Mother-daughter duo celebrate 10 years of CRATE – The Almanac | Directory Mayhem

Jen Clark grew up in her mother’s kitchen.

“My mom has always been an amazing cook,” Clark said, leaning against the festive high bar at the CRATE Cooking School. “We cooked together all the time. My favorite memories are food memories. I have many memories of the food and being in the kitchen with her and enjoying the food.”

Clark and her mother, Dorothy Vaccarello, prepared Thanksgiving celebrations and loved experimenting with different textures and flavors. Though Clark loved helping her mom measure and mix, roast and bake, the South Fayette native didn’t really get into food until her mid-20s.

“I didn’t get into cooking that much until I was out of college. We just started spending time together in the kitchen as, you know, I was a bit older and appreciated it.”

The mother-daughter duo signed up for cooking classes at CRATE in Greene Tree. These classes brought Clark and Vaccarello closer together as they honed their culinary skills.

“We would just really enjoy class together and love the atmosphere and everything about it,” Clark said.

In 2011, the owner of CRATE announced her upcoming retirement and wished one of her students to take over the business.

“My mom and I joked about it and then we did it,” Clark said with a smile. “June 26, 2012 was the day we took over.”

A lot has changed in the last ten years, but Clark and Vaccarello remain true to CRATE’s original business model. CRATE is a retail outlet offering the highest quality kitchenware, and its heartbeat is the cooking demonstrations and classes hosted by the region’s and country’s most brilliant chefs.

Instructors on CRATE’s rotating program include Loretta Paganini, owner of the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking in Cleveland, and John Reicherter, executive chef at The Porch at Siena in South Hills.

Clark also conducts cooking classes in her spacious industrial kitchen.

“I am not professionally trained in culinary arts. I always tell people that I was taught by my mother and by CRATE,” laughed the foodie. “Classes here were taught by some of the area’s finest chefs. For the first three years that I owned the business, I only ran the business. I didn’t teach right away. I…moved there and just getting the training from different instructors and soaking it all up like a sponge, it was really good hands-on training.

This hands-on training is enjoyed by companies looking for a different type of team building activity and by friends looking for a unique girls’ night out. Clark also offers private cooking classes perfect for date nights, bachelor and bridal showers, and birthday parties.

“On Wednesday afternoons we do what we call lunch and study courses. They’re demonstration style, so you sit here and watch and learn and then you get the full meal served,” Clark said. “There’s a group of people who started it and became friends from it. They email each other which courses they are going to sign up for. There is a good group of regulars.”

CRATE also hosts an annual Summer Children’s Food Camp, where children learn to prepare foods from around the world. This camp and the regular children’s cooking classes are among Clark’s favorite events.

She and her mom also love hosting local culinary tours.

“Our tours of the Strip are very, very popular. We only show our favorite places to shop. Even people who have lived here forever and are frequent travelers to the Strip District may not have known about any of the places we go. Or maybe you never took the time to look in a certain corner of a certain store,” Clark said.

The mother-daughter partnership combines the couple’s passions and expertise. Clark, who has experience in marketing and event coordination, plans programs and runs CRATE’s social media, while Vaccarello, whose background is in accounting, helps with the business side of things.

“It all fits, somehow,” Clark laughed. “My mom and I are sort of best friends, so it’s nice. It doesn’t really feel like work.”

Your decade of ownership of CRATE doesn’t really feel like 10 years either.

“I’ve been running through this role in my head for the past 10 years. There are a lot of good[moments],” Clark said. “People used to come in from different states. If there was a cookbook author promoting something, they would call and come in, and it’s been kind of different in the last few years.”

Recent years have been the most difficult for Clark and Vaccarello due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re not just a retail wound, we’re not a restaurant. We’re a culinary school,” Clark said, noting that she and her mom have struggled to navigate the changing COVID-19 protocols.

“We made it,” she said, “and there are so many people who didn’t make it.”

The couple’s adaptability has helped them not only survive but thrive. When COVID hit, they started offering virtual cooking classes (Clark said during a birthday party she’s been teaching people in Pennsylvania, Hawaii, and Europe) and shifted store hours to better accommodate customers.

In July, Clark and Vaccarello hosted a CRATE celebration, and cartoonist Clarence Butler was on hand to commemorate the occasion (he’s also the company’s in-house graphic designer).

“The time went by so fast. One thing about it being 10 years, I told the kids in the kids class that. I said ‘a decade’ and they said ‘You’re 100?’ I thought, ‘No, that’s a century.’ I thought that was one of the funnest things,” Clark said.

Over the next 10 years, Clark plans to expand CRATE’s courses and private events. She wants to expand her culinary knowledge—perhaps visiting Europe and bringing authentic recipes and techniques back to Southwest Pennsylvania—and continue to host local tours.

And, of course, she will continue to curate menus with Vaccarello and the couple’s cooking instructors, and lead classes at CRATE. Clark loves to teach.

“Looking back when we first started coming here, I never thought that it would be ours, that we would put our own stamp on the business,” Clark said. “I hope I’ll still be doing this in the next 10 years. I hope I’m still enjoying what I’m doing. It doesn’t really feel like work. It’s just like (my mom) and I don’t really get sick of eating and talking about it. I feel very fortunate to have (CRATE) as a part of my life.”

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