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Cooking Together at the Culinary Annex, one of DSM’s Newest Spaces

The Culinary Annex

November 30, 2023

The DSM Fellowship Program centers on a four-pronged approach emphasizing areas of Career Development, Community Engagement, Curriculum and Social Connection. Each Fellow is responsible for a monthly social connection activity so the whole cohort can convene and get to know each other better. As I thought about what would make for a good fall social activity, I kept thinking about the season of being thankful and a time to come together to share a meal. While sitting at the dinner table and eating together is a great way of connecting with others, I thought about taking it a level deeper. What if we started the connecting before, we sat down at the table? Insert the Culinary Annex and Chef Cass.

About the Culinary Annex Fellows Social

The Culinary Annex is a new neighborhood kitchen space in Greater Des Moines (DSM) where culinary artists feel safe, valued and supported. The Culinary Annex is in Historic Valley Junction in West Des Moines. Chef Cass offers a variety of public and private classes featuring foods from around the world. You can learn more about Chef Cass and her journey here.

Fast forward to the November Fellows social. We walk into a new unit just off the main drag of the Historic Valley Junction strip — 304 5th St. Ste. 2. Four stainless-steel tables/workstations greet us as we walk in. Immediately to our left, we see a few long tables with white tablecloths and baby blue colored chairs lined on each side. Straight ahead, a sign hangs from the ceiling — “Culinary Annex.” Directly below is a glowing kitchen, filled with more stainless-steel appliances and a beautiful warm presence of wooden cabinets and drawers. The Fellows are taking on a “Dumpling Galore” cooking class with Chef Cass.

Culinary Annex

Chef Cass starts off by sharing some of her personal background and the journey she has been on to bring the Culinary Annex to life. Ahead of us sit the ingredients for our pork and chive dumplings, mushroom dumplings and a tofu salad. Chef Cass jumps into explaining the ingredients in detail including the importance of working with fresh produce and sharing some of her reliable local vendors and grocers to find authentic ingredients. We split into two groups, one for the pork and chive dumplings and the other to tackle the mushroom dumplings.

Culinary Annex Cooking

Chef Cass walks us through some knife skills, and we all take turns chopping vegetables at our workstations. While we chop away, we take the time to encourage individual approaches with the task at hand and reinforcing the tips we’ve just learned. More importantly we start to talk about the holidays ahead; talking about travel plans and traditions and discussing the different cuisines and dishes our families typically cook for these occasions.

We move into measuring out all our seasonings and sauces, and we combine all our ingredients into a big bowl. We chuckle at how much we’re “measuring with our heart” (by encouragement of Chef Cass). We talk about family recipes that we are trying to learn at home and how this common approach of measuring makes it difficult when trying to outline a recipe for ourselves and generations to come. While the pork and chive crew combine the ingredients, the group working on the mushroom dumplings starts sauteing their medley before we construct the dumplings.


Chef Cass gathers the group around one of the workstations and walks us through the construction of a dumpling. A small dollop of or mixture goes in the center of the wrapper, we dip our finger in a water bowl and trace the edge of the wrapper before picking it up and folding it in half to stick. We watch as Chef Cass takes each side of the dumpling and easily flows through a pinch and fold approach and then swaps to the other side and repeats the same actions. In the matter of seconds, she’s already completed a handful of dumpling demos.

We take a stab at it and quickly realize that dumpling pinching is a true art. We finally work our way through all our filling and wrappers. At first it seemed like it would take forever, but time flew by as we chatted about different topics and laughed at the range in pinching quality within one batch of dumplings.

We all gather around the stove to watch Chef Cass cook the first batch of dumplings. The kitchen quickly fills with a beautiful aroma as the dumplings cook. We clean up our workstations and set out plates and cutlery, eager to try the first batch of dumplings. Before we all walk through, I pause and take in that the kitchen is filled with laughter and audible excitement for the food we have just created together. A few Fellows pull out their phones and snap a quick photo of the beautiful dumpling display before we dive in.

As we walk through the line and serve ourselves, we are mindful of those behind us, making sure everyone gets plenty to try on the first go around. We top our plates off with some sauces including chili garlic and soy sauce. We even sampled a sauce that with just a small amount would make your tongue feel just the slightest bit tingly.

Students at the Culinary Annex

We are too eager to sit, so we gather around the table and take our first bites. Everyone seems pleased and proud of the work we’ve just completed. If that didn’t give away how much we were enjoying it, the countless trips for seconds and thirds was a sure tell. We had made plenty and even after our multiple visits to refill our plates, we had leftovers to take home with us. We divvied up the leftovers, helped clean up the space and said our thank yous and goodbyes before going our separate ways.

I walked away with a huge smile on my face, thankful for this experience in the kitchen and thankful for the conversations I was personally a part of and those I overheard others having.

Whether it is your work team or your friends and family, I highly encourage you check out upcoming classes/events for the Culinary Annex at DSMCulinary.com. Chef Cass truly does create a space to feel safe, valued and supported.

*Note – Working with Chef Cass to coordinate this social was a breeze, but one thing I want to highlight was her ease and flexibility in leading with a menu that would meet our group’s dietary needs. This made every Fellow feel like they belonged, and we didn’t have to adapt to make things work. Chef Cass’ intentionality created a very inclusive environment for the diverse group of fellows in her kitchen that night.

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Josefina Lopez Valdivia

Josefina Lopez Valdivia is a Fellow with the Greater Des Moines Partnership Fellowship Program. She is a Digital Corporate Communications Specialist at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield and has resided in Des Moines for 5+ years enjoying the evolution of authentic cuisines that are spreading across the region.