Good food never goes out of style, and especially in these times of tumult and turmoil out in the real world, good food is even more an important source of comfort and good times. This helps explain why the food movement these days is huge, why cooking shows proliferate on TV, why chefs are the new superstars and being known as “foodie” is a badge of pride. The thought of preparing good food at home, however, sometimes stops the most well-intentioned right in their tracks because they are afraid that the process is time-consuming, expensive, and complicated. Holly Slepman, a West Windsor mom, can do something about that: she has carved out a new career around teaching people how to prepare good, simple food — and how to eat better and save money — with cooking classes she calls “Beyond Ramen Noodles.”
Slepman, a self-proclaimed lifelong foodie and self-taught home cook, conducts lessons in clients’ homes. No need to shop beforehand: Slepman brings all of the necessary utensils and ingredients needed to prepare a recipe of your choosing — and there are plenty of mouth-watering dishes to choose from. Sesame-ginger noodles with veggies; chicken and pepper jack cheese quesadillas; classic Italian meat sauce with whole wheat spaghetti; grilled vegetable and mozzarella panini; pasta salad with tomatoes, corn, green beans, and parmesan; and pan-fried tilapia with butter and lemon over linguini are just a few of the delectable entrees on the list.
Other dishes include creamy tomato soup with garlic croutons, spicy black bean and corn salsa, and chunky tomato bruschetta. You can choose a specific dish (like rigatoni with Italian sausage, broccoli, and garlic) or a topical theme (like 15 meal ideas from one rotisserie chicken).
Another interesting twist — which turns a cooking lesson into a party (girlfriends night out or couples get-together) and a cost saver — is that you can invite your friends to attend. If you have two or three attendees including yourself, the cost for each is $15; for four or five people, the cost for each is $12; and for a group of six or seven the cost is $10 per person. At each one-and-a-half-hour class Slepman teaches you not just how to make the recipe you’ve chosen but also cooking skills to last a lifetime — such as how to get organized to save time and cleanup, how to make the most of your dollar when grocery shopping, how to use a knife and other utensils efficiently, and how to make healthier food choices.
“Think of it almost like Tupperware party, getting together with a few of your friends. It’s casual, partyish and fun,” says Slepman, who began the business last year after a “lightbulb” moment. “I realized I love thinking about food and recipes. I wake up thinking about what to cook, what to have, what to make for lunch, for dinner. I realized I wanted to do something involved in food. I also like people and meeting new people. So I had to mold the concept and come up with a method and an approach.”
Her concept is reflected in the name of her business, Beyond Ramen Noodles. “Think about ramen noodles, the kind you get in the pack at the grocery store,” says Slepman. “It’s the go-to, quick, simple five-minute meal that costs about 17 cents a serving. But you can get beyond that, the salt-infused packet, the preservatives. Yes, it’s yummy, it’s a comfort thing, and it’s fun, but let’s use it as a jumping off point. There’s more to life and eating than that little packet of noodles.”
Her classes are largely geared to beginners who are intimated about the idea of being in a kitchen. Her logical initial target would be college kids living off campus, recent graduates, and newlyweds. “I talk about food shopping, food prep and budgeting. What do you look for when you’re picking out produce, how do you get the biggest bang for your buck? How can you organize yourself in the kitchen so you’re not using 12 pans and three pots and using a lot of time cleaning afterwards? I make cooking accessible and fun — and I can make a meal for $7 for four people.”
She figured this would be a welcome concept during a recession. “Kids and young adults buy all kinds of frozen, packaged microwave meals loaded with salt, fat, and preservatives, and if you look at the ingredients on the back you see what you are paying for. And so much of it these days is just advertising and packaging. With all the talk about the environment, it’s wasteful in terms of the Styrofoam boxes and wrappers. So I’m also getting back to the basics and looking at a natural, wholesome way of eating and preparing food. It’s also a good confidence builder, and it’s about building life skills for young people. You never know when you will be on your own, and you can whip something up for your family, friends, and be proud that ‘I made this, this feels good.’”
Slepman comes to her new profession from a lifetime of good food. “My dad’s mom was a phenomenal cook from Russia. She made blintzes and this special native dish that had tons of garlic and marrow bones and calves’ feet. It sounds horrific but it was absolutely delicious, and it evokes memories of her, thinking of her making it. She also made fabulous scrambled eggs with onions and cream cheese and passed that down to my dad, a personal twist on a traditional dish.” Slepman also received culinary inspiration from the other side of her family, especially her mom’s dad, who was from Greece. “His specialty was fried potatoes, crispy, with just the right amount of onion.”
Slepman’s childhood in Oceanside, New York, featured nightly four-course meals cooked by her mom, a homemaker and an astrologer on the side, with dishes like chicken cutlet with peaches and flank steak with gravy. Her father, a podiatrist, was a great cook as well and on his days off, he was a fisherman. “He would make broiled blowfish tails and he actually won a contest once for that recipe. My mom would take his flounder and fluke and make fresh batter fried fish. We had lots of fresh fish all the time growing up around the Long Island Sound.”
Slepman grew up with two older sisters. “Every night with my family was dinner at the table, without fail. I marvel at the meals my mom was able to do, always a main course with protein, a veggie, salad, and desserts. When I was raising kids we focused on family time ourselves, and we would try to sit down when we could but it’s so much harder these days for families with sports and crazy schedules. But it’s so important to try.”
After graduating from Boston University with degree in communications in 1980, Slepman worked in public relations, marketing, and editing, including working as a corporate editor for internal publications for Sony America. When she married she and her husband, Alan Slepman, lived in a small apartment in Bergen County. When they realized it would be a hard place to raise children — and learned that West Windsor was still commutable to New York and had a great school system — they settled down in a home in the Charter Club neighborhood in 1989. That same year they had their first child, a daughter, Jill, followed by a son, Andy, in 1992.
Their life was a good one, she says, and she stayed home for a while with the children. And then, in January, 2003, tragedy struck. Her husband, who had worked in banking in New York, died at the age of 48 of a brain tumor. In addition to the family memories, she also had memories of their good times around food to sustain her. “I would take pictures of the brunches I would make. We appreciated eating good food, never anything fancy; we ate out when we could but we just had a good time.”
Many months later, the house next door changed hands, and Jack Hayon, who was divorced and works in finance for Educational Testing Service in Princeton, moved in with four children of his own. “It started out as a hi, neighbor, kind of thing, and then it became something more,” says Slepman. They were married in October, 2005, joining their six children together, Brady Bunch style. They lived in separate homes for a year then bought a house near High School South. Jill, now 21, is a rising senior at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. She is majoring in communications and wants to go into radio. Andy, 17, is a junior at High School South. He runs cross country in the fall and runs winter and spring track. In his spare time, he likes to make movies.
Hayon’s kids now are all grown. Gabe, an engineer, graduated from Virginia Tech in 2008 and works in Maryland. Rachel just graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Boston with a teaching degree and hopes to be a primary school teacher. Twins Ben and Sol are 20, both studying at Wake Forest University: Sol is a physics major; Ben is a business and accounting major.
Slepman says Hayon and all their children are very supportive of her new endeavor. “The kids think it’s great. My stepdaughter had never cooked before in her apartment but after a few sessions, she and her boyfriend cook dinner every night. She broke the barrier, and she says now she is not intimidated. She’ll call and say, ‘Can you give me a good recipe for salmon?’ She’s saving money, eating well, and eating exactly what they want.”
Slepman figures her new business is the right thing at the right time, pegged especially to an economy when people need to be more aware of food value yet want to get the best, freshest ingredients and know the best way to prepare them. “I feel proud I’ve gotten this far,” she says, “and I’m happy I can help people feel proud about eating better and saving money while having fun and expanding their horizons.”
Beyond Ramen Noodles, 609-213-0329. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Owner: Holly Slepman.