Fundamentals in a hurry
The intense process of learning, cooking, critiquing and feasting came to be known as Asian Cuisine Culinary Boot Camp.
The boot camp covered a lot of ground, including the cuisines of China, Japan, Thailand, Korea and India. Cheng taught “foundational skills—correcting people on basic stir-fry and the use of oil and heat—all the way through to the fun part, like making squid flowers,” Leonard says.
Method and philosophy
The Exeter culinary team was eager to learn more about Asian cooking, but by the time the experience was over, Cheng had reinforced some universal professional kitchen truths.
“She spoke to the importance of mise en place, measurement…flavor profile, the importance of using all of your senses,” Leonard notes.
“What a great experience Chef Cheng brought to our culinary team,” says Kathy Stebbens, first cook at Exeter. “I think everybody who was there has taken something different away from the class, whether it was cutting skills, organizational skills or a new way of cooking something.”
Experiencing the flavors
At the end of each busy day, the group reconvened for a family-style presentation and showcase of authentic Asian dishes for everyone to taste and critique, with the overarching idea of finding menu items that could work for school menus or catering menus. Here, pho ga soup (Vietnamese chicken noodle soup) is ready to be slurped and studied.
Hot 'n sour shrimp salad
The hot ‘n sour shrimp salad created by one of the teams includes squid, which Leonard says probably won’t be appearing on the school lunch menu anytime soon, but the catering program can definitely use the recipe.
A fairly big challenge when it comes to offering authentic Asian cuisine is getting the right ingredients—like exotic roots, powders and pods—in a small New Hampshire town. With a bit of planning, though, it’s possible, Leonard says.
“The boot camp was really about looking at the regions, understanding the use of spices and how they differ from Korea to Thailand, for example,” Leonard says. This Thai chicken dish has the uniquely refreshing Thai flavor balance of sour, sweet and salty.
Fresh spring rolls
One of the techniques explored during the boot camp was the rolling up these colorful Vietnamese fresh spring rolls.
Vietnamese grilled shrimp paste
This is another dish from Vietnam in which shrimp is ground into a paste, mixed with aromatics, wrapped around sugarcane then grilled over high heat.
Recipes that translate to school food
“Some of the recipes that we tried out can definitely be converted to residential dining, and some would be great in catering,” Stebbens says.
Rice is key
Much of the boot camp focused on rice. It’s seen here, as part of a mango dessert.
“We learned more about rice than we ever thought possible,” Leonard says. “That educational spin is part of what we were doing. I never knew basmati came from the Himalayas.”
Rice dishes like congee translate especially well for large-volume operations. Cheng’s basic recipe can then be topped with such condiments as ground pork, sambal, dried shrimp, garlic, peanuts, pickled veggies and more. Get the recipe here.
Cheng told the group of culinary staff that she was there to share her knowledge and that it would be their responsibility to take that knowledge and make it work in their kitchen.
“This was an enriching experience for everyone,” says Ben Reed, catering chef/first cook at Exeter. “It really transcended skill set and knowledge and was a wonderful way to practice teamwork for the department as a unified group.”