Saturday, December 18, 2004


Asia's hottest chefs turn up the heat

By Fuchsia Dunlop

Do too many cooks spoil the broth? Well, that is certainly how the theory goes. But as anyone can tell you, theory does not always correspond with reality.
Fuchsia Dunlop (centre) with the chefs
The conference brought together chefs from all over Asia

It could have been a recipe for disaster.
Put together, in a single, vast kitchen, chefs from China, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and India.
Leave vital ingredients in unlocked cupboards. And then get everyone to spend five days together in this culinary hothouse, cooking to tight deadlines for the discriminating palates of food professionals from all over the world.
It could have been a recipe for disaster, but instead it was one of the most joyful, challenging, hilarious and fascinating weeks I can remember.
I had been invited to talk about Sichuanese cuisine at an Asian food conference at the Culinary Institute of America (which, incidentally, really is known as the CIA).
The school suggested that I bring along a few cooks to give some demonstrations. And in the end, I managed to persuade three exceptional Sichuanese chefs to meet me in California.
Xiao Jianming, Yu Bo, Lan Guijun and I arrived at the campus of the CIA on a cool November morning.
Mist was hanging on the lovely Napa Valley hills.
In our suitcases we had razor-sharp cleavers, small copper frying pans, dried chillies, chef's hats and one terrifying 18-inch machete - more about that later.
It was a first visit to California for all of us, so we were all ready for an adventure.
The CIA campus is in a magnificent old winery which calls to mind a medieval castle.
The air hums with the sounds of chopping and frying

And the kitchens, well, they are kitchens on an almost inconceivable scale. In a huge, warehouse-like space, blocks of work surfaces recede into the far distance.
There are ovens and steamers, wok burners and pastry tables. Pots and pans hang all around.
The chefs, jetlagged and culture-shocked, burst into life when they start work in these kitchens.
With two demonstrations and three tastings for up to 700 people, there is a lot to prepare.
They roast and grind spices, set chilli oil to infuse.
Each day we are joined by another contingent of chefs, until the air hums with the sounds of chopping and frying, and of conversation in a hotch-potch of different languages.
Exquisite dishes are crafted from an almost infinite range of ingredients

As my Sichuanese friends do not speak any English, they rely on me to translate urgent messages.
"We need 5kg of daikon radish immediately."
"Who has pinched our Chinkiang vinegar?"
"Please may I have a lemon."
I find myself behaving like a bossy schoolmistress as I answer incessant questions and try to keep everyone calm.
Luckily, one of my chefs starts communicating with the Japanese team using their common medium of Chinese characters. And before long, we are all making friends through the universal language of food.
Culinary delights
The cooking school has assigned volunteers to help every team.
Soon Yu Bo is teaching a Turkish-American chef and a Korean-American student how to carve potatoes into strange geometric shapes and tie long yellow beans into complicated knots.
Essential ingredients go missing and tempers flare

Xiao Jianming is filling the air with exquisite smells as he prepares fish-fragrant pork ribs for the first evening's tasting.
Lan Guijun retires modestly to a quiet corner with his 6ft pastry board, but as he starts to roll out his hand-made pasta, a crowd gathers to marvel at his artistry.
As the opening of the conference approaches, the pace quickens.
Essential ingredients go missing and tempers flare.
But the CIA chef assigned to our teams maintains his patience and good humour, and manages to conjure up everything that is needed.
All around us is a mad hubbub of activity.
Long rows of student volunteers sort bean-sprouts and peel shrimps.
An Indian street vendor from Singapore does strange hand-gymnastics with whirling discs of translucent dough.
We give the students Sichuan pepper to put on their tongues, and laugh at their surprise at its strange, lip-tingling effects.
And the room fills with a wild confusion of delicious smells.
In the end, my Sichuanese companions dazzle the audience with their cooking.
On the stage, Yu Bo displays a chessboard of 16 cold appetisers, in which every ingredient is cut into a different shape and given a different-flavoured sauce.
People cannot believe their eyes when they see the delicate "sparrow's wings" made from cucumber and the little spools of rolled-up chives.
Lan Guijun brings out his terrifying machete and starts cutting sheets of green dough into hair-like strands.
Xiao Jianming with another chef
Xiao Jianming specialises in Sichuanese cuisine

Xiao Jianming, shown via video-link from the kitchen, stir-fries prawns in a lychee-flavoured sauce which he pours over crispy rice.
There is an explosion of steam and sizzling, and then an explosion of applause.
On the last day, when our work is over, the kitchen quietens down and people begin to drift away.
Our Sichuanese contingent bands together with the Shanghai team for an impromptu Chinese meal.
The head chef of a smart Shanghai hotel whips up some stir-fries, a soup and a potful of rice.
We all dive in with our chopsticks.
And after the intense and varied flavours of the last few days, nothing could be more soothing than this simple, home-cooked meal.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 December 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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