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Emerging Chefs

by Shirley, and Her Students Cheng

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 2014 Issue: 21(3) page(s): 28 and 29


Twenty-four students from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park New York went on a three week trip to China. None had been there before. Their reactions fascinate. The academic advisor/group leader was Shirley Cheng, a Professor at the CIA where she teaches Chinese and other Asian cuisines.

She shares some of her and their written thoughts beginning by telling us they started this tour in Chengdu in the largest agricultural province in China, Sichuan. Chengdu is the capital city of the province, one with many, many restaurants that feature foods of this region.

The students quickly learned that food is very important here, as they learned that there are more than thirty-five thousand restaurants in this province. They also learned about the long-standing culinary heritage of the province, and how its residents adore its spicy foods.

Included in this trip was a visit to Xian, the historic and ancient capital of the Shanxi Province. It was the capital of China during twelve different dynasties from the Western Zhou (1046 - 771 BCE) to the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 CE). They also the current capital, Beijing, and many other places including a factory making rice-liquor, a winery where many different wines are bottled, many restaurants, lots of other food facilities, the Giant Panda Research Center, the Bamboo Forest, Wenshu Monastery, the Jaizhu Tea Farm, and a culinary school, and other places.

Overall, the students were amazed and said that "every place was exceptionally clean," they were "well-organized,' and "workers were more than willing to share what they knew." The students ate many foods in outdoor markets, loved the street foods, had several meals in the schools they visited, ate in high-end restaurants, went into many kitchens, and had chances to try their culinary talent alongside Chinese chefs preparing Chinese food for some Chinese patrons. The students gained respect for China's culinary culture, learned about its food history, better understood Chinese ways of life, and examined different Chinese cuisines.

They reported about what they saw and ate, and their reactions to both. Most had already studied Asian foods for one term at the CIA. The following sentences are a composite of their thoughts put together, their names listed alphabetically at the end of this article. We do thank them for their thoughts.

Every student commented on the same negative aspect of the trip, the long travel time required from Newark, New Jersey where they began, to Chengdu in China, their first stop. They also all commented on how great the food was. Many spoke about the delicious meat eaten on skewers in the markets, the bowls of wonderful noodles consumed on the street, and the delicious high-end dishes eaten in upscale restaurants. Many also wrote about being impressed with the precision and skill of every culinary person they watched. Many commented on their ability and enthusiasm, and that every one of them shared so openly with them.

Many students reported loving many of the new foods they tasted, and how good everyone was to them. They were amazed at how many Chinese seen on the streets were constantly on the move by foot, bike, motorbike, or car. To a person, they remarked about the insane traffic they saw.

Students reported being impressed at the Chinese sense of togetherness and community, and at the speed most exhibited when walking. They also commented about really knowing now why foods are cut small, the real purpose of chopsticks, and that they now understand why they use them to eat Chinese food.

Students said dishes in Beijing were more familiar to them than those in Chengdu, and that every dish eaten in China was one hundred times better than Chinese food in the United States. They commented about eating pigs ears, donkey meat, even bugs; and they were amazed at how good each of these tasted. They were also amazed at how few pieces of machinery were used in the fields, and how few were used in every kitchen they visited. Many spoke about the small size of most kitchens, and how huge others were, and that even in every one of them, no space was wasted. Some even remarked about space utilization in the fields and how they were used to the max. Several wrote about their delight at tasting spicy, sweet, and savory in a single dish all at the very same time.

The CIA students were impressed with the skill and graceful movements of those serving them when they filleted a fish with a super-sized cleaver, when plating main dishes, and even when pouring them tea.

After this trip, many spoke about learning about fermenting foods and wines, mining salt, and other food topics they knew little about before coming to China. Several were fascinated that fifty thousand workers worked in one rice factory, that they were delighted to be able to eat hot pot with more than one liquid in a special container made for it, about sharing a table with nine others, about the small size of the main meal plates and about taking food from a turntable in the middle of the table. Quite a few mentioned liking that they always ate family style and the hospitality it affords. They said they now were used to it and hoped it would be adopted in the USA.

Most of these culinary students have a passion for food and for cooking it. In China, they learned the value of harvesting foods at the right moment and a few mentioned that a good tea picker needs patience and can pick ten pounds of tea in one day. Others mentioned how quickly one can learn to pick the very best tea leaves possible. Some said they now understand that all Chinese meals balance harmony in flavor, texture, and taste, and what that really means. One even said he will do so when preparing meals at home in the future. These American students found Chinese culinary students taking pride in their cooking more than most in their own culinary school.

Several students reported seeing phenomenal technical skill in every kitchen they visited. Some said the number one chef's precision and speed was incredible. A few wrote about every food tasted came out of its kitchen perfectly even in the fast food chain facilities. What amazed several was that this was true if they were preparing pigs brains, duck intestine, or a pork chop. Many found eating some of the foods strange but tantalizing. They were amazed they were scrumptious and did melt in their mouth. A few, in the vegetarian restaurant, were fascinated that the food looked like what it was imitating but tasted better than anything vegetarian in the USA.

Most students reported they learned everywhere they went, and that in China, there were always fascinating things to see, do, and learn. One of these was that every wok can and does produce a plethora of different dishes that are wonderful. A few commented that the salt they had from different salt mines did taste delicious and different; this astounded them.

Each of the students reported about many personal encounters. They were pleased that the Chinese were pleased to talk to them, even if doing so with their hands as for a few, language was a problem. Overall, they reported the roast duck better than any in the USA, always was cut perfectly, and the pieces always of equal size. A few said the hoisin sauce and scallions came wrapped in a perfectly cooked crepe called a 'skin' and that it was the best they ever had.

This trip changed how every CIA student now looks at Chinese food. Several also said it even changed who they are. Each one, to a person, now recommends foreign travel for all students, and that they are pleased they visited China on this school-sponsored trip.
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Flavor and Fortune thanks Shirley Cheng, Matt Cerone, Brian Francis, Mathew Lorman, Tallulah Norton, Chritina Preka, Nick Wasicek, Zack Weeks, and Adam Wilson who shared their thoughts with us.
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