World on a Plate
Learning to cook isn’t just about food; it’s also about people and cultures. When you acquaint yourself with a region’s foods, you’re stepping into the heart and soul of that culture. Beneath the layers of social habits evident around a dinner table, you uncover a philosophy of life, revealed in the way the food is prepared, served, and eaten.
While my schoolmates established themselves in sensible careers, I traveled the world, eating exotic foods. Because I have always been impressionable, each trip quietly changed me. After I returned home, I never had quite the same ideas about food as I had when I left. Beyond any tangible souvenirs I may have picked up, I’ve brought home with me an appetite for new cuisines from other times and other cultures.
Some countries, it is true, have more-celebrated culinary skills than others; nevertheless, I have always discovered at the very least—whether it be in the soups, pastries, appetizers, or national dishes—a noteworthy flavor. Sometimes an unusual mix of ingredients achieves this flavor. Other times it occurs through the addition of an unexpected spice. However it is done, I always make note of it and try to reproduce the flavor later in my kitchen.
Consequently, food becomes a keepsake skill that can be cherished long after the trip is over. Since traveling should broaden and deepen the human experience, one of the most satisfying parts of a trip can be visiting exotic kitchens. A great way to do this is to attend a cooking school. After years of trial and error, I’ve chosen four of my favorite international cuisines and renowned programs that teach their preparation.
Thailand Many Westerners trying Thai food for the first time become quickly addicted. The cuisine is exotic yet familiar, spicy yet sweet. When properly prepared, the food is a careful balance of contrasting flavors that playfully please the palate. For Thai cooks, the art of cooking is maintaining a balance, never allowing one flavor to overshadow another. Although Thai chefs deserve considerable credit for skillful preparation of food, many of their techniques and ingredients have been borrowed from other cultures. China, India, and Japan have significantly influenced Thailand’s cooking techniques. The coconut creams of Malaysia, peanut sauces of Indonesia, curries of India, and aromatic spices of Arabia have contributed signifiantly to the flavor of Thai food as we now know it today.
The main meal, usually served in the evening, is traditionally enjoyed by family and friends sitting on puffy cushions around a low table. Diners help themselves to an assortment of dishes, family-style. The meal can include a cup of clear soup, a tasty salad, sticky rice, several dishes of varying textures and flavors, and a variety of condiments. Several leading hotels in Bangkok offer cooking classes for English-speaking visitors. The best is The Oriental Thai Cooking School. The world-renowned Oriental Hotel has been teaching classes for thousands of visitors from all over the globe since 1986.
The setting is a charming house surrounded by lush gardens on the banks of the Chao Praya River. The three-room teak house has a lecture room, a demonstration/dining room, and a kitchen where classes are held weekly for small groups (preferably fewer than 15 people). Leading Thai chefs and cooking instructors organize hands-on lessons on contemporary regional cuisine suitable for novices or experts. Classes are carefully structured to provide an understanding of Thai culture and the art of preparing Thai food. Each lesson offers an informal lecture covering Thai culture and traditions and the basic and (if necessary) alternative ingredients used for preparing particular dishes. While the instructor is lecturing, students participate by preparing the food at their cooking stations; the finished food is served for everyone to enjoy. At the end of each class, all the students are given small keepsakes (such as recipes, spices, or an apron). For further detail, contact the OrientalHotel for programs and prices.
For unmatched pampering, students can stay at the hotel and enjoy a full Oriental cooking school program package—limousine transfer to and from the airport, a welcome dinner, a jet-lag massage at the Oriental Spa, five nights in a superior room on the river wing, buffet breakfasts, and instruction from renowned chefs.
For more information and pricing, contact The Oriental Hotel, 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok 10500, Thailand; Tel: 662-659-9000, Fax: 662-659-9284, or mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.
Italy Italians regard food not just as a necessity but also as an important ingredient of life. Every meal conveys their special, lifelong love for food. Like the French, they take cooking seriously and will eagerly learn as much about each ingredient as possible. When preparing food, Italian cooks carefully attend to each step—sampling ingredients during cooking and painstakingly arranging the presentation.
The most important meal, lunch, is generous, and it is enjoyed leisurely with lots of wine and conversation. The meal often begins with an antipasto (a hot or cold appetizer), followed by a primo (a soup, pasta, or risotto), a secondo (meat, fish, chicken, or game), usually accompanied by a contorno (vegetables or salad), and it ends with a dolce (fruit, ice cream, or cheese). Morning and evening meals, unlike the main meal, are usually light and modest by comparison.
To experience real Italian dining, you must visit an Italian kitchen. For this, attend The Tuscan Chef Cooking School. Housed in the faithfully restored 17th-century Villa al Boschiglia, the school will give you a long-remembered and comprehensive introduction to Tuscan cooking.
Good Tuscan cooking requires high-quality local foods in season. Unlike in other areas of Italy, the main course isn’t layered with rich cheese and cream sauces. Instead, it is simply prepared, based on strict, yet easy-to-follow, rules.
Under the guidance of Valter Roman, students at The Tuscan Chef learn how it’s done. Roman, who with his wife, Julia, runs the school, mastered his skills at the Istituto Alberghiero di Casargo, a respected culinary institute on the Italian and Austrian border. Between 1983 and 1997, he worked in respected restaurants throughout the world. For two years, he worked closely with the acclaimed pastry chef Ugo Amato in London, where he created some of the city’s most sought-after pastries and cakes (enjoyed even by the British royal family). His love for Italy’s bella vita drew him back to Tuscany in 1997, where he and Alvaro Maccioni of La Famiglia restaurant in London started their cooking school.
For more information, contact Valter and Julia Roman, The Tuscan Chef, Via del Folle Manzi 8, Vorno, Lucca 55060 Italy; Tel: 39-058-397-1464 or 39-348-440-6367 or thetuscanchef.com.
Brazil Brazil is a large, multiethnic country with each region specializing in foods that reflect its ethnic makeup. In the north (Amazônia), there is a native-Indian influence, evident in the caruru do pará (a fish and root vegetable meal). In the northeast (Bahia), African and Portuguese influences are present in vatapá and moqueca (two seafood dishes using palm oil). In the southeast, specifically Ouro Preto, Portuguese influence is evident in the lombo de porco à moda de Vila Rica (pork roast Vila Rica style). And in the south, a gaucho influence appears in the churrasco (barbecued meats and sausages).
Of the many tasty regional foods available in Brazil, some of the most popular among visitors are feijoada (a bean, sausage, and meat stew), salgadinhos (Brazilian pastries stuffed with cheese and meats), cozido (a mix of meats and vegetables boiled together), and, of course, churrasco. Although European and Asian cuisine is available and enjoyed, especially in São Paulo and Rio, Brazilians generally prefer traditional foods adapted from Portuguese and African recipes. These foods are normally served at room temperature, home-style, in one large pot, and, for those needing fire, with a little molho apimentado (a hot table sauce).
A favorite cooking school among Europeans who want to learn about Brazilian food and culture is the Academy of Cooking & Other Pleasures. Yara Castro Roberts, the daughter of a famous Brazilian chef and caterer, runs the school. Trained in culinary arts at Boston University, art history at the École du Louvre, and education at the Sorbonne, she brings to her teaching the best of three worlds—French savoir-faire, Latin warmth, and American practicality. Dubbed by The New York Times an inexhaustible ambassador for food and other things Brazilian, Roberts has lectured at leading American universities and has appeared in the video Brazilian Cuisine With Yara Roberts and a PBS series on Brazil’s cuisine and cultural traditions.
Three-and-a-half hours by car from Rio, the academy is in Paraty, a seaside colonial city. During the 18th century’s gold and diamond rush, Paraty became wealthy as a major port for shipping gold and precious stones to Portugal. Pressed against the sea by mountains, it is today a quaintly preserved resort, popular with tourists who enjoy strolls along narrow cobblestone streets past charming inns, colonial homes, and trendy restaurants—or who like to swim at breathtaking island beaches and hike through rain forests to waterfalls with natural pools.
Each cooking lesson taught provides students with an introduction to gastronomy and background on the food’s ethnic and regional connection to the traditions and history of Brazil. For more information, contact Yara Castro Roberts, Rua Dona Geralda 228, Centro Historico, Paraty 23970-000 Brazil; Tel: 55-24-3371-6468 or chefbrazil.com.
Virginia Each year, Virginians pay homage to food with festivals of all types— honoring the apple, the oyster, the peanut, and the ham. Food choices in the commonwealth are as great as they are anywhere, and in some cases they accompany a special event, like the shad planking in Wakefield or the oyster festival in Chincoteague. All kinds of ethnic dishes (Greek, Lebanese, Hispanic, and more) are featured, even celebrated. As a result, Virginia offers food lovers more than just early-American plantation food, like baked hams, roasted meats, and hot breads. Many local products such as jams, pastries, shortbreads, and cheeses are labeled “Made in Virginia.”
The best place to learn about the state’s foods is at the Boar’s Head Inn in Charlottesville. Owned and operated by the University of Virginia Foundation, the inn is named for a 16th-century London inn once known for its hospitality and food. Like its famous namesake, the Virginia Boar’s Head excels at both. A blend of 19th-century charm and 21st-century convenience, the inn sits on 573 acres of rolling hills at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, close to Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, the 18th-century Michie Tavern (which offers a tasty Colonial lunch daily), wineries, and other enjoyable distractions.
A personalized, full-service resort (with a health spa, tennis courts, children’s programs, and a golf course), the inn also is known for its cooking classes under the able guidance of Executive Chef Douglas Knopp. Ever since Knopp enrolled in the culinary program at the British Columbia Technical College, his career has soared. After the Four Seasons Hotel in Vancouver, where he quickly distinguished himself, he became sous chef for the hotel chain’s top luxury resort in the West Indies, The Four Seasons Nevis. He moved on within the Four Seasons chain and to other respected hotels and resorts until 2004, when he and his family decided to settle at the Boar’s Head Inn. For details and pricing, contact Boar’s Head Inn, 200 Ednam Drive, Charlottesville, Virginia 22903; Tel: 434-972-6011 or boarsheadinn.com.