When Adam and Pam Goldgell traded New York’s cold, dreary winters for sunny, laid-back Orlando, Florida, in 2019, the 50-something empty nesters had a plan.
Adam—a Culinary Institute-trained chef who appeared on two Food Network competitions, Chopped and Restaurant Express—built a catering and personal-chef business. And he had a trick up his sleeve to make his businesses stand out: decades of training as a magician and entertainer. Combining his two passions and billing himself as the “Cheftidigitator,” he created “a night of culinary magic” at dinner theaters throughout South Florida, going onstage to prepare and serve elegant meals interspersed with side dishes of the sleight-of-hand talents he’d been honing since he was a kid in Queens.
His shtick was a hit with audiences. But once the pandemic struck, dinner theaters shuttered, and catering jobs dried up. At the same time, Pam’s thriving, 50-agent travel business, Goldgell Getaways, sputtered to a halt. As with many families, they watched their incomes shrink and tried to figure out how to survive the economic disaster that shut down most of the U.S.
They took stock of their assets. With Adam’s cooking skills and charisma on the one hand, and Pam’s technology savvy and social media marketing experience on the other, the pair seemed tailor-made for the pandemic-inspired, new world of Zoom communication.
That’s how their series of online cooking lessons, Adam’s Cooking Jams, was born. Each class focused on a specific cuisine: Moroccan, Thai, Indian, French. Then Adam developed his Mishpocha series, which teaches people how to make classic Jewish recipes, like babka, knishes, and blintzes. “We consider ourselves culturally Jewish, but we are not Orthodox like our grandparents,” Adam said. “For us, the pandemic created nostalgia for old-time family comfort meals. We weren’t alone.” The dishes he cooks in the Mishpocha series are what he calls “food we grew up with.”
There’s also the Jew-ish Mishpocha Deli series, which is a callback to the famous New York Jewish delicatessens of Adam’s youth. “Last week we made from-scratch bagels and gravlax. The week before was homemade, deli-style corned beef that was cured in salt and incubated for seven days,” he said. “It is my homage to Carnegie Deli, Second Avenue Deli, and too many others to list.” Students loved the egg creams and black-and-white cookies, too. Adam’s Facebook page is full of drool-worthy photos of his students’ successes.
He charges $20 per class but discounts a season of six different sessions for $75. Signing up for a set allows a home cook to swap out sessions among 30-plus offerings. As one student described it, “It’s a serious class, with critical pre-preparation. Chef Adam makes it fun, but he is all about delivering a delicious, sophisticated meal.”
The Mischpocha Cooking Jams launched last fall with a single episode as a pilot. Chef Adam’s unpretentious, easygoing style appealed to viewers with a lot on their minds—the election, COVID-19, and social distancing requirements. Unlike most TV chefs, Adam cooks with his audience, not at them: Early in the week, Pam sends out a shopping list and prep instruction for the next class. Ovens are preheated, spices and flours measured, dough proofed in advance. Each student comes to class organized and ready to cook. Adam explains each recipe step and makes sure everyone is caught up, and he uses Zoom to look at each student’s product and offer advice. Students use the Zoom chat function to ask questions. For people hungry for connection but committed to safe socializing, this level of interaction was the recipe they were craving. The only thing missing from the sessions is Adam’s Cheftidigitator magic/cooking combo. “Zoom works beautifully for teaching cooking,” he said, “but it doesn’t translate well for magic. I really miss my live shows.”
Long Island attorney Amy Alperin, who took her first Zoom class last year, said that Adam’s cooking sessions were her “gateway to the world” during a year of isolation and anxiety: “His classes give me the community I’ve been missing.”
In all of the offerings, the average class size is about seven, made up of 60% women. Ages range from children cooking with parents to 75-year-olds. “The diversity delights us,” Adam said. “We’ve had a Rhodes scholar, teachers, New York Times editors, lawyers, and more.” He noted that 60% of his students are Jewish, and he is careful to offer kosher and nonkosher adaptations for each menu.
While Adam creates the recipes, cooks, and teaches, Pam is the behind-the-scenes tech wizard. She serves as producer, director, bookkeeper, social media chief, and payments processor. “She makes the business side look easy,” Adam said, “but it is a ton of work.” Pam adds that the pandemic’s “silver lining” created a space for the couple to work together. “After 11 years of marriage, we still like each other,” she said.
As the pandemic drags on, Adam continues to tinker with the online model so that the classes remain accessible. Recognizing the economic realities of the past year, he may suggest lower-cost alternatives to certain ingredients. Though he is flexible and creative on most adjustments, he cautions his students to “never economize on olive oil, vanilla extract, or cinnamon.”
Alperin appreciates how Adam infuses his classes with one particular ingredient: joy. “I was a survival cook,” she recalled. “Adam taught me to be fearless. I love cooking now, and I consider it a gift to prepare delicious meals for loved ones.” She noted that there’s one particular lesson she values: Adam’s advice never to cook for someone when you are angry: “Food reflects your feelings. Good or bad.”
Student Gary Slater, a civil engineer from Orange County, California, described Adam’s lessons this way: “He comes to you from his own modest kitchen proving that you don’t need expensive equipment or a designer kitchen to cook well. … He works wonders out of a postage-stamp-size area with a regular-size oven, ordinary small fridge, and an electric burner.” Slater added, “My most important takeaway is that sharing is a Jewish thing, a mitzvah. That’s why my neighbors and friends eat well after each class. Adam’s classes make me feel closer to my roots.”
Adam’s practical approach to cooking and his no-nonsense attitude on how to survive the economic devastation brought on by COVID-19 may be rooted in how he has already recovered from a series of critical setbacks. He survived a cancer with high recurrence rates, enduring six surgeries. As a young teen, he suffered his mother’s sudden death just two weeks after his bar mitzvah. (He learned to juggle during her shiva as a way of dealing with the pain.) Later years brought the excruciating death of his father from AIDS and the loss of other loved ones.
“Like so many other setbacks in my life, I figured COVID-19 was just another bad thing to manage,” Adam recalled. “Because I have overcome so much worse, I knew we would be OK. As long as we are healthy, the rest will be fine. Pam and I truly believe that things will work out, and they usually do.”
His sister Michelle Soss remembers him growing up: “My brother always brought excitement into our home, even during tragedies. And, as his magic act matured,” she said with a laugh, “we had rabbits everywhere, doves flying all over the house, and a swan in the bathtub.”
What happens when the pandemic is finally in our collective rearview mirror? Pam says that she can already detect improvements in the travel business. Adam is always open to the adventures ahead. Magical dinner theater, catering venues, more and varied classes are in his future, he hopes. He looks forward to more opportunities to share his unique cooking style with new audiences. “As long as people enroll in the classes, I will continue Zoom teaching,” he said. “I have a mother-daughter duo who take the Mishpocha class from different coasts. They haven’t seen each other in person for a year. Cooking together is a chance for being together.”
Marjorie Weidenfeld Buckholtz is a freelance writer from Potomac, Maryland.