From his kitchen at home in Ecuador, Mark Hunter Guzman (GRD ’21) peeled a green plantain for his Zoom audience so they could mimic his preparation of bolón de verde: a dish of mashed green plantain and cheese balls.
The Sept. 27 demo was part of the unofficial club The Cooking Spotlight, a new initiative started by Georgetown University students in the School of Continuing Studies to exchange recipes and cooking tutorials that celebrate their different cultures. Each of The Cooking Spotlight’s biweekly events features a student cook — by hobby, not profession — sharing step-by-step, hands-on instructions for a recipe celebrating their cultural cuisine since most of the members are international students.
Despite distance and time zones, The Cooking Spotlight has seen its virtual community become close-knit this semester, with sustained enthusiasm and participation by members. While gathering around a Leo J. O’Donovan Dining Hall table is impossible now, these Georgetown students have made the globe their dining hall.
Making Up for Lost Time
While Hunter finished peeling the green plantain for The Cooking Spotlight, he advised the participants that putting the plantain in the fridge the night before is a bad idea; it makes peeling harder. The peel, similar to the skin of a banana, loosens when the plantain is ripe. For a green plantain, the skin is tight around the flesh.
After moving the second camera pointed at the cutting board to above the stove, he showed how much oil to put in the frying pan and how to slowly immerse the quarters of the plantain in the oil one by one, careful not to splash hot oil and get burned. He put a fork through one of the pieces, picked it up from the pan and showed a close-up of it to bring attention to a little bit of brown color from frying. Satisfied, Hunter moved onto the next step.
Silvia Bianchin (GRD ’21) started The Cooking Spotlight in March with Carlotta Bartolini (GRD ’20), Hunter and a few other graduate students who were classmates in the SCS. Realizing the cultural diversity of their friend group as students originally from all around the world, they made plans to gather some recipes from their homes and cook together.
The timing of their project was unfortunate; their in-person plans never materialized, and some of the international students in the club left after being unable to return to campus. Hardly deterred, however, the group of founding students originally met up online every week to see their plan through, beginning with a tiramisu by Bianchin.
“I first started it, then other people jumped in. Mark shared the ceviche, which is one of my favorites, so I’m glad he did. Then we had some friends from India share,” Bianchin said in an interview with The Hoya.
“The cool part is we have such a diverse group. We have people from India, from Peru, Thailand, Colombia. So it’s very nice, this diversity, from the cooking perspective, and how you can create community,” Bianchin said.
The group’s founders have persevered and been consistently engaging with their members as the recipe demonstrations now continue every other weekend, with students joining the Zoom cooking classes from their home countries.
“Nina is our friend from Thailand, and she was up very late at night to join us because there’s something like 12 hours difference or 11, something like that. So she showed up sometimes and we were like, ‘What time is it there?’ And she was like, ‘1 a.m.!’” Bianchin said.
Even some of Bianchin’s friends from Italy have joined in on the Zoom calls out of curiosity.
Creating Cultural Connections
Sharing a dish from one’s home country and cooking it in front of everyone provides students with a chance to improve their cooking skills and to experience the spotlight. Everyone who wants to share their culture and cooking traditions will have the chance, according to Bianchin.
As Hunter mixed the mashed plantain with cheese and butter, Bartolini, who is originally from Italy, shared her insight about an average person’s perception of Italian cuisine. A common misconception about Italian cuisine is the assumption that alfredo sauce is as widespread and popular as it is in the United States, according to Bartolini.
“[Bianchin and I] always get asked about Alfredo sauce,” Bartolini said in an interview with The Hoya. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know what they told you. There’s no Alfredo sauce.”
Educating others about her home country’s cuisine is half the fun, and the other half is learning about other countries’ cuisines from the cooking demonstrations and accompanying informational powerpoints, according to Bianchin.
“How recipes are interpreted by different cultures is very cool,” Bianchin said. “I’ve never had plantain mash. I think I had plantain chips once.”
Participation in The Cooking Spotlight as an amateur but invested and enthusiastic chef is also a chance to feel more connected with one’s own culture, according to Bianchin. Despite Hunter’s confident demonstration, he does not consider himself to be much of a cook at all.
“It’s a chance to rediscover your origins somehow. I like that Mark was like, ‘Hey, I’ve never really cooked that often before,’ but then he put himself in the spotlight,” Bianchin said. “That’s why we call it Cooking Spotlight. It’s like, ‘Okay guys, I’m going to share something. I’m going to learn, rediscover and I’m going to share.”
While waiting for two attendees to finish balling up their mashed plantain mixed with butter and cheese, Bartolini announced the next two events, which are circulated by the SCS through a newsletter with sign-up links, but all, including undergraduates, are welcome.
On Oct. 11, Bianchin will be the host and cook for “Risotto from Italy!,” followed by Bartolini’s “Lasagna from Italy!” on Oct. 24.
While The Cooking Spotlight is not a recognized student club yet, the founding members hope to move it toward becoming an official club and to reach the broader Georgetown community.
“It’s great to learn not only recipes but more about a different country and meet other Hoyas. And not only those who have an interest in cooking really benefit from this,” Bianchin said. “We’re trying to build it up and expand it.”
“It started as SCS. We would like to expand it to all the Georgetown community and eventually even more communities because we realize that it’s even a good way to connect foreign students with American students,” Bartolini said.
The connections club members make — as collaborators, friends and even professional resources to each other — make The Cooking Spotlight all the more special.
“It’s also a good way to network. Because especially in D.C., you have a lot of people going ‘Hey what’s your job, hey what’s your job, hey what’s your job?’” Bartolini said. “Because you need someone, maybe you need help, and this is a different way where maybe you can still network and someone can still help you with a job while we all share our traditions, and you also learn something new.”
Though small for now, The Cooking Spotlight’s members’ aspirations are much larger, including eventually turning their passionate venture into a nonprofit to provide resources, funds and scholarships to international students.
“That’s going to be much down the road,” Bianchin said. “But that’s the big goal.”