The escapism and camaraderie of a Zoom cooking class


The digital spaces in which we find ourselves are symphonies of beeps and hums: the chimes of an incoming text message, the rustle of an email sent, the marimba couplet of a new face emerging in a group video chat. They’re no substitute for shouted greetings or close hugs, but for many who have kept friends and loved ones at bay over the past year of pandemic-induced isolation, these technological chirps have become something of a living proof, an ambient soundtrack of human connection . Those melodic and percussive sounds cascade through the opening minutes of “Until Further On,” a documentary by director Tiffany Hsiung about an unlikely community: a weekly cooking class taught by Zoom, whose students come together in unusual intimacy during the height of the coronavirus pandemic .

In April 2020, just over a month after Ontario, Canada entered the COVID-19 lockdown, Luke Donato felt like he was falling apart. Six months earlier, after the birth of his son, he had resigned from his job as a chef at a hip Toronto restaurant, assuming it would be a temporary leave of absence. But amid a wave of coronavirus-related shutdowns, his hiatus suddenly became indefinite and the entire restaurant industry was in free fall. Donato was overwhelmed by a feeling of existential paralysis. “I’ve never seen Luke go through anything like this in over twenty years,” Donato’s longtime friend Hsiung told me during a conference call with the chef. “He was always the stone – the centerpiece.” Donato wondered if starting a cooking class could lift his spirits. On April 28, a small group of friends, including Hsiung, gathered at Zoom for a lesson in how to make buttered chicken.

“Until further notice” is a portrait of one of Donato’s online classes (he charmingly refers to them as “Episodes” in the film) that took place in early August when the coronavirus was spreading at a terrifying rate. By then, the group had grown to over a hundred students, a loose network of word of mouth, friends of friends and loved ones (including Hsiung and the film’s co-producer, Priscilla Galvez, as well as Donato’s parents) using their laptops every Friday night set up in the kitchen and followed Donato’s instructions for an hour. Hsiung outlines their airy relationship with quick cuts of zoom-window jokes and greetings and cooing about babies – a relief, an outlet, a much-needed social connection. The class footage is intertwined with a series of disarmingly intimate interviews with students that recall what the escape of the cooking class transports its participants from: an elderly couple who had to close their daycare, a woman who lost her girlfriend, and her job about COVID and who fears for their ability to support the family in Venezuela. Donato, sending from his kitchen, tells the class to remove the outer barbed petals from their artichokes until only the tender hearts are left. Hsiung, who took a break from her cooking class that night to make the film, told me that she saw parallels between the dish the group cooked and the class itself. “Here’s this thing, the artichoke that they found through adversity this way to make this food enjoyable,” she said, repeating a glimpse of Donatos from the film. “With the pandemic, through this lockdown, the challenges and the priority to keep everyone safe, we have been able to find another way to create intimacy.”

The recipe that evening was halibut and artichokes in Acqua Pazza – “crazy water” – a tomato broth with fiery chillies. It’s a sensual, stylish dish – colorful and seductive in the grainy frame of a zoom window. Hsiung’s camera makes its components totemic, almost erotic: the tapered neck of the artichoke, the smooth flesh of the fish. We can’t touch, but we can know what these ingredients feel, smell and taste like.

In August, not long after the group cooked the halibut dish together, Donato landed an appearance as a private chef and classes were interrupted. However, the WhatsApp group of participants is still bouncing. Members exchange new techniques and proudly share photos of their homemade meals. Just as Donato was using class to find each other, when his students bonded, Hsiung told me that she saw the film as an opportunity for viewers to find something for themselves: “One day Netflix will end – that The movie will end, ”she said. “But imagine you’re watching a movie and it moves on through something physical: a dish, a recipe, something you can share. It’s always been a way of passing things on. “