Monday, 17 April 2017

Same same, but different.

I'm writing this after a cookery course on a farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It's a course I've done already, some years ago, back when I hadn't done my chef course yet, before I had worked in restaurants, before I ran a cafe, before I supported, worked for and left a food charity. It's left me thinking about the journey I've been on since the last course and wondering what that means I call "now" - do I call it After? Different? New?

When I get back to the UK there will be lots of change. There's been a fair bit already - I've got a new kitchen with more space, which necessitated a cupboard clear out to prioritise the kind of food I want to make in it. I've boxed up a hefty weight of cookery books I don't love enough to keep. I'm soon starting a new job in a field I am passionate about, but it's definitely not in the food industry. I don't yet know much about the people I'll be working with but they'd really have to go some to beat the levels of food obsession of the team I have left behind. Frankly, I'm a bit worried about where my passion for cooking will fit in to my life if it isn't part of what my work involves, and therefore a labeller of who I am, and I wonder how I will keep learning about it. The last thing I want is for it to fall back.

Something I have learned recently is how important it is to keep learning from each other. That for me was the best bit about working in hospitality - learning from chefs passionate about their craft, and sharing my knowledge with young people who were timid about cookery and watching them bloom. Recently a colleague challenged himself by exploring how diverse and exciting veganism can be, and this reminded me to break from routine. Dinner at a friend's lead to my buying a slow cooker, which helped see me through the kitchen refurbishment but also reminded me about the beauty of cheap cuts of meat and the gift of time in the evenings. Learning how to work the timer and pre-set options on my new oven did the same. Shopping with a friend in a Lebanese supermarket taught me new ingredients and flavours, which made me get up early on a Sunday to spend time making breakfast. Another friend is going to help me demystify my pressure cooker. There are themes here of sharing the love of food and also of gifting oneself time, to spend exploring new foods and flavours.

There is every chance that not working in, or talking about, food all day every day will mean that I have more space and time to explore it on my own terms and more drive to get creative. I did however think this would be the case when I moved from working in hospitality to working office based for a food charity, and it simply didn't. Basically, you have to make your own opportunities to create wonderful food, around all the other stuff that takes up life space like work, housemin, relationships, family and exercise. The best breadmaker I know is my wonderful friend the academic who can turn her dough in between marking papers at home, which is not a possibility for everyone. For me it feels like there is just so much food I want to learn and make, and so little time, it seems, to make it all! And if I am not making chatter-worthy food regularly, then frankly, who am I?

But maybe this is where I am worrying too much, and being too hard on myself. Last Christmas, at an annual dinner bonanza with friends, where we usually try to outcook each other, we all had circumstances that nearly lead to us cancelling. So I ended up making roast turkey - we'd never actually celebrated this way and it was suitably undemanding of my time the week before. And it was a glorious dish, perfect to remind us that the important thing was coming together as friends to share a meal.

Today's cookery course was much the same in content as it was for me almost five years ago, but this time round it wasn't about frantically making notes about it all. It was about taking it in, enjoying it and noticing its simplicity. Thai cookery isn't actually that complicated - the same combinations of ingredients pop up regularly and there is an economy in things like curry pastes, which are often adapted from each other into totally different things from the same core. I've come away just as excited about recreating it at home, but in a more relaxed way.

So maybe that's the answer. Maybe all I need to remember is what I think food is all about anyway - enjoyment, exploration and sharing, and that this can be found in wonderfully simple foods done really well just as much as in complex techniques and flavours. It's just important that it's bringing a smile. And that doesn't sound nearly as challenging as constantly pushing my food exploration limits.

It might mean I have to find more excuses to cook for people however. But how bad is that?

Location:Chiang Mai, Thailand.