Whenever I get a bit down, I kick myself and remember that I’m pretty fortunate. My life, crazy and hectic as it might be, is pretty good. I’ve got great friends and have had the unique opportunity to cook and travel to some pretty interesting places of late. Just last week I returned from a month in Thailand where I was lucky enough to cook in Bangkok for The Four Seasons World Gourmet Festival assisting Chef Gale Gand, one of the nine featured chefs. Oh the situations I find myself in (hold onto your hat – it’s a reoccurring theme.)
The festival was great but not without it’s challenges. Essentially, each chef did two dinners spread out over the course of the week and we did three afternoon teas. I arrived several days before Gale to get things moving as we had a very intensive menu. Since it was a high tea, there were all kinds of little tid-bity things to complete – sweets, nibbles, tea sandwiches, scones –plus the Four Seasons pastry kitchen added a whole list of things to the menu as well. It was quite the to-do.
Any time you cook outside your home kitchen, it can be interesting. Things are in different places, someone else is purchasing your ingredients, the equipment may be different than what you’re used to, dishes are always an issue, and just working in someone else’s space can be awkward. It’s the same whether you’re at your in-laws, a vacation home or a hotel kitchen as a guest. It takes some time to adjust.
Now try doing that in a foreign country. The ingredients are different, the language is different, the equipment is different. I would have sold my soul for a spatula. Throw in some wicked jetlag – 12 hours ahead by god – and I was screwed from the start. The first day I basically fumbled around, trying to get my bearings. It certainly didn’t help that I made the genius, genius I tell you!, decision to take two ambien on the plane over. Seriously, what was I thinking? I slept for 12 straight hours and have essentially no recollection of going through customs or the drive to the hotel. Lovely. I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that I’m a highly functioning zombie.
Some of the ingredients presented a bit of a challenge. The flours were completely different, something I should have considered but didn’t. There was quite a bit of experimentation going on but the good thing is the hotel pastry chef, Stephane Calvert, was French (and gorgeous of course) and had all kinds of special imported stuff stashed away. He had everything covered. What a fine man. Not knowing what was available, we sent our menus over months ago with the thought that we’d adapt to what they had, fruit-wise. Well, the Four Seasons can get anything don’t you know. So when our bavarin recipe said “seasonal berries”, they got us “seasonal berries.” From California. Driscoll’s strawberries just like at my Jewel. Gale and I died a little bit inside. Oh well.
I had a wonderful team of assistants and we managed to knock off a few things from my ever expanding prep list that first day. But by late afternoon, I had trouble keeping my eyes open and stumbled upstairs and into bed when I almost passed out in the pots de creme. You wouldn’t have known I was in a vibrant, crazy foreign city as I didn’t leave the hotel for a few days. It was a shame really but I had a ton to do so site seeing would just have to wait. I crammed it in here and there but first and foremost, I had to get that menu finished.
Every morning, I’d pop down to the kitchen and meet with my helper, Suri. She was wonderful. And get this … shorter than me, which is damn near impossible. I’m all of 5’3” (on a good day, if I stand up straight) and I had a few inches on this crew. It was a unique feeling and one I quite relished. I like being the tall one! What’s that saying? In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king? Yeah, that times two.
It was quite the experience working in a foreign kitchen, often very funny. The mixers were the craziest things I’d ever seen. Usually, we’ll have a large format mixer or two and a few KitchenAids at our disposable. Their big mixers were wall mounted monsters with the speed adjusted by a handle on either side of the motor. Suri would jump up on the platform and move them back and forth, increasing or decreasing the speed as needed. She looked like she was driving a truck. I wouldn’t go near the damn things. They scared me.
The event line-up was impressive. From the US, we had the wonderful Chef Doug Keane & his pastry chef Roy (of Cyrus in Healdsburg CA) a most wonderful restaurant. I am most definitely visiting the next time in the Napa Valley. Good good people. (Why do I have zero pictures of these two?? WTF?) They were on my flight over and said that they had no idea I was in an ambient-induced haze and that I was perfectly pleasant during the van ride. Thank god because I don’t actually remember meeting them. Oh those damn pills. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Needless to say, I had some funny times with these guys. There’s a pretty funny story of Doug meeting the Royal Thai Princess and how my green clogs almost became an international incident.
We also had Chef Daniel Chambon & his lovely assistant Sue (a Canuck!) from Le Pont de L’Ouysse in the south of France. Daniel’s Michelin starred restaurant/auberge is in LaCave France, deep in the Perigord region known for two things (besides really lovely people): truffles and foie gras. Oh yeah baby. Every course, save for dessert, had foie. It was lovely. And it just so happens that he’s a spokesperson for the foie gras board. I made friends with these two quickly – there were just delightful. Daniel invited me over to work in his restaurant for a few weeks and I think I just might take him up on it. I also think I may have agreed to marry his son – there was an interesting conversation on a flight and my French is very bad so I’m not too sure exactly what I agreed to. Ha!
Chef Brent Savage from Bentley Restaurant & Bar in Sydney was there too (another visit in the making.) One day he was in the pastry kitchen, carefully measuring out a very small amount of some kind of powder, ever so delicately on a demitasse spoon. He then turned on a portable propane burner, which sort of popped or exploded, as they sometimes do, and blew his carefully measured powder every which way. I of course laughed, ever the professional. The look on his face was priceless. I think we kind of bonded right then.
Chef Alejandro Digilio of La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar (Buenos Aires) was there with his good friend LeLe. Now these guys were hilarious. They were out every afternoon and evening exploring the city, living it up. They went to several markets and would come back to the hotel loaded down with bags and would excitedly show us their purchases. “Hey, Alejandro! What’d you get?”, I’d ask. In his darling accent, he’d answer “Oh, you know cheep sheet! The sheet, it is soooo cheeep! It is fantastic! Lots of crap for the restaurant!” And he’d unwrap tiny glasses for an amuse perhaps, little wooden spoons, enormous bags of chilies. They made me laugh every day, so warm and wonderful. (Maybe I can swing a ’round-the-world-ticket’ someday soon? Who’s in? We’ll be well cared for and well fed.),
There was Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation, “The Demon Chef of Hong Kong.” Alvin cracked me up. He grew up in Vancouver but has spent many years in Asia so he was a bit blasé about all the craziness of Bangkok, which dazzled the rest of us. He would answer all our wacky questions about what things were, how to make something, is street food safe to eat, why they did things this way or that. He was rather handy to have around. For one of his dinners, he took dragon fruit and made the most spectacular looking sorbet – it was bright bright fuchia. Quite a shocking color, let me tell you.
We also had Chef Matteo Vigotti and his sous Marco of Ristorante Novecento in Meina, Italy. Chef Anthony Demetre of Arbutus & Wild Honey in London and Chandler Burr from the New York Times who did a scent dinner. Yes, a scent dinner. He’s the perfume critic for the NYT (who knew?) and built several courses around popular and iconic scents like all the elements in Coca-Cola. I wasn’t able to attend but I saw several of the components in the kitchen and it looked fascinating.
All in all it was a great event. And a lot of work. I had a grand old time and did squeeze a little bit of Bangkok in here and there. I wish I had done more but it’s definitely worth another visit. After the event, many of us went to the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai for a little R&R then everyone went home. Except for me. I had just over two weeks of island hopping yet to do. More on that later. And yes, my tan is absolutely fabulous.