Sofya Stearns: Izabella’s Gourmet Chow

Food is our common ground, a universal experience – James Beard

Nothing brings the world together better than food, and even though we love food, some of us prefer oysters, or maybe a profiterole, or sushi. Sofya Stearns, founder of Izabella’s Gourmet Chow figured that out. Her cooking classes open a window to the world for kids, making them feel closer to the kids all over the world.


Sofya of Pine-Richland grew up in Moscow in a family of three generations, her grandparents, parents and her twin sister. “My grandmother’s name was Izabella, and she was an excellent baker and cook and my best friend,” said Stearns, 52, who has lived in California, Washington DC, New York and Chicago before moving to the area when her husband, Jeff, was relocated for a job here.


“My daughter is 10 and was named after my grandmother. I grew up learning other languages, visiting museums and listening to classical music, and I wanted my daughter to have those experiences as well,” said Stearns, who speaks numerous languages. “Little children are like sponges when it comes to learning, especially languages. Five years ago, I took my daughter to an art class, and one of my friends who knew my passion for cooking suggested that I start teaching cooking classes.”


Sofya sent out emails to local families and taught her first class in September 2016.
“When the class was done, I began to get emails wondering when the next class would be, and Izabella’s Gourmet Chow was born!” said Stearns.


Stearns teaches students ages 3 to adult. “We don’t just make something delicious from scratch, we travel the world. For instance, when I teach children how to make Sushi, we talk about Japan—its geography, the country’s capital, history, music and art. We also learn some Japanese,” said Stearns.


In addition to cooking skills, the students learn about the ingredients, nutrition, and how the food they cook is used to build their bodies. “We learn the difference between the various tastes such as savory, sweet, sour, etc. We discuss the difference between onions and scallions and that there are five different types of peppers and that green peppers are actually unripe and difficult to digest, etc.,” said Stearns.


Her courses for children were so well-received that she expanded to teaching after school programs in various schools; weekly and monthly classes as well as for birthday parties and sleep overs for kids; couples, family reunions and bachelorette parties. Stearns’ classes are a favorite activity for local Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts groups.


“Anyone can follow a recipe,” said Stearns, “but when I teach a cooking class, I teach with a twist. I want my students to be creative and make the dishes their own because cooking is another form of art, and art makes you creative.
Virtual experiences became essential when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “Out of necessity, I started teaching classes online,” Stearns said, “and then one day I saw a report by NBC news correspondent Richard Engel, who has a young son with Rett syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, and how those with special needs were regressing under the lockdown. It broke my heart, and I knew I had to do something to help people.”


Stearns reached out to numerous organizations working with families with disabled members and that’s how her monthly Zoom classes began. She started to work with Chicago down syndrome, NADS and occasional Zoom classes with Pittsburgh Down syndrome, DSAP, as well as monthly cooking Zoom classes for The Woodlands, which continued in person during last summer. “Teaching these classes has brought such joy to so many families and as well as for me, a different perspective on life, which I pass on to my family and friends. I always look for ways to reach more families with family members with special needs,” said Stearns.


During all zoom classes she conducted, she donated 30% of proceeds to a local hospice, Ronald McDonald House, and donated 600 meals to the Pittsburgh Food Bank. Right before the pandemic, she conducted a class for a Jewish women’s organization, 36% of her proceeds went to the Tree of Life community after the tragic shooting.
Recently, Stearns’ heart and mind has been on Ukraine. “In my previous position, I used to travel internationally and often visited Kyiv and Mariupol for work. Sadly, I, and my former colleagues in various parts of Ukraine, don’t even know anymore what has happened to our colleagues from those two towns.”


Since Izabella’s Gourmet Chow is primarily directed towards kids, Stearns decided to conduct a charity cooking class with 100% of the proceeds going for donations to help kids of Ukraine. “To date, we have collected $2,305, which we have donated to UNICEF. I picked UNICEF because of their small overhead, and they take very little from donations for administrative expenses,” said Stearns.


She is also planning a Mother’s Day baking event where students will bake profiteroles, commonly known in the U.S. as cream puffs, and again 15% of proceeds will go to UNICEF. However, Stearns is not content with just sending donations; like with her cooking classes, she wants to connect on a personal level with those in Ukraine affected by the war.


“We are launching a campaign #KIDtoKID . The Initiative is for children to write letters to kids of Ukraine. “I have already started this campaign with the students from my monthly cooking classes and continuing at Pine-Richland Schools; and I hope to expand it,” said Stearns. “Going forward, I want to make this campaign international, I want children from all over the world to start writing letters to each other. I want kids to learn from each other. Kids are kids; all kids like the same toys and games, but in a lot of places in the world, not everyone can afford them; however, there are schools in many countries which can provide kids with a pencil and a piece of paper where they will be able to express their thoughts. No matter what I do, whether teaching cooking or reaching out in charity, I want kids to have awareness, that there’s a whole world out there. I’m doing this for my community, for my city, for my country, and I’m thrilled to do that. It makes the world is a better place and makes me a better person.”
For more information, visit Izabella’s Gourmet Chow at: www.izabellasgourmetchow.com.

By Janice Lane Palko