In the Zen Kitchen

If you’re thinking of mastering a new skill and you love your sushi, you’ll be pleased to note that a rather intriguing new opportunity has arisen to study the secrets of Japanese cooking in one of District 1’s popular international kitchens – Japanese by Blanchy Street (VND1.4 million for two classes, saigoncookingclass@ blanchystreet.com, 3823 8793).

The quickstarter course – which currently runs at two consecutiveSaturday afternoon sessions each month instructing in the basics of the cuisine – is the result of a unique partnership between Ilda Briosca’s Saigon Cooking Class, and Ho Chi Minh City’s answer to the world-famous Nobu Japanese/Peruvian fusion phenomenon, Blanchy Street. Blanchy Street’s fusion cuisine first started to turn heads when the venue originally opened above Blanchy’s Tash, reinforcing its place in the Saigon culinary pantheon when it moved to its current, more accessible location in the Refinery courtyard. Cheffed by some of the biggest names in the highly-esteemed Nobu tradition, the restaurant has some serious prestige going for it – and it’s these very chefs who are teaching the new classes to students eager to try their hand at introductory-level Japanese cookery.
That’s probably the course’s best selling point right there – being taught in Japanese cuisine by Martin Brito and Yogo Oba is like having Michael Schumacher teach you how to drive a Honda scooter. Martin, whose background in Thai cuisine has brought the Nobu style to a whole new dimension in Blanchy’s kitchen, trained with some supremely respectable cooks before cheffing a full seven years in Nobu’s London venue – and even he can’t match Oba’s 20-year stint in the same restaurant.

The course is a new concept for Ilda Briosca’s cooking-class business, although applying a business model that has largely catered to tourists interested in the Vietnamese culinary tradition to a course that teaches a foreign cooking style to both expats and local Vietnamese has been a big challenge. “At first, I thought it would be too difficult to get clients for this cuisine”, says Ilda, who was first approached with the idea by Noelle Carr-Ellison (who has a stake both in the Vietnamese cooking class business through its partnership with Hoa Tuc restaurant, and in Blanchy Street itself). “It was only when I came to see the restaurant that I realized there was something different about it. I knew that we really needed to try it, so I said OK. The concept is the same; it’s just that the client is going to be different. It’s similar, just teaching the basics and doing a little skillbuilding, so that people can then continue to experience it by themselves at home and understand what they have on their plate.” “There are a lot of people who do love Japanese food but have no idea about what they are eating,” she explains. “So the aim is to give some key so that they can appreciate it a little more. Take me, for example, I always want to know how things work. That’s why I like to go to this kind of class. Of course, Japanese food is incredibly popular here, because it’s so healthy, it’s so good… but finally when you understand the basics, you can see it’s not that complicated, at least not at this level.”

Martin Sensei, Yogo Sensei

Quietly-spoken Martin’s clearly a chef first and a teacher second, although this new role is something that he’s taken to rather quickly, and it’s growing on him: “It was Noelle’s idea to start the classes, not mine,” he jokes. “She was pushing for it. It was a bit trepidatious at first, but now I actually quite enjoy it. In the second lesson, there’s a bit more to it – the first one’s just to get comfortable before we step it up. This stuff’s quite easy – some of these housewives, though, I don’t think they’ve even picked up a knife before, while others are quite keen cooks. But they all normally do fine.” “I’ve been doing the course for about two months now,” he continues. “They do the Hoa Tuc class twice a
day – that class is huge. At the moment we’ve been running one a month, but lately we’ve been doing several private classes. The normal class is broken up into two; so I’ll take the first one and Oba does the second. But we’re both here helping for both sessions. We had a group of expat ladies yesterday and they just wanted to do one lesson – but they’ll probably come back and do another. We fit in with what people want.”

The course, held on the second floor of the Blanchy Street restaurant, starts with the most basic elements of the cuisine – starting off with creating a strong dashi stock from scratch, and building on that to make a flavorsome miso soup. You’ll have already learned how to make a crispy tempura by the end of the first lesson, and during the second you’ll quickly move on to master salmon & cucumber maki, a sea grape and wakame salad, and some tasty chicken gyoza. Classes are fun, even-paced, and with the gradual introduction of cooking concepts given in both English and Vietnamese (French can be arranged on request), almost ceremonial – a very fitting vibe for this particular cuisine tradition. In this respect, Martin does find the mood of the classes particularly curious: “Teaching through a translator is a bit strange, because it’s like talking through two people,” he muses, “but it’s nice to be doing it with students who are actually interested and keen, quite happy to learn. I’ll be doing this for a while – I quite enjoy it, to be honest.”

Ilda is also very satisfied with the way things have taken shape with the course. “It always takes five or ten minutes for the mood to warm up,” she says, “but then people start to love it, especially when they taste the food. Most people are just curious about how it works, even if they never cook it at home or only once for friends. But like the tempura, the way they do it isn’t that complicated – I mean, as soon as the chef explains it, it really makes sense, but you’d never think how to do it yourself. They have a special technique for each vegetable and how to deep-fry it, and these are the secrets that they teach. I mean, when you’re not working in the food industry, how else could you get the chance to enter their kitchen?

 

Images by Ngoc Tran

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