COVID-19 crushed this woman's cookery school dreams. Now she teaches worldwide from Tors Cove
Alex Blagdon's virtual classroom has replaced her dream of opening an in-person school
The Zoom started off with, well, Alex Blagdon zooming around the kitchen.
The 25-year-old chef/teacher/forager/spin instructor was in the middle of tweaking a honey cruller recipe for an upcoming cooking class in her St. John's kitchen.
COVID-19 restrictions put a major damper in her original dream for the Alder Cottage, which was supposed to open as an experiential, brick-and-mortar dining destination in Tors Cove.
Instead, Blagdon now runs an online cookery school.
From eight-week pasta courses, where students learn the fundamentals of rolling out linguine and folding agnolotti, to one-night-only poke bowl and French risotto supper clubs, Blagdon's virtual classes sell out on the regular.
We chatted online from the comfort of our own kitchens to learn all about how Blagdon became a cookery school connoisseur.
The early stages
Blagdon says she feels like she's been cooking as long as she can remember, but her culinary career really took off in her backyard in Flat Rock.
"I say that it was when I was seven or eight years old and I made an omelette for the first time, but even before then, I was the kid outside making swamp soup when I was five years old," she says.
By high school, the young chef had established her first culinary gig.
"I started doing bake sales to pay my cellphone bills when I was in Grade 10," Blagdon explains. "I was like, 'Oh, I've got a bill to pay, I'll just go and make some cookies and bring them on the road and do travelling bake sales.'"
After high school, she spent one semester at Memorial University before officially embarking on a culinary path. She spent a few months at the Reluctant Chef on Duckworth Street under the mentorship of chef Mike Boyd (now the chef-owner of Mickey's Sandwich Co. on Water Street) before heading off to Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland.
The three-month intensive course on a 100-acre farm covered everything from milking cows to making cheese, in addition to menu costing, food safety and classic French cuisine.
Blagdon returned to St. John's for a job as a cook at the Reluctant Chef. But the more recent stages of her career are literally filled with stages — the French term for spending time in kitchens, otherwise known as a stagiaire. That's where eager pupils spend time in restaurants to learn the ropes. Most of the time, these trial-by-fire work experiences are unpaid.
At 19, Blagdon was off to Europe again, this time to the Villa Bordoni, a five-star boutique hotel in the mountains of Chianti. For six months she cut her butchery teeth on Florentine steaks and learned pasta-making from the all-Italian staff.
The subsequent years were filled with hops back and forth across the pond, while Blagdon offered catering and private dinners in St. John's under the Oui Chef business name, in addition to leading foraging tours with her cousin Lori McCarthy at Cod Sounds.
In 2016, she spent a ski season in the French Alps as a private chef at the Morgan Jupe chalets.
"Each villa had a chef, a server and a driver and I would cook for a different family every single week," says Blagdon.
Having the freedom to create breakfasts, afternoon teas and five-course tasting menus daily helped her make use of the local markets and expand her chops.
Following more travel and a brief stint as a private chef in Croatia, Blagdon returned to Newfoundland in 2017 to work at the Merchant Tavern, where she spent six months, and then headed off on a cross-Canadian backpacking trip, staging at a few Okanagan restaurants along the way.
She came back to work at the Merchant and became the sous chef in 2018, under head chef Jeremy Shaw — who later became her partner in life as well as the kitchen — until 2019, when she started working for herself full time.
A necessary pivot leads to surprising success
Then came the Alder Cottage dream. Blagdon didn't want to pigeonhole herself into restaurants. She wanted to expand her horizons past the kitchen and foraging with Cod Sounds, and so opened an experiential getaway.
Goodbye, Oui Chef. Hello, the Alder Cottage.
Blagdon rebranded her career, bought an old cabin in Tors Cove (which belonged to Shaw's grandfather and was built in the 1970s), wrote up a 30-page business plan and even travelled to New Zealand to gather more knowledge of the experiential tourism trade.
We all know what happens next, don't we? COVID-19 crushed the entire industry.
"As I started doing the online cookery school, I think I took a day — a day to wallow and be like, 'this sucks,'" recalls Bladgon.
"Then I wrote the online cookbook and launched the cooking classes in about two weeks."
The learning curve for online teaching was steep. Everything from automated emails to how students would pay for classes had to be figured out. She wrestled with the lighting in her kitchen and home Internet speeds. At first, the classes were rudimentary.
"My laptop was on top of a flour bin angled down to show my hands and I'd be like, 'Can everybody see me?'" laughs Blagdon.
She streamed one live class on Facebook and decided to never do it again. After months of troubleshooting eight different avenues, she figured out a workable layout and streaming options. Now Bladgon can offer on-demand, pre-taped classes or go live if she's doing a group class.
Leading up to the summer of 2020, there were about 50 people in a class. Now about 200 students tune in every week. And these people aren't just from Newfoundland; pupils are donning their aprons and launching Zoom all across Canada, the United States, Europe and even the Cayman Islands.
"I had a group of friends the other day with one person in London, one person in Ontario and one person in Halifax," says Blagdon. "They heard about me out for a walk; someone down the street was talking about my classes. They had no connection to Newfoundland.
"It really took off during COVID. All of my business before this was in-person experiences — everything was in person. Then COVID hit and I took everything online, and I don't think I'm going to stop it, actually. I'm going to stay online, hopefully forever."
While the pandemic forced Blagdon to pivot, she's found her stride in teaching online and has completely shifted how she teaches, and why.
"The fact that I can have clients that work physically with me but that they can be anywhere in the world is something I really enjoy," explains Blagdon.
She has realized that many guests at her in-person classes were too nervous to actually learn anything, and didn't take the skills home with them. Now from the comfort of their own kitchens, the Alder Cottage's students are set up for success with skills Bladgon hopes will translate into daily life.
"As much as I love catering and I love cooking for people, I love the idea of people being able to provide those flavours for themselves," she tells me.
Online and upwards
What lies ahead for the Alder Cottage? Blagdon's dream has now morphed. Realizing she doesn't have to stay in Newfoundland, once COVID restrictions have lessened, she hopes to travel and film classes in different locations.
The next cooking class series? Maybe she's teaching Vietnamese cooking classes to Newfoundlanders from a kitchen in Hanoi.
Tors Cove will also soon be the home of the Alder Cottage studio — for online video-making. She's ripped the cabin down to the studs, plotting for a professional studio kitchen with proper lighting, a nice big island with a stove, and overhead mirrors so students can see what Blagdon's doing with her hands. No more tilted laptop.
Zoom on, Alex.