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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Q&A With Mary Risley of Tante Marie's Cooking School, Part 1

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 2:45 PM

click to enlarge Mary Risley, on the scene at Tante Marie's. - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • Mary Risley, on the scene at Tante Marie's.
Mary Risley's resume is as impressive as it is long. She founded Tante Marie's Cooking School in 1979; started the nonprofit organization Food Runners in 1987; was named Bon Appetit's "cooking teacher of the year" in 1988; and authored a cookbook in 2003. However, Risley might be better known these days as the loveably affable cook from the hilarious "Just Put the F*cking Turkey in the Oven" YouTube video. Released last November to coincide with peak Thanksgiving anxiety, the clip became an overnight sensation, showcasing Risley's charm and the can-do attitude that's gotten her as far as she has come. SFoodie spoke with Risley last week. In part two of this interview she talks about the YouTube video, and in part three, which runs Friday, Risley will share a favorite recipe.

SFoodie: How did you come to San Francisco and end up with so much under your belt?

Risley: I've just turned 70 years old, and I'm of the generation where girls were educated as secretaries, teachers, and nurses. In a class of 75 people at an all-girls Canadian school, only eight went on to college. So I escaped the conservative life in Toronto, packed everything I owned in a '65 blue Mustang, and drove across the trans-Canada highway. I came down here the year after the hippies. I made my living as a temporary secretary for 6 years, and then decided I was going to start teaching cooking.

Did you have any culinary influences growing up?

My mom was a good provider. I grew up on smoked salmon, steamed artichokes, and fresh mushroom salads in Toronto in the 1950s -- that was a bit unusual. But I really taught myself how to cook. I read the center menu in Gourmet Magazine to find out what you serve with what; I read all the theory in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child ... and then I'd go find easier recipes in other cookbooks, since Julia's recipes were too complicated.

click to enlarge Grilled game hen with avocado-tomato salsa, from a class at Tante Marie's. - ALANNA HALE
  • Alanna Hale
  • Grilled game hen with avocado-tomato salsa, from a class at Tante Marie's.
Why and how did you make the shift from temp job to cooking teacher?

I lost my job. The man I was working for was fired, and somebody asked me what I had always wanted to do. I said I'd always wanted to be a cooking teacher. So I just started doing it. I used to hand-write recipes and walk down to California and Montgomery, where a friend who worked at First Interstate Bank would photocopy them for free. I'd walk to Cala Foods and watch them cut up chicken and go back and teach people how to cut up chicken. I'd walk to Swan's Oyster Depot and watch them fillet fish and go show people how to fillet fish. I lived at Leavenworth and Sacramento and did what I could with what resources I had - which was none!

Did people ever question your authority at all?

No, never! They never asked how long I trained, or where I went to cooking school. I'd read a book the night before, and if Julia Child said you needed to serve duck with lettuce and peas to cut the richness of the duck that's what I'd tell everyone the next day.

How did you find an audience?

I had these one-page flyers with a recipe on it and a picture of me and my dog. The same friend would photocopy them for me for free, and I took them around to all the cookware stores. Within the first year, I got on local morning television cooking recipes and started doing regular store demonstrations for places like Williams-Sonoma.

Who were your first clients?

Upper-middle class people came to my house to learn how to cook. Some of them are still my friends. But after about five years, I realized I wasn't making enough money to save anything. A cooking teacher I knew was hit by a car and didn't have medical insurance-that's when I realized I better get more serious. So I used my investment background to raise some capital and built this school here in 1979.

Has the space changed much since it was built in 1979?

Nope. It's a small space and I'm still renting. It's a purposeful, warm environment so people don't feel threatened. You don't need a fancy grill or machine in order to cook. I think one of the nicest things about this building is that it's on the street, so you can walk in and see what's going on. I've never had the nerve to expand. We have professional classes in the daytime and a couple of nights a week. The rest of the time we have hobby cooks.

What differentiates your professional program from, say, CIA or Johnson & Wales?

I would say this is more of a private school for people who have already graduated from college and later decided that cooking is their passion. The CIA and Johnson & Wales are kind of substitutes for going to college. We try not to take 18-year-olds here. Even though I never went to college, I believe that the years from 18 to 22 are an important time to learn to socialize with other people. This is just too small a school for that.

With the ebb and flow in the interest in cooking and celebrity chefs, how has your school changed over the past 30 years?

We're still teaching the foundation on which to build a career. What I remember is that there was a time when Caesar salad was really popular, and then there were about 10 or 15 years where nobody ate Caesar salad, and then it came back again. Same with crème brûlée. My students are learning the foundation so that when, for example, consommé comes back, they'll know how to make it. We are introducing them to sous vide, and foam, and those kinds of things that seem to be popular now, but the concentration is on the foundation.

If your curriculum has stayed the same, how have your students changed?

(Laughing) They have more tattoos.

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at
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