When it comes to passion for food, most people experience it at the dining table, right before and during a meal. But there are those who want to live out that passion through a professional career. For those people living in Vietnam, a popular job option would be to become a chef. However, some have taken on another line of work that fulfills that same passion for cooking and enjoying food: the cooking guide.
To learn more about the profession, we visited GRAIN Cooking Studio, a Saigon-based company that offers cooking classes for guests interested in Vietnamese cuisine. There we met with Mr. Tuan and Mr. Binh, two cooking guides at GRAIN, to understand their perspectives on the nature of the job and their experience working at the cooking studio.
How does a cooking instructor differ from a chef? What skills do you need to have, or what requirements do you need to meet, in order to start instructing?
The first thing to realize is chefs don’t talk much; to express themselves, they use their hands. As a food instructor, you have to talk a lot and be clear about everything you say. If you feel uncomfortable in front of an audience, then instructing is not for you.
As a chef, you have to work all the time and can’t open yourself up to another person. But as an instructor, you get a chance to share with other people of different nationalities your culture and your experiences. And of course, you don’t have to deal with the kitchen heat.
In terms of skills, cooking instructors should, of course, know how to cook. But they also need presenting and public-speaking skills, and let’s not forget about crowd management skills.
How does a day go by for a cooking instructor?
The day of a cooking instructor starts at the Vietnamese market, because that’s where you meet the guests to take them around and show them the unique things offered at the market. Then we head to the studio to host the cooking sessions. After that, I usually develop a new menu with ideas inspired by traditional dishes.
On a daily basis, cooking instructors like myself also need to keep up-to-date with knowledge about the kitchen business–new cooking skills, different cuisines, and so on. I also usually work day-to-day with the kitchen team to prepare food for the guests and to make sure that we have perfect ingredients for the day.
What kind of training did you receive to build your career as an instructor? Who are your mentors?
I have Luke Nguyen to thank for showing me how to instruct, how to speak slowly and clearly. It takes months to get things right. Training in the kitchen was a must, and I also had to practice my speaking skills, which I did by standing in front of a mirror and speaking to myself on camera.
What do you find difficult about the job? What surprises you?
What’s difficult is sometimes we have customers who can’t eat specific dishes like fish or chicken and I have to come up with a new way to cook on the spot. Another thing is this job requires you to be full of energy all the time, no matter if you’re sick, tired, or sad on that day.
What surprises me most is how much the children who come to my class love to cook. You expect them to cry or not follow the rules but that’s not the case. They’re really focused. I’m also surprised by my guests, who always impress me with their work.
What did you learn from the job that you apply into your personal life?
I have learned to be patient, to listen, to care for details and to be passionate about my food, because food tastes much better when you put your feelings into it.
I also learn a lot from the guests themselves, especially when they share their experiences and stories with me. I found some of that to be very useful in my life.
Teaching expats and international students Vietnamese cuisine means that you’re spreading Vietnamese cooking techniques to the world. What do you usually teach them? And why are those techniques important for introducing Vietnamese cuisine?
I usually start out teaching my guests how to make fish sauce. I spent some time in the States so I know what people think about it. Fish sauce is not something you love the first time you smell and try it, but if you add it to your cooking it’s something that can bring out amazing flavors. To me, teaching how to make fish sauce is important because we add it to almost everything–dipping sauces, broth, marinating processes, and they even make fish sauce ice cream now.
I also teach my guests how to season properly. Because for Vietnamese cuisine, it’s all about flavor and the taste, not necessarily the ingredients.
What was the most hilarious/surprising statement that your student made towards Vietnamese cuisine?
I get this one statement all the time from my guests. Before a class, they’ll say they hate fish sauce, but after, they’ll tell me they want to go home and cook more with fish sauce!
What is your most memorable moment on this job?
My most memorable moment on this job is whenever I feel like I have impacted a kid’s life. They’ll come into the studio with very few details about the kitchen, but after a session they’ll say, “I never knew that cooking was this much fun.” Some of them even consider being a chef in the future.