There’s still something about Mary Risley and her cooking students 

click to enlarge Mary Risley
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The legendary Mary Risley is closing her beloved Tante Marie’s Cooking School at the end of the month.
In the ever-changing terroir of San Francisco’s food scene, there’s comfort in the mainstays, like a warm bowl of chowder on a foggy night. That’s how Tante Marie’s feels to the many thousands of home cooks and professional chefs who’ve whisked, sauteed and deglazed at the petit Telegraph Hill cooking school helmed by the sassy Mary Risley for the past 35 years. But, to quote the cliche, it’s the end of an era. The beloved school closes for good at the end of the month.

But don’t expect Risley to soon be forgotten.

Her stacked resume includes honorifics such as “Cooking Teacher of the Year” (1997) from Bon Appétit Magazine, while her work as the founder of Food Runners, a nonprofit that delivers excess food from businesses to organizations that feed the hungry in San Francisco, earned her a “Humanitarian of the Year” (1998) nod from the James Beard Foundation and a Jefferson Award in 2008.

And you can’t throw a spatula without hitting someone who recalls her hilarious, no-nonsense “Just Put The F*--ing Turkey In The Oven” YouTube video.

But her biggest legacy might be her students who, from coast to coast, credit Tante Marie’s Cooking School and Risley for their success.

“Since I decided to close the school I’ve gotten so many phone calls and emails and letters saying, ‘Your school changed my life,’” says Risley.

Tori Ritchie is one such story. A San Francisco author and food writer, Ritchie graduated from Tante Marie’s culinary program in 1985 and also taught at Tante Marie’s for 20 years.

“I tell everyone that Tante Marie’s was my graduate school,” said Ritchie. “The program enabled me to make a career of teaching and writing about food because the classical training I received from Mary gave me the credentials to do it.”

When it opened in 1979, Tante Marie was one of was one of the first culinary schools in the country to offer all-day, year-round professional classes teaching the techniques behind fine cooking, a program that included a rotating roster of notable Bay Area guest chefs such as the late Judy Rodgers of Zuni Café and Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys, which also shuttered its venerated doors this year.

Catherine St. John was just 20 when she enrolled in a nine-month program in 1984. She now runs Western Reserve Cooking School in Hudson, Ohio.

“At that time in my life I did not think I was good at much,” says St. John. “Mary was the first person who told me I should think about being a cooking teacher. Ten years later, after being married, starting a family, and relocating to the Cleveland area, I started teaching. Mary gave me and so many others our start.”

Tante Marie has offered dozens and dozens of recreational one-day and weekend courses to students like Janet Keeler, the food editor of the Tampa Bay Times in Florida, who signed up for a pizza-making class back in the late 1980s.

“It was the first cooking class I ever took and led to many more at other places,” said Keeler. “I fondly remember that day at Tante Marie — a magical place.”

Risley considers her students among the greatest triumphs and she doesn’t see closing the school as retirement. She’ll continue to teach privately in her home, especially to children, and will stay actively involved in Food Runners while advising similar organizations in the Bay Area.

“I hope I’ve been an ambassador of good cooking, eating variety and having fun in the kitchen,” said Risley. “I’m very grateful for the past 35 years.”

It seems she’s not the only one.

Other local cooking schools and classes

Cavallo Point: (Sausalito) www.cavallopoint.com

Parties That Cook: www.partiesthatcook.com

San Francisco Cooking School: www.sfcooking.com

Williams-Sonoma (Union Square): www.williams-sonoma.com

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