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You never know what you might find when you walk through the doors at Taste Buds kitchen, a new cooking class studio in North Andover. It could be teenagers creating flaming s’mores cupcakes for a Cupcake Wars competition, a three-year-old boy grinning gleefully after cracking his first egg, or adults learning to crimp Chinese dumplings.

“I like to say we offer classes for everyone from two to 99,” says owner Laurel Holmes. “Cooking is a skill everyone needs.”
Attendance rates suggest she is quite right. Open for just a few short weeks, Taste Buds has already had a number of repeat guests; the same moms sitting behind their budding pre-k chefs making donuts one morning might show up with a bottle of wine and a couple of friends to try their hand at sushi or ravioli a few nights later.

Adult classes, held several nights a week, run the gamut from steak to tapas, while the “Mommy and Me” morning classes and afternoon drop-off programs for kids cover everything from rainbow cupcakes to food science. Holmes has been pleasantly surprised by the response. Across the board, her numbers have been higher than projected, and she feels like she is filling a need by bringing people together over food.

“With the Internet, there are fewer [personal] connections,” Holmes says. “This is a great way to expand your circle and learn something new.” In some ways, however, it’s the Internet that is bringing people in—satisfied amateur chefs can’t seem to help posting photos of their masterpieces on Instagram, and then preparing those dishes at home for appreciative friends, all of which keeps people coming back.

“From a business perspective, that’s what makes it sustainable,” Holmes says. “People come in more than once and they bring their friends.”

A sustainable business was exactly what Holmes was searching for when she realized it was time to quit her high-pressure sales job and seek something that would let her spend more time at home with her six- and eight-year-old boys. But flipping through Entrepreneur magazine was more depressing than thrilling. “It’s all Great Clips and Subway, neither of which was interesting to me,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to own my own business, but I didn’t know what.”

Then she noticed an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a brand-new franchise. Taste Buds has only four locations thus far, including North Andover, but the combination of cuisine and community was exactly what Holmes wanted. “I knew immediately this was it,” she says. “It combines two of my passions—entertaining and cooking.”

Taste Buds’ corporate offices, based in New York, provided the build-out plans, the recipes, and the training—what they didn’t offer was a chef. “Hiring was what worried me the most,” says Holmes, who, as an avid home cook, once spent eight hours making Julia Child’s French onion soup. She knew she had the sales, marketing, and people skills, but she didn’t have the professional culinary experience necessary to run a kitchen that might host three cooking classes per day. That’s where Andrea D’Angelo came in—a mutual friend suggested the two of them talk after D’Angelo, who trained at The Culinary Institute of America in New York, left her position as chef at Park Street Pub.

“It was the shortest retirement in history,” D’Angelo says with a laugh, noting that her job at the pub, where she worked for more than seven years in an open kitchen interacting with the public more than most chefs, made her uniquely well suited to work at Taste Buds. Her current environment requires her to be part entertainer, part chef, and fully capable of going with the flow. “At first, I was nervous about teaching the adult classes,” D’Angelo says, “but it’s really worked out well.” And she’s taught the pasta making class so many times already that it’s a snap to turn out fresh noodles for her two kids.

Holmes says her new gig elevated her status with her kids, too. “I’m the mom who runs cooking classes,” she says. “I get to make cupcakes for a living. I can’t believe how lucky I am.”