It’s 10.30am on Friday, and eight wannabe home chefs, whose culinary hankerings have been roused to give group cookery lessons a try, are sitting front row in Cepta Mahon’s gorgeous Cookalicious kitchen in Oranmore.
Their timing – vital for cooking, it is said – is perfect.
“We all need authentic connections in a digital age,” says Cepta. The Galway foodie’s vision is more than simply running a cookery class; it is about bringing people together to eat, laugh and learn – it is a multi-sensory experience.
They all know the drill: Apron, chopping board, knife. But instead of the all-too-familiar moment of putting off dinner preparations for as long as possible, this is different. There’s a fire in the belly. Cepta’s drive to inspire is palpable and contagious.
Within minutes, onions are sautéing, spices are mixing in layers of yumminess and chillies are being chopped with concentration – and obvious enjoyment. Sausages sizzle, marinated chicken thighs roast, and delicious smells waft around. This kitchen is no longer a foreign territory.
Cepta Mahon is hosting one of her weekly group Cookalicious experiences, bespoke cookery lessons that aim to be creative, fun and flavourful, yet simple enough so that you can learn to recreate the recipes at home.
“There’s only one definitive way to improve your culinary skills: get cooking,” according to Cepta, who reveals that she only feels fully dressed when she is wearing her apron.
“Every confident cook built their home-cooking repertoire on the back of many culinary disasters,” she adds.
Cookalicious is about encouraging and inspiring people to cook and eat real food.
“I use fresh, local ingredients and love sharing with clients the know-how to prepare simple, nourishing and delicious meals for families and friends,” says the food innovator, who also has a keen interest in nutrition as well as being a busy mum-of-three.
“What and how we eat is so vital to our well-being,” she stresses, as she chops a butternut squash, scoops out the seeds, and slices it into bite-sized symmetrical wedges. She doesn’t peel it because of the vitamins in the skin.
“There is no object you’ll ever own that is anything like your kitchen knife,” she quips, while skilfully demonstrating the importance of developing good technique.
For some individuals, memories of their own mother’s unflappable tranquillity in the kitchen have led them to Cepta’s kitchen. Mothers always made it look so easy. Inhaling deeply, they reminisce while fried onions crackle away on a hot pan with Cepta moving them back and forth – this is easily one of the top ten food aromas.
Others have come here because their tempers, along with their saucepans, boil over at home when, for the umpteenth time, they’ve realised that their best effort will simply result in a simmering plateful of boredom – and that’s after hours of drudgery.
“Not everybody has those family heirloom recipes or cookbooks marked up with tried-and-tested adjustments,” she remarks as the cooking timer beeps to signal something delicious is ready.
Cepta welcomes everybody to her classes – inexperience is no barrier.
“You can come solo, as a couple, with a friend or a group. I will take you step-by-step through the recipes, refining your techniques, and unlocking the secrets of the food you want to cook.”
After a master class of chopping, mixing, and measuring, the eight wannabe home chefs tuck into the completed meals: honey and ginger chicken; sausage and lentil bake and Spanish paella – all created in just two hours. There’s lots of storytelling, laughter, and the camaraderie that only the breaking of bread can bring.
“It always makes me glow when I watch clients walk away with a full belly, a head full of culinary secrets, more than a few laughs had, and importantly well-earned kitchen confidence,” says Cepta.
The Oranmore-based entrepreneur is more than tuned into the appetite and need for cookery experiences in the Galway region, having designed and delivered numerous classes and courses for Galway Community College, Connacht Rugby, Early School Leavers Programmes and supper clubs for family and friends.
But before Cookalicious and before children, Cepta was a Business Studies graduate who worked in finance.
“I was good at my job, but I had no grá for it,” she recalls. “So, when I had my children, I took some time out and decided to try to carve out something new for me, something that I was good at, something that I was passionate about.”
For the keen home cook, the inspiration came from lavish compliments about food she had made. Appealingly, for the passionate foodie, the admirer always went on to say, ‘you should be doing it for a living’.
“The seed was sown, and while they went back to their job, I was left with lingering thoughts about my passion morphing into a dream career that I could build around my family,” she recalls.
“I did my research, while continuously testing the viability of my idea on family and friends – but the bravest and the best decision I made was enrolling on last year’s EMPOWER Start Programme in GMIT’s iHub,” she says, referring to the innovation hub run by the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology.
Under the guidance of EMPOWER Manager, Maria Staunton, Cepta learned other skills, such as how to market her idea and the importance of social media. She also had to pitch her business idea in a Dragon’s Den format at the end of the EMPOWER programme. Cookalicious emerged a winner at that event.
“The programme developed my confidence as well as a good support network,” says Cepta. “I can’t compliment GMIT enough for taking the initiative to develop a programme that encourages, nurtures and supports female entrepreneurship in the region.”
Although Cepta’s passion is inspiring, her knowledge and understanding of her clients’ needs is just as important. “Perfectly planned menus are one thing, but to a home cook in need of some inspiration and confidence, showing that you care is essential,” she says.
Cepta admits to a little smile each time that she spots that satisfying moment when her clients realise that a few simple principles underpin what seems an impossibly complicated discipline.
“It’s a sudden and exhilarating rush of clarity,” she says. “For starters, the secret to great cooking isn’t all about the recipe; it’s also about the techniques. You’ll learn lots of chef short-cuts to make your experience in your home kitchen, easier and more successful.”
Cookalicious classes are all about simple recipes and she never takes it for granted that people have expertise.
Cepta also stresses that dishes people learn to make in class can be adapted with a few easy tweaks, using store cupboard staples. That means, by learning one option, you can add a range of recipes to your repertoire.
“I always try to give an insight into the thinking behind each dish,” she says enthusiastically. “Once you can understand the basic principles that make a dish work, you’ll have the confidence and know-how to experiment on your own.”
Running classes, especially for adults, requires a certain skills set and Cepta, who is always head chef in her Cookalicious kitchen, says that for larger groups, it’s best to establish some hierarchy.
“The kitchen is not a democracy.”
Democracy or not, group cooking classes with Cookalicious are informative and lots of fun as Cepta guides people through creating yummy, imaginative food.
* Interview took place just ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020.