Cook & Meet

Learn to cook like an Italian and meet international friends in a relaxed atmosphere

As the saying goes, “you can take the man out of Italy, but you can’t take the Italian out of the man.” Daniele Toniolo, a native-born Italian from the Piedmont region, is an avid international traveler who has made Prague his home for the past 10 years. Despite acquiring a penchant for Czech beer, he is still very much Italian at heart, or at least as far as his food preferences go.

After living and working as a manager in Prague’s corporate scene for several years, Daniele decided to reinvent his career about three years ago. His decision led to the simultaneous birth of two different, but complementary creative enterprises. Combining an interest in meeting new people with his love of traditional Italian cuisine, Daniele created Cook & Meet, a week night cooking workshop that’s as much about gathering and sharing stories as it is about cooking. His second venture, leading off-the-beaten-path gourmet tours to local vineyards and cheese makers in his native Italian countryside, soon followed.

Cooking classes have been around for a few years in Prague, but Daniele’s Cook & Meet evenings are not your run-of-the-mill cooking workshops. He says, “It’s a social event. The point is ‘meet.’ I could have called it Meet & Cook. Cooking is a tool to put people together in a relaxed group. You put on your slippers and get in a homey atmosphere. It’s difficult to meet someone new in a city.” According to Daniele, people come to learn how to cook and to listen to a little bit of the history behind how and why the food is prepared the way it is. His love of travel influences the styles of dishes being cooked, and although the food is generally Italian or Mediterranean influenced, he also hosts Spanish, French and Pan Asian nights, depending on where he’s recently traveled.

On the evening that I attend Cook & Meet, Daniele tells me that I don’t need to bring anything, just a bit of appetite and a good mood. He greets me upon arrival and leads me through a communal inner courtyard to his two-story villa in Prague’s Břevnov neighborhood, where the workshop is held. Although the autumn air is brisk and it is too dark to eat outside, Daniele tells me that from spring through late summer, the group eats their meals in the cobblestoned courtyard. Except for a few Skodas parked by garages, it isn’t hard to imagine that we are in Italy.

The Cook & Meet evenings are conducted in English, although I catch spurts of Czech and Italian among the participants. There is a lively follow-up discussion about a wine show-down, when Italian and Spanish wines were matched and blind taste-tested, at a previous Cook & Meet. Daniele tells me there is about a half-and-half mixture of Czechs and internationals living in the Czech Republic who attend the evenings. The group is limited to 8-10 participants to ensure that everyone gets a hands-on experience.

The menu varies according to the seasons, like asparagus in the spring or pumpkin in autumn. Local Italian ingredients are key. Daniele often brings them back from his regular trips to the Italian countryside. An upcoming “Truffle Tour” that he’s leading next month will produce truffles for a future Cook & Meet dinner. Other ingredients are purchased from Italian shops in Prague or from Czech companies who produce high-quality, Italian-style products like fresh cheeses.

Upon arrival, I receive slippers and a Cook & Meet apron. Once the group assembles, Daniele’s girlfriend Klara, who is an active member of the Cook & Meet team, prepares Moscow mule cocktails, made from spicy ginger beer and vodka with a hint of cucumber syrup. For the hands-on part of the evening, we start by preparing the semolina dough we’ll use to shape orecchiette pasta later on. I take my turn kneading the dough. It is relaxing work. Since there is no yeast, I can’t overwork the dough. Eventually, I add enough water for the ball to stick together. Then Klara takes over, showing me how to pinch off a ball to test if it is the right texture. While the dough sits to rest, we work on dessert – cannoli Siciliani – cannoli stuffed with a sugar and ricotta mixture. We add candied orange pieces to half of the sweet ricotta and pistachios and crushed chocolate pieces to the remainder.

Once dessert is prepared, we begin to work our pasta dough into orecchiette (ear-shaped) pasta pieces. This particular pasta comes from the Puglia region of Italy. While we work Daniele tells us about the tradition of pasta-making in Puglia. Typically, pasta-making is a woman’s job in Italy, much like baking Christmas sweets is traditionally a woman’s job in the Czech Republic. This past summer Klara attended a course in making orecchiette in Puglia. She takes a knife and demonstrates how to roll the pasta flat and flip it inside out to form an ear shape. I try my best to make my pasta pieces similarly-sized and shaped to hers. Daniele fills our wine glasses, and eventually the table is covered in pasta ears.

When I ask him if cooking Italian cuisine ever gets boring, he says, “Italian cuisine is extremely diversified. Traveling north to south or east to west, every 20 kilometers there’s a different dialect, a different landscape, a different historic heritage. Therefore, different food, recipes, tastes, wine. To say, Italian food – pasta, pizza – is a stereotype. There are so many variations, that I can spend the whole year cooking recipes from my region, Piedmont. Next year we’d do Puglia and in 5 years we’d start with Sardinia. We’d die before we finished all the regions.”

From his travels both within Italy and around the world, Daniele collects memories – some pictures, some recipes. About discovering local recipes he says, “It’s the best way of understanding the local culture, not only the tastes, but how people eat. The way we sit around the table in the Mediterranean or in Asia is completely different. Traveling you get a lot of stimulations.” From Puglia to Piedmont to Spain or Kyrgyzstan, the meals are authentic recreations of emotions from his travels.

Before we get too hungry, Daniele produces a tray of Mediterranean starters like artichokes, sundried tomatoes and two types of ham that I can’t identify. One is from the pig’s neck and the other from the stomach. We sample a creamy “burratine” mozzarella made that morning in Prague. Daniele describes the cheese “as mozzarella brought to the extent of creaminess.”

As the evening draws to a close, Daniele brings forth different digestives for us to sample. We chat and share traveling stories, and after 11 p.m. I reluctantly prepare to leave. Of the Cook & Meet community he’s created, Daniele says, “It happens that people come here, bring their friends back another week. They choose to come here instead of going out to the bar.”

If you’re new to Prague and would like to try preparing traditional Italian, Mediterranean and Continental-style dishes and meet new people, visit “Cook & Meet” for a lively evening of cooking and conversation. Whether learning how to hold a knife to turn a ball of freshly-kneaded pasta into hundreds of orecchiette pieces or sipping fine Italian wine while listening to Daniele speak about the history and culture of his region, you can be certain to find something at Cook & Meet to please your taste.

Check the Cook & Meet website for an e-shop of Italian delicacies brought directly from the producers. For those interested in passing the gift of Cook & Meet on to a friend, Daniele offers half-year vouchers on the e-shop. 

Cook & Meet - Learn to Cook & Meet new international friends

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