Way back in the 90s, after two years of living in Jinan, I faced a choice: grad school or cooking school. Having been thoroughly indoctrinated into the idea that fancy degrees are their own reward, I chose the former, and the rest is history, or at least a PhD in it.
But even if I didn’t necessarily intend to make a career of cooking, I never lost the desire for formal culinary training. At some level I justified my interest in terms of research–that I could meet the people who would go on to become cooks, or learn about the business behind cooking schools–but let’s be honest, you don’t need to justify something something you have always wanted to do.
So here I am, at the New Asia Cooking School (新东方烹饪学校) located in an industrial suburb of Chengdu. This is a trade school, the kind you would see advertised in train stations, with pictures of long rows of trainee chefs all flipping woks in unison. It’s advertised that way because that’s exactly how the training works. Since they do it just outside my window, I can testify that one hundred people tossing dried corn kernels in empty woks does indeed make a pretty impressive amount of noise, especially when someone has the idea to add the beat of a giant drum to make sure everyone stays in rhythm. If the new Mulan movie were about food, the training montage would look a lot like this.
The people who come in at this level are all very young–17 or 18–and generally from poor backgrounds. In Sichuan that means that many of them come from up in the mountains, and that the tuition represents a significant investment of family resources. The young recruits who show up with worried looking parents in tow are no doubt comforted by the big photographs of graduates who have gone on to success as cooks or restaurant owners. These students come for a one or two year course, and leave with excellent skills training.
My course is an intensive boot camp in Sichuan cuisine. It’s 25 days, 8:30-5:00, plus a good half hour on either end for prep and cleaning. In those 25 days, we learn 75 dishes, which simply put is a hell of a lot of dishes. I’ll tell you about some of these later.
I was initially somewhat concerned that the short course would be less rigorous than the longer ones. Not so! Everyone except me comes with a restaurant background, and things like knife skills are not emphasized because it is assumed that everyone has them.
On day one, I was placed in front of the giant stove like one you would see in a Chinese professional kitchen–you know, the kind that makes the terrifying whooshing sound when the fire comes on. Fun fact, there’s an actual dragon in there. Seriously, you look down and you see him, and he’s just stares back like a judgmental prick.
But judgmental dragons aside, I can barely express how thrilled I am to be here. Every day, I leave class smelling like fish guts and chili oil, ride my bike home, and collapse on my bed until I can muster up the energy to go shower.