IT'S Tuesday morning at The Thai Cooking School at The Oriental Hotel, and Bill Cullinan wrestles with an obstinate carrot.
Etching laboriously with a tiny razor-thin paring knife, the Juneau, Alaska, restaurateur glances at his model, an intricately sculpted butterfly, and looks back disappointedly at his own rough-hewn lepidopteran.
Beside him, business partner Ann House deftly draws her knife through a tomato. With a triumphant "Ta-Dah!" and pleased smile, she displays her creation, a small rose. Across the table, Anne-Marie Hofman, a caterer from Sydney, skims a sharp edge along the green of a spring onion, determinedly enticing the vegetable to curl like a ribbon.
At the other end, James Dudfield, a computer analyst and aspiring gourmet cook also from Sydney, coaches wife, Mandy Pryse-Jones, as she crafts a respectable rabbit from a cucumber.
"Any blood spilled yet?" jokes instructor Sarnsern Gajaseni. "The one good thing is that if you make a mistake, you can destroy the evidence."
At the Oriental Hotel and other cooking schools across Thailand, Westerners flock to learn one of the East's most popular and colorful cuisines and its decorative art, food carving.
The schools are capitalizing on what is a culinary trend in Australia, Europe, and particularly the United States, where food-lovers are drawn to the cuisine's simple, healthy, and pungent character.
"Thai food is 'in,' and Americans like 'in' things," says Mr. Sarnsern, who studied hotel administration in Canada and worked in the US.
At the Oriental, the stream of food aficionados includes both professionals and hobbyists, who pay a hefty $500 for a five-day session covering use of herbs and spices, preparation of snacks, salads, curries, and other dishes; fruit and vegetable carving; flower arranging; and ice carving.
Mr. Cullinan, who operates a seafood restaurant in Juneau, says he and Ms. House came to Thailand just to attend the cooking school and pick up tips to take home. "Ethnic is big," he says. "I think the spiciness is exciting for a lot of people."
The world-renowned Oriental launched the school in 1986 in a move to lure return visitors to Thailand. A recent surge in enrollments has given the hotel a boost after the Gulf war and warnings of terrorist attacks in Thailand last year depressed business.
"The Oriental wants people to come back to the hotel and to Thailand and try something new," says Sarayuth Atibodhi, manager of the cooking school, who started as a waiter at the Oriental in 1976.
Tuesday is food-carving time at the cooking school, situated in a renovated Thai house across the Chao Phraya River from the hotel. Outside, the main channel of this water-latticed city bustles with barges, river taxis, and noisy motor boats. Inside, instructor Sarnsern gathers his dozen would-be food sculptors around a spacious table set with tiny knives, bowls of ice-cold water and vegetables, and, for inspiration, a floral cornucopia created from melons, pineapples, papayas, and other fruits and veget ables by the hotel's own army of carvers.
Spurred by Thailand's hotel and tourism industry, carving has gone professional, with many attending technical schools and learning to turn out a platter of intricately carved foods in an hour or less. However, among the artistic Thais, carving was traditionally done at home to adorn a meal or turn a religious offering into a work of art. "Our grandmothers started doing carving at home. For example, they might carve a lotus to decorate food given to the monks in the early morning," says Mr. Sarayuth, the
"In the old days, food was cut into small bits. It was thought that without decoration, it wouldn't be appetizing," he says, explaining that the art has disappeared from many homes in a modernizing, fast-paced Thailand.