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
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
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
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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