Altadena’s Institute of Domestic Technology offers classes on DIY foodcrafting skills that help make a house a home.
By Bettijane Levine 11/01/2013
Spend a day at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Altadena and you may never look at food or supermarkets the same way again. In fact, you may view with disdain the endless aisles and superfluous selections of processed, chemical-infused products that taste nothing like the food you made so easily — from scratch — in the institute’s kitchen.
Life, or one’s outlook on it, really can change radically after just one class — from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., lunch included — called Foodcrafting 101. For someone who doesn’t cook, spends too much on restaurant take-out and uses Whole Foods’ kitchen as her personal chef, this class was transformational. In one day, using no artificial anything, I made bread dough, jam from fresh strawberries and rhubarb, ricotta cheese from cream-topped milk and mustard from an assortment of condiments added to mustard seeds, guided by experts in the physics and flavors of preparing pure, delicious homemade eats. But enough about me.
The institute opened in 2011, the brainchild of Joseph Shuldiner, who, in his former life, was a gallery owner, artist and graphic designer. He says he reinvented himself after the economy tanked and decided to pursue his lifelong passion for quality food made from healthy ingredients. “I envisioned a foodcrafting academy, a kind of modern home-ec university, for men and women who want to know about ingredients and how things are made.”
Shuldiner, who owns a mountain cabin in Altadena, struck up a friendship with Steve Rudicel when they were both on a local food coop board. Rudicel owns the historic Zane Grey mansion, where he and his physicist fiancée, Gloria Putnam, were raising goats and chickens and making their own milk and cheese in a cozy, high-tech freestanding kitchen. It was a match made in heaven, says Shuldiner. “We were kindred spirits. We wanted to start something about food and community and Altadena.”
Their first experiment, in 2011, was a guerrilla farmers’ market in the mansion’s front yard. “It was Gloria’s idea,” Shuldiner says. “She sent out Facebook invites to neighbors, saying if you’re raising chickens, [growing] veggies or fruit, making pies or cakes, come by and you can swap or sell or whatever.” She was flooded with responses. “We had no idea so many neighbors were growing their own food and raising animals. The guy across from Steve and Gloria had 100 chickens and they never even knew it,” continues Shuldiner, who led the urban market’s programming, educational events and cooking demonstrations.
Within six months, he says, more than 1,000 people were showing up, and the market became too big to handle on the property. It closed, but L.A. County honchos who oversee Altadena had heard about Shuldiner’s programming prowess and asked him to organize and manage a certified Altadena farmers’ market in lower Loma Alta Park. It’s open Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m., and that’s just one of Shuldiner’s burgeoning list of projects. He recently wrote a cookbook, Pure Vegan: 70 Recipes for Beautiful Meals and Clean Living (Chronicle Books), and has a new one due out soon, based on courses at the institute. He also consults on ways to reinvigorate L.A.’s historic downtown Grand Central Market.
But the institute he founded and directs is still his major project, with classes of 20 filled up almost as soon as they’re listed. Students of all ages — men and women — arrive from around California, even from out of state. There are lots of other cooking classes available, Shuldiner says, but he’s aware of none that focus on ingredients and how they interrelate.
The institute offers courses in everything from bacon curing and coffee roasting to pickling and cocktail crafting (how to make bitters, liqueur infusions and more), not to mention basics like universal pie crusts, bread “camp” and cheese-making (called “milkcrafting,” it’s where you can learn to make simple aged cheddars, aged gouda and mozzarella).
On a recent Saturday, which started with homemade scones, coffee and a visit with the Rudicel goats, there wasn’t a seat to spare. Some were novices, others were experienced home bakers and cooks. Student LaShawn Brinson of Long Beach is chair of child development at Los Angeles Southwest College. “A friend took the 101 course and she’s been sharing her homemade bread, cheese and jam with me,” Brison said. “Her excitement rubbed off. I wanted to learn to make all that myself.” Vicki Karlan of Mar Vista, a healthcare outcome researcher, said she’d read about the course online, and law firm librarian Jennifer Friedman of Glendale had read about it in Martha Stewart Living magazine. Stacy and Jeff Weiss were one of several husband-and-wife teams taking the course. Both Jet Propulsion Lab engineers, the Weisses live on the arroyo in nearby Linda Vista, where they nurture an herb garden and grow their own tomatoes.
The school’s rotating staff of instructors consists of enthusiastic experts in various foodcrafting specialties who live the life they teach about. They bake, brew and craft on a daily basis in their own homes, Shuldiner says. Many have started their own culinary businesses, selling their wares at the Altadena Farmers’ Market and beyond. All have advanced education in food safety issues and regulations — and great personalities to boot. Instructors include Daniel Kent, co-owner of Altadena’s Plow & Gun artisanal coffee company (he teaches how to sort green coffee beans and roast them on a stovetop popcorn-maker that simulates a commercial roaster); Rudicel and Putnam, the institute’s “deans of dairy,” co-owners of Mariposa Creamery in Altadena and certified Master Food Preservers (Rudicel is also a chef, co-owner of The Press Restaurant in Claremont and an interdisciplinary professor at Cal Poly Pomona); jam expert Kevin West, a former Paris correspondent for W magazine, author of the recently released Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving (Knopf), a budding jam company entrepreneur and a co-consultant, with Shuldiner, on reinventing Grand Central Market; Erik Knutzen, co-author with his wife, Kelly Coyne, of The Urban Homestead (Process; 2010) and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World (Rodale; 2011). (Read the Knutzens’ blog, rootsimple.com, for some poignant insights on how to live a more self-reliant, green urban life.) And of course, there’s Shuldiner, the institute’s director and a certified Master Food Preserver.
What started as a local experiment seems to be having some national impact. As the country reinvents itself, there’s growing awareness that we can also reinvent how we shop and eat. And if enough people, of all economic brackets, could learn the home-ec basics that the institute teaches, it might eventually mean a huge shift in what millions buy and how they prepare it. Right now, the institute is just a tiny blip on the trendier side of the national foodie radar, as it garners adulation from upscale food blogs and magazines. But if Bon Appétit is right, the institute and little Altadena are poised to become “the next big locavore destination.”
Visit instituteofdomestictechnology.com for class schedules and paid enrollment.