This week I had the privilege of volunteering at a fundraiser event benefiting Nepal’s earthquake victims, hosted by Thai Essence in West Lafayette, Indiana. Chef Ake Waratap designed and prepared a six course vegetarian menu (with a secret seventh course, a testament to his generosity). This was my first time in a professional kitchen. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. The strange rhythm of pause-mad rush-pause-extra mad rush was new to me. The challenge to find a place to stand without being in the way of others was overwhelming. “Where can I go, how can I help and more importantly, how can I not mess up?” Were the three worries that persisted the whole five hours I was there. It reminded me of Bill Buford’s description of a professional kitchen in Heat. Don’t get me wrong……. it is precisely this hyper awareness of time and space that makes being in a kitchen so compelling and possibly addictive. It was a joy to watch chef Ake’s attention to detail. Throughout the evening he glanced at his illustrated map of the meal taped to the wall for quick reference. It was as if he was shifting scale between the landscapes of each plate to the movement of whole meal.
Here is what I, a professional kitchen kindergartener, learned:
Course 1: Fresh Basil and Flower Hand Roll
My job was to gently ladle the tamarind sauce in the tomato flowers. I’ve never poured so intently ever. Thank fully there was another very patient volunteer (Thank you Chris) who wiped out my drippy mistakes.
Course 2: Momo
This was art on a plate. Chef Ake recreated the eyes of Buddha in gastronomic form. I learned how to place the red sauce inside the black sauce lining. I also learned how to crimp the dumplings into this round shape (I still need practice on that part). Just like the ladling, the simple process required a lot attention.
Course 3: Green Papaya and Mixed Mushroom Salad
My contribution to this plate was the scattering of the white mushrooms. I learned how to “deliberately scatter,” to fill the plate without touching the rim. Essentially, I was trying to have the mushrooms take up space but not to dominate the plate. I’m amazed how each course became a philosophy lesson about attentive and deliberate action aimed at beauty and yumminess.
Course 4: Pa Lo Tofu Soup
My contribution here was mostly in the placing the green seaweed piece at the appropriate time (too early it would melt into the soup and right before Chef Ake’s application of three tiny drops of truffle oil). The last four bowls, chef Ake, asked me to apply the oil, as he set up for the next course. I messed up and added four instead of three drops. That bowl was rejected. Chef Ake then explained “you have to let the drops fall by themselves, don’t rush, wait.” Again, another moment of zen, practiced.
Course 5: Triple Curry Medley with Rice and Roti
My contribution here was to place the ginger flowers on the plate.
Course 6: Kheer Dessert
My role here was in the making of the small cantaloupe balls hidden in the pudding like little orange jewels.
Course Seven: Mango-Peaflower Water Sticky Rice and Coconut Water Agar Agar
This surprise dessert shaped like two hands in the Namaste position was saying thank you to the diner for their contribution. My small role was shaping the sticky rice for the mango hands to wrap around.
As you can see, mine were only one pair of many hands that went into this meal and event. Even in my tiny role, I learned a lot. It was a lesson, in attentive action, placement, rhythm, detail and love of the craft and most importantly, of other people. I thought I was helping but I think I was helped more. What an odd meditative rush!
With a deep bow of gratitude to Thai Essence and Chef Ake,
Images from Thai Essence facebook page https://www.facebook.com/pages/Thai-Essence/161166797243714?pnref=lhc, please follow and like if you live in the area or have traveled through.
Thank you for sharing this image of the eyes of Buddha
6 thoughts on “(Thai) Essential Lessons”
Lovely description of your time in the kitchen. What a gift to be part of this collaborative effort to bless others!
Thanks K! It was a fun and exciting, learning and giving experience.
Possibly the best, and most beautiful, meal I’ve ever had. Thanks for helping make it possible.
I can’t take any credit but I can say a lot of care shaped that event. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. A meal like that would be wasted without people who enjoy and appreciate. Thank you for being a crucial part of the event.
What an amazing menu! I hate I missed it!
It was a beautiful meal in thought and in practice! Sorry you missed it!