From burnt toast to Phad Thai in a day

Cooking school in Thailand turns Chef Boyardees into wizards with woks

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

If you've considered attending cooking school, drop your chopsticks, get a plane ticket, and head for the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It is to cuisine what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to physics. I base that bold statement not on culinary experience. I have none. Nor have I been to other cooking schools. But if the CMTCS can teach cooking to a "burning machine" like me -a man who'd resigned himself to a life of burnt toast and slushy spaghetti - it must be No. 1.

Not to boast, but now not only do I know the difference between a wok and a squash, but I can make a meal Martha Stewart would be proud of -without using a takeout menu and the phone.

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Cooking school is becoming very popular among vacationers, especially in Thailand. There are more than 100 registered cooking schools in Thailand, with 40 of them in Bangkok, highlighted by the one at the venerable Oriental Hotel.

About 450 miles north of Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, Thailand's third-largest city (pop. 175,000), there are 15 such schools. Chiang Mai Thai Cookery is the oldest, and by far the most popular, with classes seven days a week and more than 900 students per month during the peak season, which runs from October to March.

The school was founded in 1993 by Somphon Nabnian, an amiable thirtysomething chef who can out-wok Mr. Wok. The son of a butcher, Mr. Somphon spent nine years as a monk, and then, as a young adult, he became a trekking guide. He married one of his clients, a British woman named Elizabeth, in 1991, and together they decided Somphon should open a school.

"From when I was a little boy, I always cooked," says Somphon. "I wanted to share my joy for Thai food with visitors and to give them real contact with Thai people and culture."

You definitely feel Somphon's joy and get close to the Thais at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery. Indeed, Somphon still teaches almost all the classes himself, and his primary classroom is an indoor kitchen in a white stucco building next to his house, which is a 15-minute drive from downtown Chiang Mai.

Advance reservations aren't necessary, and my wife and I signed up for the school the afternoon we arrived in Chiang Mai by having our hotel clerk call to reserve us a spot for the following day.

At 9:00 a.m., a van picked us up and drove us to the school's cramped office in the heart of Chiang Mai, an interesting but overdeveloped city.

There were about 30 students in the office, with folks from Australia, Belgium, England, Holland, Ireland, Sweden, and the United States. Somphon handed out copies of the school's 46-page manual/cookbook, and after a brief pep talk -"You will have fun, and you will learn to cook," he said with a smile -we split into two groups. Students who had already been to school for a day or more walked around the corner for a day of training in the kitchen of Somphon's new restaurant, The Wok. The rest of us were driven out to his house.

The first thing I learned is that attending cooking school is very much like being on the set of the Cooking Channel. As Somphon introduced us to his utensils, his assistant carted out dozens of bowls of vegetables, spices, beef, chicken, and fish, all of which had already been neatly sliced and diced. "That'll be your job," I whispered to my wife, Carrie.

"Keep dreaming," she replied.

Next, Somphon carefully described more than 20 essential ingredients in Thai cuisine. I was awestruck by his knowledge. How was a city slicker like me supposed to know that a red chili is hotter than a green one? Or that monks use tumeric, the spice we call cumin, to make orange dye for their robes?

The rest of the morning we helped Somphon cook several dishes. They included Tom Yam Goong (sweet and sour prawn soup), Green Curry Chicken with curry paste, Phad Thai, Tort Man Plaa (fish cakes) and Pha Krapow Gai (fried chicken with basil). For each dish, Somphon stood at the stove and talked us through the recipe. It was especially helpful when he invited students to help him prepare each dish. That, for example, is how I learned you're supposed to slice a chili at a 45-degree angle, not vertically.

At 12:30, we retired to the porch outside the kitchen to devour what we'd made. The pungent aromas were intoxicating, and the food, accompanied by bowls of perfectly prepared sticky rice, was sumptuous, especially the soup and the Phad Thai. We sat on the floor in groups of five around lazy susans. My group included two Aussies and a couple from Maryland. We raved about what we had cooked -with Somphon's help, of course.

In the afternoon, we cooked several more dishes, getting lots of hands-on experience with Somphon as our guide. It was funny watching my peers try to copy Somphon's deft skills.

He took four tomatoes, for example, and David Copperfield-like, with his eyes on us as he spoke, he carved them into intricate garnishes. "Nice stuff like this, and you can charge a little more," Somphon said with a laugh.

At the end of the day, after another session on the porch, where we ate our afternoon's work, Somphon gave us a tour of his gardens and bid us farewell. I was energized, feeling confident that happy times lay ahead for me and my kitchen.

The first few weeks at home went well. No black toast and no watery spaghetti. Then, on a Saturday night, came the real test: a Thai meal. We chose Red Curry Chicken, a pretty simple dish.

Carrie and I went to Chinatown and bought bags full of fresh ingredients. At home, while Carrie read the Sunday paper, I did the assistant's slicing and dicing job. Then I went into action. Oil up the wok. Add coconut milk. Stir. Add red-curry paste. Stir.

In less than a half hour, we were at the dinner table, seated in front of two plates of steaming white rice covered with Red Curry Chicken. I felt like I was back in high school, waiting for Mrs. Clark to hand back a calculus test.

"Smells good," Carrie said. "Looks good, too."

She lowered her chopsticks, scooped a bite, ate it, and... "Wow, you can really cook."

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