Usually when we get a guest tutor in for a day it’s just that, a day. They come in, rock our culinary little minds and then run off again on new adventures.
It is fantastic but it can be hard to build up a report with them and really crack into the philosophy behind their food. Luckily over the last few weeks we got to work with Food Stylist and World Food Guru, Johan Van Der Merwe on several occasions.
The first time I met him he was working with the one month course and he noticed that I was tinkering about with a camera. We got to talking and he started telling me about life as a food stylist. The next day he was teaching us Street Food. I started thinking that this guy might be a pretty cool mentor.
When he gets into teacher mode, Johan is a force to be reckoned with. He powers through recipes and techniques at an incredible rate. Never too fast, he is so free with information, recipes, tips and stories that you are in no fear of being left behind. He tells us about his time working in Vancouver and in a little Italian place in Kerry and a Vegetarian restaurant in Cork City. He talks us through the street food from Mexico to Vietnam to New York to Morocco. All with sauces and dips and toppings that will knock you off your feet.
Next up was a day of vegetarian food. Johan is one of those extreme rarities, a reformed vegetarian. He spent many years of his life as a veggie but decided to give it up a few years back. He does however have a vast amount of experience with vegetarian cooking from being a vegetarian himself and from his time in Cafe Paradiso in Cork, a fully vegetarian restaurant in the city centre.
He walked us through a large amount of vegetarian diets and meals, the main focus of which was showcasing to us ways of presenting a main meal for vegetarians. My Mom is a veggie and all too often at a restaurant or a dinner party, vegetarians are presented with just the side dishes of boiled vegetables, maybe a bit of pasta or risotto. But rarely a well put together main dish that is not just a plate without any meat on it.
Finally this week we got what will unfortunately be our last day with Johan, Gluten-Free cooking. Celiacs disease is becoming ever more prominent in Ireland in recent years, the percentage is higher here than most other European countries. New legislation that is coming in here early next year will require all restaurants to highlight Celiac friendly dishes on all menus, gluten free cooking is obviously something we will all have to get a lot more accustomed to in the very near future. As usual, Johan knew the ins and outs of the whole thing and guided us through all the pitfalls and mistakes that often come with the, frankly, dangerous job of cooking for a Celiac.
Thankfully it seems that even though we won’t be working directly with Johan, we will still be seeing him around the school from time to time. I’d like to think we have formed a nice little bond with this fabulous South African man. He has taught us all an awful lot about an awful lot of food. I know he has personally helped me bring my food photography game up a few notches.
He is a perfect example of the high standard of tutors that teach here in Cooks Academy. Tutors with practical experience in all areas of the food industry, from all over the world.
Real experience makes for real teachers, and real teachers make real mentors. A mentor is a tough thing to define, but I definitely think being as practical and passionate a teacher as Johan is is a solid step in the right direction.
~ Mark O’Brien