Taste Test

At the Four Seasons, a hopeless cook learns to make a real meal

By: Jim Calio

I am notorious for not knowing how to cook. Sure, I can scramble eggs or toast bread. But when it comes to cooking something more complicated like a real meal, for example, I admit I’m incompetent. I am of the New York school of cooking: I order in.

So, imagine my surprise when I recently found myself whipping up three kinds of curry at a cooking school in Thailand.

The setting was the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai, about a one-hour flight north of Bangkok. The hotel itself is a little way out of town in the lush Mae Rim Valley, and its 60 pavilions are set among huge bamboo, teak and banyan trees and cascading waterfalls.

The resort also has working rice paddies on the property, and clients can see laborers in the watery fields from several of the rooms. Scarecrows in straw hats are posted at intervals to keep marauding birds away, and a water buffalo even works the fields.

Make no mistake about it, however, this is a five-star luxury hotel, and the 20-acre property boasts, among other things, a first-class spa, two spectacular restaurants, the Elephant bar and self-guided bicycle tours of the nearby countryside.

The cooking school is housed in its own pavilion, a huge rectangular building set apart on a hill with floor-to-ceiling windows, and features a chef’s demonstration table and eight work stations for student chefs, all neatly arranged in rows.

Before we entered the building for the day’s cooking lesson, we all folded our hands and prayed at the “spirit house” next to the stone staircase, keeping with Thai tradition. I also prayed that I wouldn’t blow anything up.

The chef, Pitak Srichan, was a tall, cheerful man who had worked around the world before coming home to Thailand to teach traditional, Lanna-style cooking, Thailand’s famed northern cuisine.

About 10 of us, some cooks and some not, gathered in front of his demonstration table, where he proceeded to show us the fine art of chopping, dicing and slicing. In bottles around him and fresh on the table sat the classic ingredients of Thai cooking: lemongrass, ginger, galangal, turmeric, garlic and herbs and vegetables all grown in a nearby garden.

In no time, with all of us looking on with rapt attention, Pitak whipped up curry from scratch and made a delicious Chiang Mai curry noodle soup with chicken. We all had a taste, and then it was down to business. We were handed aprons, paired off and sent to our cooking stations to try it ourselves.

Now, it’s no secret that no one there had the time let alone the skill to cook from scratch, like the chef. But no matter, the utensils were laid out for us, as were all the ingredients, including red chilies and fermented fish sauce, which had been prepared ahead of time. Gently, and with good humor, the chef encouraged us to get started, and he and his friendly staff wandered from station to station to help out.

(I should also mention that the chef pointed to one of his assistants and announced, “He knows first aid, so don’t worry,” which drew a few nervous laughs as we took up our knives.)
I was a bit panicked. What if I messed it up, or what if I set the wok on fire, or worse? But my partner across the table coached me when I got stuck, and somehow we produced our own Chiang Mai curry noodle soup with chicken in about 20 minutes.

Then came the taste test. We all gathered around the chef’s table to eat what we had made. I had a large pitcher of water next to me, just in case what I’d cooked set my mouth on fire. But lo and behold, it was pretty good, and even another friend, a New Yorker who knew Thai cooking, tried my small masterpiece and gave me a thumbs up.

We did this twice more, making pork and vegetable curry and, once again, sampling our dishes. If I thought the chef had a mean bone in his body, I would say that having to eat our own cooking was his guarantee that we wouldn’t slough off. But the chef didn’t have a mean bone, nor did any other Thai I met on the trip.

Then, when we had finished, came the coup de grace. We were all given certificates saying that we had completed a one-day cooking course at the Four Seasons cooking school in Chiang Mai. We also took home our aprons as souvenirs.

Now, if I could just convince my friends that I really do know how to cook.


Three-day all-inclusive cooking school packages at the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai, cost between $500-$665 a night, depending on accommodations and season.
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