Building Community Over Cauliflower at Dornsife’s Cooking Workshops

Chef Brian Lofink serves up an Asian-inspired menu at a recent cooking workshop.

Chef Brian Lofink dishes up an Asian-inspired menu at a recent cooking workshop at the Dornsife Center.

When Brian Lofink’s cooking workshops at the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships began early last year, his students were mostly in the building for other classes and happened past, beckoned by the scents and sounds of the kitchen. Twelve months on, his weekly demonstrations, which dip into healthy regional cuisines, cooking creatively for one person and suggestions for working parents, have attracted a consistent following.

Lofink, who received a culinary arts degree from Drexel in 2003 and is executive chef at Graduate Hospital’s Sidecar Bar & Grille, has developed a comfortable rapport with the eager eaters who show up to his Tuesday workshops, which rotate between lunchtime and early evening. At a recent lesson on cooking for one or two people, he ably fielded questions — and jokes — from the crowd of a dozen senior citizens packed into his cozy classroom. As he worked through a three-course menu featuring an Asian slaw, soy-and-chili roasted chicken and cauliflower “fried rice,” he gave his guests all the wisdom they would need to cook the meal on their own.

The sense of community Lofink gets from the workshops and the Dornsife Center’s monthly dinners, which he also runs, is what keeps him coming back. He revels in interactions like the lengthy discussion he and a few of the seniors had on that recent Tuesday about the ideal variety of salt to use. He’s ready and willing to go in-depth on how to substitute ingredients to fit any diet and the relative merits of local grocery stores. It’s all part of his approach — using food to break down barriers and build up relationships.

“Food is the center of this place,” Lofink said, gesturing to the Dornsife Center around him. “People can agree on food. People can let stuff go and just focus on what tastes good and what makes them feel good.”

The cooking workshops, which are free and open to members of the Drexel and West Philadelphia communities, began last January after the Dornsife Center received a one-year grant from pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Lofink had been teaching as an adjunct professor in the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management and he jumped at the chance to take on a community-focused role. In an area where bodegas and pizza shops are within arm’s reach for most residents, he saw a chance to educate his students on the benefits of healthy food and the best ways to adjust their habits.

“What we’re trying to do in these classes is present food menus and recipes that are easy for people to prepare at home, something that’s cost-effective, and recipes where everything is interchangeable,” said Lofink.

Health and wellness, along with family programming, are core tenets of the Dornsife Center, said Cicely Peterson-Mangum, the center’s executive director. The workshops are an important part of the center’s mission to build community, and given food’s ability to serve as a great equalizer of sorts, it’s a natural fit. Lofink’s relationship with the people who attend his courses “is genuine, it’s authentic,” Peterson-Mangum said.

“He’s a Drexel graduate and he’s a chef at a popular restaurant here, so he brings a familiarity with the University, with the neighborhood and the communities around the University,” she said. “He brings a certain love that an alumnus would bring — to come back and bring the skills he learned as a student.”

Peterson-Mangum said Lofink’s commitment to the community is evident. He regularly stays after class talking with his students and puts in the effort to cook seasonal foods that reflect a better way to eat. And with the grant expected to be renewed for another year, the workshops should continue on past those already scheduled for February and March.

Lofink is happy to be a part of it all and he’s looking forward to another year of workshops.

“The Dornsife Center is here to help people and bring people together,” said Lofink, “and this is a big part.”

Lofink’s next workshop, on healthy German cuisine, is Jan. 31 from 5:30 to 7, and future lessons will be announced soon.