits. According to the most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average family of five spends about $144 per week on eating at home, and about $104 a week on eating out.
"Life is rush, rush, rush," Knaeusel says. "If people have to make dinner complicated, it can be a disaster. I try to make cooking as easy as possible."