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Emerging Chefs #1

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Personal Perspectives

Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page(s): 29 and 30


Shirley Cheng, a professional Chinese chef who trained, cooked, and taught Chinese cooking in Chengdu, in the Sichuan Province, teaches Asian Cuisine at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park NY. This is not new for her, she has been instructing this three week required first-year course for years at this outstanding American culinary training facility fondly called The CIA.

This CIA is a phenomenal institution, hard to get in, and difficult to get through. No goof-offs allowed at this gorgeous place with wonderful food that is located on a bluff upstate in Hyde Park, New York. Sitting facing the Hudson River, the view inspires as does the teaching within. Open to outsiders for many meals, this CIA has several wonderful restaurants where reservations are required. It is about ninety miles north of New York City, and very worth the trip to see what they dao, taste it, too.

Every student in Cheng's class, has a non-culinary component. He or she is encouraged to write a short article about any experience had with Chinese cuisine. One article by Alison Fong, which deserves special attention was published solo in this magazine's Volume 11(4) on pages 17 and 18. Other students can submit their experiences to thiseditor for consideration; and many already have.

Chef Cheng and the staff at Flavor and Fortune hope this new column will appear often. Most will be a composite of the work of many emerging chefs. Their names will appear at the end of their articles. In this issue, the composite writings are all Chef Cheng's students. Other emerging chefs are welcome to submit their impressions of Chinese food, and we do look forward to publishing them, as well.

Most of the emerging chefs had little or no experience with Chinese or the foods of any other Asian cuisine. They knew little to nothing about these cultures before they took this required three-week course in their two to four year chef-training experiences. Chef Cheng's class not only teaches the basics, the how's and the why's, but each class member participates and actually helps prepare a complete meal each and every class day. This meal is not for themselves but for up to one hundred faculty, students, and staff at this culinary school.

As they learn, students think about what and how to cook, and how to use what they are learning. Here are some of their thoughts. Before sharing them, to relieve angst in her professional Chinese kitchen, Chef Cheng tells them: A thousand mile journey starts by taking the first step. She wants them to understand her own very ancient cuisine, love it and the others, and understand each aspect of it, step-by-step. She leads the way from ignorance to a deep sense of respect. The students learn and say they are forever amazed. Their reporting, in their own words combined as one article, follows, as will others in future issues. For many, Chinese cuisine jumps to mind as one of the major Asian cuisines.

"Raised in decidedly un-cosmopolitan Maine, my chopstick skills were embarrassing, at best. The earliest memories of Chinese cuisine were of delight. Take-out for dinner meant enjoying various deep-fried, grilled, and stir-fried meats. I never realized that for much of the world, the Chinese included, meat is only a garnish and not a main attraction."

"I spent four years in the San Francisco Bay area as a college student where I encountered exciting flavors, exotic combinations, and a bewildering array of new kinds of spicy and sour sensations. My culinary interest blossomed there. Now thanks to a mandatory course for all first-year students at the CIA, I have broadened awareness of many cuisines in Asia. They are cultures that dazzle at times, baffle at others with their array of culinary specialities. They transform food from functional necessity to pleasure-filled art. In no class is diversity better represented. In no class are westerners more challenged than in this Asian Cuisine course. Chef Cheng packs culture and history, many recipes, and so many new techniques that heads begin to spin. I began to understand how all those gastronomic treats I experienced in California were created."

"I liked the emphasis on efficiency, precise preparations, the high heat required, and the high volume. The speed of the wok is something else; not to mention its versatility. As my veil of ignorance began to lift, profound new respect for the variety and sophistication of Chinese cuisine entered my brain. There really is so much more to Chinese cuisine than fortune cookies and crookedly held chopsticks."

"I came to learn more than I imagined. A wok has symbolism and meaning. A wok can serve any task; and cleaning it by turning on water conveniently located above it is just magical. Brushing away the dirt left from food cooked in a wok is one miraculous way to wash a pot that can steam, cook soup, stir-fry and deep-fry, and so much more. It just fascinates me."

"Chef Cheng taught in a dynamic way, the Chinese way. I like how we operate in her kitchen. Most influential was her philosophy, respect its key component. Showing respect for each other was very demanding, but rewarding. So was politeness. Being selfless and saying 'you go first' or responding, 'no, you go first' was a site to see. These roles and those of leadership, responsibility for the daily pace, and giving feedback after the kitchen was cleaned really does improve teamwork and the learning environment. Glad I learned to do things Chef Cheng's way."

"The first two days in Chef Cheng's class was when my reverence for her and Chinese cuisine came about. I now drool over moo shu vegetables and am ready to try the newest food or eatery. In this class, my adoration for cuisine and technique were born."

"The most recent time I ate at a well-touted Chinese restaurant in a big city, a very expensive one at that, taught me how much I learned. I knew that their food had high prices but low flavor. My food knowledge now includes those types of judgements and how Chinese cuisine combines flavors. This place did not do much of that. Chef Cheng really helps students understand where all the neat flavors come from, and why. Before her class, I had no idea that wonton soup had so many ingredients. Almost every dish I made in her Chinese class had oil, garlic, ginger, and scallions; must remember to always have them at the ready before I do any Chinese cooking. Also want to have chicken stock, soy sauce, salt and pepper, and more."

"I learned a lot about Chinese cuisine. For instance, when you are ready to eat, do not until you say to others at your table: Go ahead and eat first. The Chinese appreciate that small gesture; and now I do, too. It makes the meal more civil and the food taste better. When relaxed, everyone's taste buds really can taste more."

"Having gone to a Chinese market since starting this course, I am now willing to purchase an unknown ingredient. It quickly becomes one I am ready to use; ready that is, after I get over being overwhelmed. I learned to savor flavors I never thought about before. I like those that are intense and those that are subtle. In the end, I am surprised about how I feel about many new ingredients. Now I do not hesitate to buy, taste, and try new foods, even strong or strange ones. I like those I have been introduced to, and others yet waiting to be put into my shopping cart to learn about. Can not wait to take them home, open them up, and see what I can do with them."

"My Chinese culinary art really blossomed. It has broadened my awareness and my appreciation. My veil of ignorance is beginning to lift. I am no longer a challenged westerner. Instead, I am enjoying something I never ever realized was missing from my life. Thank you China, thank you Chinese food, and thank you Chef Shirley Cheng. Together, you have opened the door to a world of food eaten by more people than any other in this world. I am thrilled to have entered it and look forward to more enjoyment as I partake of even more."
_____
This article was made possible thanks to Chef Professor Shirley Cheng's forwarding student work to us. The following students: Evan Lamb, Darlene DiMeglio, Richard Craven, Jamie Levine, Pennington Marchael, John Demore, and Joshua Pinsky are the authors of the paragraphs used together for this article; we thank them all.

                                                                                                                                                       
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