The treasures locked up in a former Pike County, Pa. bank aren’t made of gold and silver, but rather fine ingredients and edible concoctions. It’s Torte Knox, a recreational cooking school in historic Hawley.
Ten years ago Philadelphia native and former performer, TV chef/host Sheelah Kaye-Stepkin moved into the former Hawley National Bank about ten years ago. For seven years, the spunky woman with a flair for food called the bank’s conference room home, while she remodeled her cooking school. In 2003, the dream she had been banking on came to be.
Torte Knox has been widely acclaimed by culinary connoisseurs across the nation, and its historic location has also attracted attention from the media. Torte Knox was featured in countless cooking magazines and network and cable television programs including Bon Appetite, Philadelphia Bride, The New York Times, Country Living, USA Today, CNN, HGTV, the Food Network, Al Roker on the Road and more.
A clip from Roker’s visit is available on the Torte Knox website. On his visit, her class members used words like “inspiring” and “magical” to describe Kaye-Stepkin. The clip shared her making “Ladies of Pear-fection” where pears simmered in cranberry and cinnamon were given edible decorations, making up a face and southern-style hat. She finished them off by spritzing them with flavoring– from antique perfume bottles.
Kaye-Stepkin has also befriended arguably the most powerful woman in America, Oprah. While she hasn’t cooked for the superstar, she has done some design work at her California home. Aside from her cooking, her headquarters’ design has also attracted some attention.
“(The building) was keystoned in 1902. It’s never been anything but a bank,” she said. This attracted the attention of the DIY Network, which followed a bit of the restoring of the property.
“It was in the process of building a dream,” she gleamed.
Torte Knox has a kitchen studio, cookbook library, a baking studio with a sugar artistry arena and a dining and tasting room inside the bank’s old vault. The century-old building’s kitchen has a bit of nostalgia: Torte Knox ingredients are cooked and stored in retro equipment.
“We have retro stoves, refrigerators, quite a few appliances and we put it all back in service,” she says.
Her impressive retro collection includes pre-Civil War appliances, like a biscuit pricker and a “newer” items like a 20s Frigidaire from a brothel in Texas, complete with a bullet hole. Her impressive collection of functioning antiques was featured on the Food Network’s Unwrapped-and that clip is also available on her website.
Why these, rather than shiny, new appliances? Kaye-Stepkin has one answer: “Because it has heart.”
Torte Knox offers a variety of classes for those looking to improve their kitchen quotient or for people looking for something fun to partake in. Hands-on classes run from Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve, so her 2007 schedule will be available very soon. Classes include baking, regional cooking, ethnic cooking, special occasion dishes, cake decorating, sugar artistry, knife using, gadgets and more.
When asked if she also taught private classes, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness! We do those all the time!”
She explained that she had a group of girlfriends from Philadelphia that come each year, but last year they brought along an extra pal and this year, there are ten of them. Kaye-Stepkin adds that people looking for private lessons can choose from available course, or let her know what they would like to learn to do.
Her most popular class is Under the Tuscan Sun.
“It’s an evening where we recreate the dishes of Tuscany,” she said, adding that everything they cook, they eat.
In addition to her wearing the teacher’s hat, Kaye-Stepkin also enlists guest chefs to turn amateurs into mean cooking and baking machines.
“We have guest chefs from all over the country, even as far as California to do master classes for a week,” she said adding that local chefs’ talents are also tapped at Torte Knox.
There can be too many cooks in the kitchen. Class size is limited, as Kaye-Stepkin says the ideal class is under ten students.
To get a taste of Kaye-Stepkins’s food flair, one does not have to take a class. Torte Knox is open year-round for lunch and dinner (during off season, they are only open Thursday-Sunday).
“We offer theater-on-a-plate, which is a five-course tasting menu. And we have a bistro menu in the afternoon,” she said. They also offer a Sunday brunch.
The theater special is something reminiscent of her past as a performer, but also a tribute to Torte Knox’s neighbor.
” We are right next to the Ritz Theater. Retired from show biz, it was lovely karma,” she quipped.
With so much talent, what could this culinary artist possibly call her favorite food?
“Oh honey, I’m a Southerner. There’s nothing I love more than fryin’ up a big mess of friend chicken!”
And her favorite thing to teach?
“I love to teach enthusiasm about cooking! Our mission is: we’re about creating food and memory-making moments.”