It's nudging 6pm on a Friday, and around the country scores of amateur cooks are setting up in their kitchens, gathered around chopping boards and, for this special meal, laptops and tablets as well.
The culinary mission is a three-course Mexican feast, but the broader mission is more substantial. This is cooking for a cause, via an online class hosted by Melbourne restaurateur Gerardo Lopez, who has used the city's current lockdown to raise funds for an appropriate charity.
The profits from his Zoom-based lessons are donated to Friends for Good, which aims to combat loneliness in the community. The charity was set up in 2016, and four years later found itself in high demand as the community was forced into months of enforced isolation by the pandemic.
"I was talking to a lot of a lot of people and it felt like this latest lockdown hit people pretty hard," Lopez says.
"People were really feeling it … so the idea came from shaking that up a little bit and giving people an opportunity to do something different – to get their friends involved and get people connected again."
Lopez, who opened his Kensington restaurant La Tortilleria in 2013, provides class participants with a home-delivered box of key ingredients including soft tacos, chipotle chillies and the base ingredients for some potent Mexican cocktails.
He also provides a recipe booklet and shopping list for the rest of the ingredients (for a recent class attended by The Age these cost $40).
The $80 classes run for two hours with Lopez proving to be a vibrant Zoom host on a two-camera set-up at Casa Iberica Deli in Alphington. Participants at home type questions in the online chat and have plenty of time to cook, drink and engage.
Lopez encourages friends or relatives doing the class in separate homes to use a secondary platform, such as FaceTime or WhatsApp, to chat amongst themselves throughout. There is even a dedicated playlist on Spotify.
"We have people from Western Australia, Brisbane and NSW," he says. "We have entire families connecting over Mexican food."
Laura Rouhan, co-founder of Friend For Good, said the fundraising from Lopez's classes was a perfect fit for a charity whose services – which range from education and research into loneliness to a telephone "FriendLine" – have been in high demand during lockdowns.
"It's an opportunity to have a real cultural exchange, and doing that in the context of bringing people together," she says.
"Nothing gets people together like food … and this is an opportunity to connect and to do something a bit different. We know that food unites people. It gets us talking and it creates an atmosphere of sharing and connection."
More opportunities to make food and friends online
Gerardo Lopez of La Tortilleria will continue his online classes after lockdown. Bookings for the next class on November 20 can be made at tacoguy.com.au.
Meanwhile, superstar chef Manu Feildel headlines an Instagram-based food initiative called #CookToConnect. The digital campaign, with the theme of "Share A Plate With A Mate", takes viewers inside the kitchens of top chefs and raises money for food charity OzHarvest. More details at plateforamate.com.
Free To Feed also hosts a wide range of cooking classes. The Australian charity aims to empower asylum-seekers and refugees through employment and training opportunities. Further information can be found at freetofeed.org.au.
Airbnb even launched a range of charitable online cooking classes during the first wave of the pandemic, and continues to host classes from around the world on its "Experiences" platform, including some with Australian chefs and restaurants. Visit airbnb.com.au/s/experiences/cooking for more information.