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Archive for the ‘Cooking Schools’ Category

And now  that I have that song from Robin William’s brilliant comedic  turn in the movie “Good Morning, Vietnam” relentlessly playing in your head, * I will move to our actual destination: Hoi  An.  We flew from Hanoi into Danang Airport, formerly the US Air Force Airport.   Hoi An was part of the region operated by the US during the American War, (their term for what we call the Vietnam War.  They won:  they can call it whatever they like), and so the area was protected from the heaviest aerial bombardment in US history: almost 7 million tons of ordenance fell on North Vietnam, more than was dropped on Europe in World War II.  They are still “finding”  live bombs in farmer fields.  Hell of a way to lose a cow.  Or a leg.

This small ancient town was a world apart from the frenzy of Hanoi but still we were relieved to be in the sanctuary of our Four Season’s Villa.  (Remember, 60th birthday and my only rule towards spending on hotels is that I had no rules) We could have stayed all 3 days in the villa, which I discovered was like a summer camp for affluent adults:   there were classes on lanternmaking and memorial candle lighting and group activities like sunrise yoga or bonfires on the beach.  Albeit private bonfires for 6 with starched linen napkins, billowing curtains, liveried servants scurrying about serving French champagne.  Definitely not Camp Mini-Ha-Ha in the wilds of Northern Ontario.

But the beauty of Hoi An got us out of our tranquil bubble  for a couple of special events. Yes, there are many tourists, buying bespoke clothes, enjoying the many restaurants, checking out the galleries, but it did not feel as frenetic as Kyoto. (Or San Miguel.)     Perhaps because there are no cars allowed in the confined area of Old Town, and you must have a ticket to enter it. Rules on building heights look to be strictly enforced.  A private cooking class for two with a market tour, an art gallery visit, and a really delicious dinner overlooking the spectacular lights of the beautiful Thu BonRiver. So this is less of a blog and more of a photo essay.  Enjoy.

 

Cooking Class & Market Tour with the charming Chef Instructor Bo.

 

You know when you are taking casual “happy snaps”, and when you get them back to the hotel, you see a photo that is so perfectly composed and lit that you cannot believe that it came from your little iPhone 6?  I think that the photo of the school girls on their graduation day, dressed in the traditional white ao dai, might be the best photo that I have ever taken. Unedited.

* Good Morning Vietnam, 1987, was loosely based  on the real life story of Armed Forces radio disk jockey, Adrian Cronauer.   “Loosely based” since  I gather the dialog consisted mostly of  putting Robin Williams in front of a microphone and letting him go.  “Danang me, Danang me, they ought to take a rope and hang me” has stayed with me for over 30 years – so now over to you.

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My  first experience of Broadway was the musical Grease, starring an as yet undiscovered John Travolta.  At the intermission,  I confessed to being taken aback by his suggestive and enthusiastic pelvic gyrations.  Vulgar I think was the word I used.   An elegant lady  of a certain age (ironically, likely my age now) looked down her well powdered nose at me and remarked with that distinctive New York  disdain:   “my dear, you are either very young, or  you’re not from New York!”.

Well, she was right on both counts:  I was 15 when I first visited the city of dreams and  it was love at first sight.    Noisy, crowded, polluted, even dangerous, whatever the downsides to this urban environment, New York offered a world of possibilities, experiences, and potential.  Born and raised in small Northern Ontario towns,  I embraced the city, in concept and reality:  years later, when I read that Bangkok was the “the Mount Everest of Cities”,  to be attempted by only the most intrepid of urban adventurers, I extended my stay from 2 days to a week!

So I had spent a week in  Mexico City almost exactly 4 years ago (on my way to San Miguel de Allende and beyond) , but given that I did not speak Spanish, the boutique hotel staff spoke no English to aid me and I had read recent reports about personal crimes (kidnapping & robbery), I scuttled back to the confines of my hotel room every night as the sun was setting. Cowardly I suppose, but considered prudent.   During the day, I went to outstanding museums, enjoyed fabulous lunches, rambled through the parks, took the tourist bus  and vowed to come back to explore this fascinating and vibrant city when I was better prepared or in company.

And so when my friend Raven emailed with the good news that Michael and Valarie Coon, also friends and proprietors of The Inside Route and Casa de Cocinas, were leading one of their well-regarded culinary tours to Mexico City, I was among the first to hit the “yes” button.  The 3 day itinerary hit all of my urban appreciation buttons:  markets, museums and a hi/low mix of restaurants that would give us an overview of the food scene in D.F. (District Federale).  My fellow travellers were an affable, eclectic mix but united in our love of all things food:  conversation during the journey went back and forth between discussing their most recent visit to the famed French Laundry in Napa California to the joys of digging clams out of the beach in Maine. My kind of people.

Our 3 day trip could realistically only be an overview:  would you presume to know all the culinary and cultural  landscape of New York or London or Paris in just a few days, or even in a few visits?  Mexico City is the biggest city in the world, but as you stroll from café to boutique shop to museum in the desirable residential neighbourhoods of Polanco, Condessa, or Zona Rosa, it feels approachable and surprisingly human scale.  There are over 160 museums, one for every niche, including the new Mucho Mundo Chocolate Museum which naturally was on our agenda! And from taco stand to trendy bistro, the food is spectacular:

If anywhere could make the Paris and New York food scenes look stagnant, it’s Mexico City.  The nation’s cuisine has even been awarded Unesco World Heritage status – a global first.  July 13 BA High Life 

Here are a few of my  highlights.

MeroTero  Amsterdam 204. Colonia Condessa.  It ranked #26 out of  Latin America’s Top 50 Best Restaurants, and is one of only 5 Mexico City restaurants on that list.   The braised pork cheek with lentils was succulent and full of deep Unami flavour:  the warm almond cake was the best of three excellent desserts and will live in my gustatory memory for a long time.

Gabriela Cámara, the star restaurateur behind Mexico’s impossibly hip seafood shack Contramar, is tackling a new protein. Its name derived from the Spanish words for fish and bull, MeroToro is the Slow Food queen’s take on surf and turf. Still, expect a similar combination of refined food in an informal  setting. Cámara’s executive chef, Jair Téllez, combines the flavours of Baja with the best possible ingredients—admirer José Manuel describes the restaurant’s short seasonal menu as “Mexican cuisine in a Mediterranean style” (entrée, $15-$26)  Conde Nast Traveler

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El Huequito.  Bolivar 58

On an episode of “No Reservations”,  Anthony Bourdain  judged them “shockingly good” and “head & shoulders” above other tacos al pastor he has tasted.  Now all of us in the group, having read  at least “Kitchen Confidential”, conceded that while his arrogance is  palpable, his palate cannot be doubted.  The shaved pork was tender and succulent not greasy at all, the sauces were smartly tangy  and I pretty much ate everything on my plate. Yes, that entire plate.

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Delicious Tacos al Pastor

Maximo Bistrot Local. Tonala 133, Colonia Roma,  http://maximobistrot.cm.mx

The chef is Eduardo Garcia, formerly of the esteemed Pujol, and  he spent a stage at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin.  I have been to Le Bernardin for lunch and it was one of the finest meals that I have ever enjoyed anywhere.  I can still remember swooning over the personal box of macaroons. A very popular and busy bistro, Maximo experienced some infamy as a result of the spoiled daughter of a very senior bureaucrat  throwing a tantrum when denied her desired table. Her threats to have “my daddy close you down for health violations” were recorded on the smartphones of  disapproving dinners, and the aforementioned bureaucrat lost his job. Class tinged scandals aside, the food is sublime:   the asparagus with hollandaise, a poached egg and truffle was textbook in execution and exquisite in taste.  It is a classic bistro that really delivers on the promise of fresh food, sourced from the markets daily and prepared simply and carefully and perfectly.  Of all the places we dined at, this one is on “my must return to” list.

Aqua y Sal Cebicheria:  Compos Eliseos, 199-A Polanco.

So much of what passes for ceviche in Mexico is just cooked seafood in a sweet tomato sauce, which very likely started life as ketchup.   This popular restaurant offered a dizzying array of ceviche choices, from the Pacific coast to the Veracruz to the Yucatan, all with distinct and sophisticated flavours.  Ok, I’ll go back to this one too.

Cebiche Brunch

Cebiche Brunch

Markets:

We strolled throughout the Mercado San Juan, the so called “Chef’s Market” where we oohed and ahhed over the fresh earthy morels, caressed the baby vegetables (before we were gently told not to), and happily grazed on  plentiful free samples of aged manchego and Iberico ham.

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Our last 2 markets were my favourites:  first up, the fabulous Jamaica de Mercado  where I bought an armful of fragrant Casablanca lilies, 20 lavender tinged  roses and 2 bunches of astalomeria, all  for less than 20$. We marvelled at the range and quantity of flowers, the imaginative and massive arrangements, and wondered where they were going, who was buying them, and how did they move all of this product every day so it was fresh and fabulous every morning?  I could have stayed for another hour but I was filling up the back of the bus already. Flowers, like food, a personal weakness.

Our last stop was the  sprawling Nueva Viga Fish Market, the second largest in the world after Tokyo.  The variety was  overwhelming but on Michael’s advice, we stayed in one long aisle and went down to the end, taking note of products and prices before making our purchases on the way back.  For me,  2 kilos of fresh  head-on gigantic shrimp and 2 dozen small clams found their way into the ice packed coolers that the Coons thoughtfully provided.  3 hours later back in San Miguel, the clams were sweet and briny in a delicious  pasta al vongole.    The next day, the shrimps were marinated in a bath of olive oil, a little anise liquor, white wine, lots of garlic, lemon juice, coarse salt and a pinch each of sweet smoked Spanish paprika and red chilli flakes.  A couple of minutes on the plancha on each side and these beauties were bronzed and on the plate. I would have taken a photo but by the time we looked up from eating,  there was nothing but shells left 😉

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Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

Oh yes, they tasted as good as they look!

My ability to take photos with my iPhone is pretty limited, so I enclose a photo gallery taken by my talented new friend Nancy Gardner.  Enjoy! And book a trip to DF!

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For me, as for many travellers, food is the fastest way to learn about a new country:   culture, language,  history, geography and even economics are all expressed through the kitchen and then on the plate. So when landing somewhere new, I try to book a cooking class early on, preferably one that includes a market or shopping tour. In my first month in San Miguel as a visitor, I tore through most of the local Mexican cooking schools, and so have a decent mastery of market Spanish and several versions of salsa roja and verde.

But when we moved here for part of the year (that would be the cold part back in Canada) I began to crave a different experience. Mexican cooking is very regional, so once you have been exposed to the local specialities,  you are pretty much done. Most of the Mexican classes are  filled with tourists, so I was unlikely to extend my network of “like minded” residents in my new home.(Definition of “like minded”:  folks who get nervous if their meals are not planned four to six sittings ahead)  For six months of the year, I also craved the flavours of my favourite ethnic foods:   Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Sichuan.  There are not many good ethnic restaurants here, I thought I might put those Far East cooking classes to work.  But where to get the ingredients?

The heart of the kitchen

The heart of the kitchen

So I was delighted to discover  Michael and Valarie Coon’s global cooking school, Insideroute. Set in the fabulously equipped kitchen of their San Antonio home,(I have a serious case of range and fridge envy),  their specialty classes focus on cuisines from all over the world, with the exception of Mexico (The couple do lead very popular culinary tours to other parts of Mexico, and you can email them here to get on the list for classes and for tours:  insideroute@aol.com

I have taken quite a few classes from them, (Thai, Vietnamese,Korean , Low Country and more)  and they are great fun and very social events. With Michael as chef/teacher and Valarie as charming and welcoming hostess,  he manages to impart culinary knowledge while ensuring that we are all engaged and participating at whatever level we feel most comfortable. For some, that’s just sipping an agua fresca but if you want to,  don an apron and grab a ladle.

One of the ancillary benefits of attendance is that Michael (and his assistant, former caterer and long time resident Holly

Holly plating the Polenta

Holly plating the Polenta

Sims) know where to get everything to do with food.  From the best sources for free range chicken to what specific aisle and shelf the kosher salt is on at the local superstore, to what Asian ingredients are available where and which have to be ordered through Amazon, they are an encyclopedic culinary resource. ( Next month, expect my post on local sourcing of ingredients) Michael is also an obsessive collector of cookbooks:  I think that the living room ceiling threatens to collapse under the weight of his collection above. Here is one of my favourite moments:    he was giving us a tour of the rooftop garden, and walking by a container, casually pulled out a stalk for each of us and said “here’s some lemon grass, take it home, put it in a bucket, water well, and it will grow like a weed”. Like all true cooks, he loves to share his passion.

I will definitely be writing  more about Michael and Valarie’s entertaining classes,  but this post is about a very special evening:  a tribute from Michael to the recently deceased and immensely mourned Italian cookbook author and teacher, Marcella Hazan.  When Michael was at the Culinary Institute of America or CIA in California, he arranged a book signing and presentation for her.  She was to take questions, but I guess her reputation for being a culinary curmudgeon silenced the room. Michael decided to break the ice, asking her “Do you always cook  with extra virgin olive oil?”.  In front of several hundred people,  she flatly replied :  “That’s a stupid question.”

I expect some nervous laughter ensued, but perhaps that opening led to their ongoing relationship.  Here is a sample from their FB chats, offering encouraging words to Michael when they moved to Mexico and started a cooking school:

Ciao Michael. Thirty-four years ago I decided to open a cooking school in Bologna. I had no examples to follow, but it all turned out pretty well and if I hadn’t become too old to continue I’d probably still have students there. It takes optimism and a thick head to undertake something like that and I know what you are facing and I admire you for doing it in Mexico. If travel hadn’t become nearly forbidding for me I’d come down to see you. I wish you well. Victor, who is always grateful to you for putting him onto Global (knives), also sends his best. Marcella

And yes, she always cooked with extra virgin olive oil!

Ben’s favourite course of the evening was the “Grilled Portobello Mushrooms & Polenta and Michael kindly supplied his recipe here. (more…)

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