Kaelin Whittaker grew up in the kind of family that prioritized cooking from scratch. Some of the ingredients came from the backyard garden, some from U-pick farms and farmers’ markets. Her mother did the bulk of the cooking — roast beef or chicken or pork, baked macaroni and cheese, spaghetti — but, as Whittaker grew up, she started spending more time in the kitchen, cooking with her mom and learning to bake from an elderly neighbour.
The family sat down for dinner together and bonded over meals. When Whittaker started her own cooking school and meals-to-go business in 2015, one of her taglines was “inspiring people to slow down and sit down to enjoy a meal together around the table.”
Now the owner of Awn Kitchen, she’s never strayed from that philosophy — though COVID-19 certainly tested it, and it wasn’t just because she could no longer have people in her house for cooking classes and meals.
The pandemic nearly derailed her plans to move her business, then known as The Ruby Apron, out of her home and into her dream location in a Lansdowne strip mall. The space came available at the end of 2019. Whittaker was a week away from signing a lease when Alberta shut down in March 2020.
“It could have been the end of my business,” she says, noting that she’d collected $35,000 in tuition fees from students who had booked classes through the end of June. “Most people, thankfully, took credits, but it’s money that you’re out in the future. I’m still bouncing back from that. I really didn’t know if my business would survive, let alone expand.”
The business has both survived and expanded, in large part due to word of mouth about Whittaker, a terrific, inspired teacher whose passion for simple food cooked with local ingredients is infectious in a healthy, non-COVID way.
Much of that passion was nursed at home by her mother, with whom she used to travel the world taking cooking classes. But, in January 2015, Whittaker ventured out on her own, for a three-month cooking course at the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School near Cork, Ireland.
She chose Ballymaloe partly because she didn’t want to change careers; she just wanted a chance to exercise her passion for cooking. The school’s location — on an organic farm — appealed to her. It meant she’d learn as much about technique as about the ingredients she’d be using.
The story behind the food is important to Whittaker: She’s the kind of person who reads everything on a food blog before jumping to the recipe. A cooking school on a farm that grew produce and raised chickens, pigs, and beef and dairy cattle was her idea of perfection.
After the course ended, Whittaker returned to her job in sales at Birkholz Homes. She jokes that she ran out of the house for work every day covered in flour and clutching a stack of cookbooks.
Ballymaloe had changed her: All she wanted was to cook, develop and perfect recipes, and share what she had learned. She began teaching cooking classes out of her home under the moniker The Ruby Apron, eventually quitting the Birkholz job to devote full time to her new business. Word spread, and her classes began selling out.
Upon opening in Lansdowne, Whittaker rebranded as Awn Kitchen. Awn is a botany term for part of a grain — Whittaker chose the name to honour one of Alberta’s premier crops. It’s further evidence of her commitment to championing locally sourced ingredients. To that end, she’s gotten involved in Organic Alberta and continues to build relationships with producers in the province.
In addition to home-baked goods (and, come this fall, meals to go), the cafe at the front of Awn sells locally produced retail items including flour, canola oil and granola. When you take an Awn class, whether it’s sourdough bread baking, cinnamon rolls, ice cream, homemade pasta, or Middle Eastern food, Whittaker will tell you the provenance of every ingredient. Those that don’t come from Alberta generally come from British Columbia or Saskatchewan.
The classes are held behind the cafe in a kitchen Whittaker designed so it would look more like a home than an industrial cooking space. That’s a carryover from when she actually had a home-based business.
“I think people loved that it was in my home,” she says. “They felt it was attainable. Everything I was cooking was attainable. You were learning to make bread in an oven like the one in your house, with ingredients that are easy to access.
“I’m not teaching people to make fancy food,” she adds. “I’m teaching them to make everyday food.”
Whittaker limits the classes to eight people. That’s how many can work comfortably in the kitchen and sit down around the table after to enjoy the fruits of their labor — just like her family did when she was growing up.
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This article appears in the September 2022 issue of Edify