A typical day in Bangkok begins with being woken in the early hours of the morning from the hustle and bustle of the city waking to another day. Traffic roaring through the streets, people from all walks of life hurrying to get to work, others setting up stalls to maximise the rush hour foot traffic or just the general folk who appear to spend their lives in the exact same position on the side of the street, happily watching the days events unfold in front of them. Although to say Bangkok is a city that goes to sleep would be untrue. I haven’t yet seen the streets surrounding me during its “down time”, I don’t believe that saying even exists out here.
Any morning wouldn’t be complete for an Englishman without a cup of tea, and it just so happens that a box of Earl Grey teabags made it into my suitcase (along with Maldon Sea Salt Flakes and a brick of Lavazza Qualitia Rossa coffee beans). Wonderful exotic fruits are readily available everywhere (it’s currently pomegranate season), and this make the perfect light, refreshing breakfast. Out the door and the journey to school begins by hoping on the back of a motorbike taxi to the closest BTS SkyTrain station. If the caffeine hasn’t woken me up this 5 minute thrill ride certainly does the job. Two stops on the BTS and I head underground to the MTR Metro (Bangkok’s newest transport link), which takes me to the door of the Dusit Thani Hotel and my cookery school, Le Cordon Bleu.
I head to the locker room and change into uniform (checked pants, white chefs jacket and steel toe-capped work shoes), then to the Demonstration Room for the first three hours of my day. These demonstrations are not too dissimilar to those held at food festivals and gatherings if you’ve ever been to those before? Except you sit in lecture style chairs, taking notes, watching close up’s on TV screens of fish having their heads dismembered or other such preparation techniques. Although instead of being shown a single dish from start to finish the Head Chef introduces you to three new recipes and proceeds to juggle all three during the same three-hour demonstration, seamlessly producing three plates of elegant looking food. Which you of course get to sample and ask questions about if you so wish. Chef might decide to start by preparing a boeuf bouillon for Consommé aux Brunoises, then switch his attention to the slaughtering of crabs for a delicate and rich Bisque D’étrilles, before introducing yet another new dish of Crème Dubarry. The first week has been soups and stocks for those spotting a theme in dishes. If this wasn’t enough for the poor Thai students, lectures are given in English, and all dishes, cooking methods and techniques are to be learned by French name. Thai, English, French… What’s even going on anymore? Émincer these carrots, paysanne that turnip, mirepoix et suer the onions. Kwap koon krahp class! You see where I’m going with this.
It’s imperative to take thorough notes on the cooking method at this stage because in twenty minutes you will find yourself in one of the practise kitchens with an ingredients list, surrounded by heavy-duty machinery, professional standard hot tops and gas burners, high-tech gadgets and your trusty tool kit (containing an overwhelming forty-eight items, including razor-sharp knifes, piping bags and nozzles, whisks, peeler, baller, crimper, timer, thermometer and an arson of never seen or used kitchen equipment). Classes are supervised by a Head Chef, maybe a Parisian who has worked in some of the finest Michelin Star restaurants in his native country and conducts his supervision with military precision, stern yet fair, and at times barking directions in what can only be described as Frenglish. To say the first weeks practical classes were manic is an understatement. I can’t speak for all but I found that the allotted time to produce your final dish disappeared in what seemed like minutes. In reality you’re given three hours to present you dish to the pass for Head Chef’s judgment and critique before being graded. Fortunately I’ve made it to the pass on time on each occasion, although I can’t say the same for others in my group. And late to the pass means points deducted from your final dish. Not good as this all contributes to your final award. In these initial practical classes I’ve witnessed people slicing into their fingers rather than carrots with their German issue chefs knife, pots of boiling water being dropped on others, fires erupting out of sauté pans and people close to tears as they rush between prep station to gas burner, back to station and then to the sink to wash-up so they can repeat the process hundreds of times. Utter chaos.
But the moment when it all comes together, all elements reach their final stages and the finish line is in sight. It’s an exhilarating experience. Knowing that as you warm you crockery under the hot grill, your blood, sweat and tears have gone into the making of this dish (horribly so this is quite literally the case for some students). Plating up is always a nervous time as you don’t want to ruin all this hard work to present some kind of road side diner dish. Calm nerves, a steady hand and finesse are the skills needed at this point in time, allowing you to reproduce the presentation envisioned inside ones mind onto the blank canvas before you.
Finally the judging of your dish. Taken to a side annex of the kitchen away from prying eyes, Chef glares down at what’s presented to him then takes a spoon and tastes. Nothing is said, he glances up at you, then back down at the dish and tastes again. Once again he looks up, takes a step back, folds his arms and lets out a sigh. Oh no, that can’t be good news.
“This is an excellently executed plate of food with attractive presentation. you have done well today in the kitchen”.
Massive relief and pride takes over.
“But… I will mention, this dish tastes under seasoned to me. It needs more salt, always more salt”.