Michele Schulze, the owner of Flying Aprons Tucson, displayed her passion for good food at a very early age — 4 ½ years old. She was having lunch with her mother at a posh, very French restaurant in Manhattan (also called Michele’s) when at the end of the meal she told the waiter to “give my compliments to the chef.”
The waiter was so surprised to hear such laudatory words from a little girl that he told the chef, who then headed out into the dining room.
“So, he came out, you know, with his toque, the whole thing,” said Schulze. “We had some banter and then he asked if I’d like to see the kitchen. I turned to my mom and my mom said sure."
"So, he took my hand and led me into the kitchen where it was like when Dorothy landed in Oz and everything was in color. It was beautiful! There was no talking. Everyone was just bustling around doing their assignment and we walked around and it was like Nirvana. I was enthralled with everything that I saw.”
She also credits her mother who instilled in her a love for good food and cooking. Schulze helped her mom prepare lavish, but healthful, dinners. She called her a woman ahead of her time.
Today, she expresses her love and passion for Flying Aprons Tucson — something her mother would’ve been proud to see.
“Flying Aprons Tucson is a cooking school for home cooks where all the classes are taught by Tucson's finest chefs, bakers, pastry chefs, and mixologists. And the aim is for home cooks in our area and visitors, as well, to be able to understand what great food tastes like and that a home cook can learn from an amazing professional chef,” said Schulze. “And to understand what being a City of Gastronomy means and that we have an abundance of fabulous ingredients from meats to produce that are right here in our backyard. It's a way to support the chefs and the producers of that great food.”
Schulze had no experience working in hospitality. She earned a degree in journalism from the University of Arizona and worked for “large newspapers in the East.” Upon returning to Arizona, she ran the UA alumni, worked for nonprofits, and then moved back to Tucson around 1990.
When Tucson was named America’s first UNESCO City of Gastronomy, something in her past was stirred.
“I think maybe the curiosity of having been a journalist for a long time was the impetus for starting Flying Aprons,” said Schulze, who had taken numerous cooking classes over the years. “I wondered if a cooking class would work here in Tucson. I wondered if I could launch this business.”
Flying Aprons opened in early 2020 with flying colors. The classes were a hit from the start.
“The chefs have been so incredible. It's just been an unbelievable dream come true. The chefs are the stars.”
But then, along came COVID and social restrictions. Not one to be deterred, Schulze tried to find a way to keep Flying Aprons going.
That was when she “discovered” Zoom.
With the help of Chef Devon Sanner, who has led many classes, co-owns Zio Peppe, and was once Executive Chef at DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails, and Stephan Paul of Whiskey del Bac, Schulze created Zoom classes.
“We learned a lot from the first and then we got very professional. Everybody was cooking from home and making sourdough bread. But we said there's got to be a way to still be in touch with people,” said Schulze. “We were able to have people, literally, from all over the world zooming into, you know, to our little corner here in Tucson.”
In-person classes have returned, but because people enjoyed learning in their own kitchens, Zoom still plays an essential role in Flying Aprons' success. The in-person classes are held at Catalina United Methodist Church and offer not just cooking, but baking and mixology classes.
The menu of chefs and makers includes local legends like Janos Wilder, Carlotta Flores, and Jim Murphy.
Chef Maria Mazon was one of the first to teach. Pastry chefs Susan Fulton and Mary Steiger of Gourmet Girls Gluten-Free Bakery added their expertise as did Marianne Banes from Locale. Tommy Begay from Sushi on Oracle has even taught a sushi class.
Mat Cable, Sanner’s partner at Zio Peppe and owner of Fresco Pizzeria & Pastaria is part of the teaching crew. Jackie Tran, who recently launched his Tran’s Fats food truck and Michael Elefante of Mama Louisa’s and Guido-Q food truck also contributed their talents.
Chefs aren’t the only teachers. Cookbook authors Jackie Alpers and Carolyn Niethammer, Head Brewer Ayla Kapali of Borderlands Brewing, distiller Steven Paul of Whiskey del Bac, and Noel Patterson, sommelier and beekeeper of Dos Manos Apiaries, added their expertise.
The list goes on and on.
Chef Jim “Murph” Murphy recently conducted a class at Flying Aprons.
Murph is known for his wonderful renditions of Creole and Cajun cooking, so it was most fitting that this class be held on Fat Tuesday, aka Mardi Gras, and that the food he prepared be deeply Cajun. He opted for Turkey and Andouille Gumbo. The dessert, a Spiced Praline Bread Pudding with Caramel Sauce, was also straight out of NOLA.
A little before 5:30 p.m., the class began to trickle into the church kitchen.
Three women friends from Canada decided to take the class as part of their “Girl’s Trip.” A couple from the Foothills, a woman from Oro Valley, a newcomer to Tucson, a neighbor of Murph’s, and a fellow food writer were all part of the mix.
About a dozen large cutting boards and several large, very sharp chef’s knives lined both sides of a long table that dominated the small kitchen.
Bags of onions, celery, and green and red peppers were laid out on the table. We were given aprons and Mardi Gras beads to wear. Some of us followed along with a print-out of the recipes (a more complete guide was emailed to participants a few days later.)
Murph asked for volunteers to make the rice and the caramel sauce and as he helped them get started, the rest of us began chopping away. The only instructions were to not get stressed about perfect chopping and to not cut ourselves.
Everyone immediately got into the swing of things. The vibe was like old friends getting together rather than complete strangers.
Murph first created a roux and then added each element step by step.
As he cooked, he explained the how and why of what was going on and in typical Murph form, entertained us with kitchen stories. Everything went into a giant pot that cooked on a slow simmer.
When the gumbo was ready, we served ourselves and then sat at the table.
The food was fabulous and as it happens with any great meal, everyone talked and laughed, listening to more of Murph’s helpful hints and fun stories.
A good time was had by all.
In addition to the monthly classes, Flying Aprons also offers private classes in homes or at the church.
“Our private events are hands-on,” said Schulze, “When we're doing a private event, we always have a Zoom meeting to understand what their kitchen looks like. We have these conversations upfront so that we understand what we need to show up with. So there's no surprise when we walk through the door.”
She added that they’ve had classes at Airbnbs. These classes are a great way for visiting families and friends to get together, learn a little about Tucson and the Southwest, have a lot of fun, and enjoy good eats.
Not long ago, Sunrise Elementary School contacted Schulze to see if she knew a chef who would like to teach a cooking class as part of their afterschool enrichment program. Schulze asked local legend Chef Barry Infuso, who’s led several major kitchens in town and played an instrumental role in establishing the culinary program at Pima Community College.
Infuso loves to share his knowledge and passion for all things culinary. Plus, he commands attention just by being in a room. He was the ideal choice.
“Barry is doing a once-a-week class. It's an hour and a half and 12 is the limit of participants,” said Schulze. “He has laid out a course that is Foods of the World. So far, we've done Vietnam, China. and Mexico. One week the kids made ice cream. They're doing hands-on cooking. He's teaching a little of the country's history and tying in the foods of that country and the influences they brought to the table. Things like rice, chili, peppers, and vegetables. It's very, very fun!”
The kids love it. The parents love it. Feedback shows that the families are shopping together and making meals together.
“Barry is also teaching the kids that good food doesn’t come from a box, that you can make great food in a short amount of time with really fresh ingredients. The kids are learning that the lettuce or the tomatoes or whatever is coming from our region. It's also opening their minds to go with their families to farmers markets and to understand the food; not just about what they're making, but why they're making it.”
Flying Aprons has classes for teens and may soon be offering classes through AARP exclusively for seniors. Also, Schulze will be writing for Tucson Foodie soon.
To have the opportunity to learn from so many talented local chefs is a gift. Meeting new people, sharing a meal, and having fun are the icing on the cake.
Thank you, Michele Schulze. Flying Aprons is a wonderful addition to Tucson’s culinary map.
For a list of classes and to read Schulze’s entertaining blog, visit flyingapronstucson.com.
Rita Connelly is the author of “Lost Restaurants of Tucson,” “Historic Restaurants of Tucson,” and “Arizona Chimichangas,”all published by The...