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Cooking classes at Sewickley's Sweetwater just part of what Watkins brings to table

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Isabel Thompson, 12, of Ben Avon slices peaches to make puff pastries during Olga Watkins' cooking class at Sweetwater Center for the Arts Wednesday, June 26, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Students are reflected in an oven where homemade lasagna is baking during Olga Watkins' cooking class at Sweetwater Center for the Arts Wednesday, June 26, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Chef Olga Watkins talks to students in her cooking class at Sweetwater Center for the Arts Wednesday, June 26, 2013.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Chef Olga Watkins demonstrates to students how to make puff pastries during a cooking class at Sweetwater Center for the Arts Wednesday, June 26, 2013.

Olga Watkins dreamed of being a “multitude of things” when she was younger, and that's just what she's doing.

Watkins, 43, is a blues, soul and funk singer and songwriter, a cooking teacher, a chef, wife and mother.

The Highland Park resident has been teaching cooking classes for about 10 years at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley. She and her group, The Olga Watkins Band, also perform there often.

She has experience with various cooking styles. As a child, she not only helped her mother cook Pennsylvania Dutch meals but learned about foods from Afghanistan, Uganda, Vietnam and other places when refugees stayed with her parents, the late Rev. Curtis Watkins and the Rev. Liz Watkins, in their home in Wheeling.

Those visitors often cooked, and Watkins watched.

She has worked at restaurants since age 12, changing her attitude over time. She now uses healthier ingredients, and has toned down her need to impress people.

Her students still seem to love what they learn in her classes.

Morgan Kaufman, 12, of Ellwood City, traveled 50 minutes every day last week to take a children's cooking class.

“You get to taste all your own food and it's a good experience,” she said.

Michelle Peters, Sweetwater executive director, said Watkins is “an amazing multi-talented woman who has a great rapport with children and adults. She was known as the singing chef when I met her.”

Peters said when Watkins' band plays at the center, she has gotten standing ovations. And based on class evaluations, “Everyone just loves her.”

“She is always willing to help us like volunteering to have a live cooking demonstration when we had a ribbon cutting ceremony for our new kitchen, which she helped us renovate.”

Classes with Watkins, also a cooking columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, almost always are full.

Watkins also has made musical changes throughout her life.

After singing solos as a youngster in her parents' church, she progressed to singing opera. After receiving a scholarship to Chatham University, she studied music for a year before accepting a position with an opera group in Chicago when she was 19.

After deciding opera wasn't what she wanted to do, she moved back to the Pittsburgh area. She tried to sing jazz, then realized she had lost her nerve to perform.

Watkins said she began working in the restaurant business again. While living in Coraopolis, she found Sweetwater and began teaching cooking classes for adults, and then children.

Through the connection with Sweetwater, she began performing at several different types of shows, including an event where she both cooked and sang. She also sang with Sweet Jazz series performances with her band, which she formed in 2009.

During one of her jazz performances, several audience members insisted she sing “Drink Up Yinz Bitches.”

The song, which she wrote in 2010, remains popular with Steelers fans and is played on several radio stations during football seasons. The song prompted more sales of her band's first CD, “Long Time Coming,” released the same year.

Watkins said she and her brother, Reggie, who tours the country with a band and played trombone for a song on the band's first CD, inherited some of their talent from their musical mother.

Ella, 11, her daughter with husband Mark Miller, also has talent. Ella, who will attend Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts middle school next year for vocals, also takes her mother's cooking classes.

Watkins looks forward to releasing a second CD with her band. To find out more about her cooking classes, call Sweetwater at 412-741-4405.

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or

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