Wow, it’s been seven weeks. My God it has flown. When we came in on Monday a new group of people had come in for the one month course.
Thankfully they all seem to feel as nervous and green as we did on our first day. It’s incredible to think back to where we spent our time chopping vegetables and making soup and to compare it to the kind of incredible dishes we are getting to produce now. It feels like an age ago. It was an age ago. We are completely different Chefs now. Our attitude is different. Our skill level is streaks ahead of where we started. Our knowledge base is massive. What’s more is that we are only halfway through.
We began on Monday with Vietnamese cooking. For those who don’t know I am a massive fan of one of the main Vietnamese dishes; Pho, (pronounced – fuh). It is a sweet, spicy, salty meaty soup made from stock and all manner of vegetables and asian flavours. It’s incredible and thankfully there are a few places in Dublin that will serve you a mean bowl of Pho. Pho Viet is my personal favourite. That being said, outside of this bowl of delectable wonder I am completely lost as to the culinary palate of the Vietnamese. I have heard great things about noodles and spices and broths and a Banh Mi sandwich but I really wasn’t expecting how interesting and vibrant the food would be.
Our tutor Nicola is our resident expert in all things Asian. She has spent a lot of time travelling and learning in Asia about the cuisine so we knew we were going to get the real thing. We started out with these beautiful rice paper rolls you see above. As with most authentic Asian cuisine it requires a bit of specific shopping, this time in the form of the rice paper. This can be gotten in most Asian supermarkets for dirt cheap and require very little prep. This was a nice little segway into the style of cooking as it was simple, fresh and full of flavour.
We then split up and started working on our own dishes. This has become the norm here during the day after the end of the one month. Much more autonomous. Much more intuitive. And much more productive.
The beautiful dish you see above was tackled by Orla, it came together beautifully well. The real star has got to be that spicy dressing though. The main components were sweet chili sauce and fresh, sieved passion fruit. Incredibly simple but it had the most intense sharp sweetness that I have ever gotten from a simple salad dressing. The best thing about little recipes like that is that even if you don’t have time to make your full sharing platter of Vietnamese grub you can still have that same feeling with a regular few leaves of lettuce. Claire got to make up a beef and pork meatball platter which you can see below. This was a great big dish to serve as a starter or as finger food. It involved making up beautifully light and fragrant meatballs and accompanying them with all manner of sides and sauces. We had a spicy chilli sauce, roasted peanuts, crispy shallots, all served up in little lettuce cups made from Cos.
Thankfully I got to work on the all important bowl of Pho. I was taken aback by how easy it was to prepare, a good quality stock and decent knife skills are all that is really required to make the dish come together. Other than that you really are relying on making sure you have great quality ingredients and not fucking it up. There were all the standard flavours your would expect; lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilli, but all of these combined to make up the soup that I love. It was still not nearly what I usually get from the experts but that’s kind of the point. They are the experts. I would never expect my skill to get to the level of a chef who has spent their entire lives dedicated to crafting the perfect bowl of pork stock soup. That is the real craftsmanship. Taking something incredibly simple and refining it, tweaking it, perfecting every aspect of it, making it your own. That’s putting the “Art” into Culinary Arts.
As we sat and ate and discussed all the dishes we had made we came to a pretty interesting discovery. We were talking about all of the ingredients and discovered that barring a few odd exceptions, every dish had very nearly the same components. Lemongrass, fish sauce, soy, lime, chilli, sugar, carrot, spring onion, garlic, seemed to make up the bulk of every dish. However the variety of tastes and textures and styles laid out in front of us was massive. All of it was so simple, so elegant, so different, so easy. This is where that true skill and mastery come in. Taking these building blocks, basic notes, primary colours and creating a symphony. One day we might get to that stage, but until then if you need me I’ll be elbow deep in this bowl of soup.
~ Mark O’Brien