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August 20, 2009

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Western recipes for local chefs

WHILE learning to cook a dish can be as simple as following a recipe, discovering the culture and spirit of a cuisine is a much more subtle and demanding art.

Passing on a passion for Western cooking is the aim of the Chinese branch of Disciples Escoffier International, a cooking association aimed at chefs that has its origins in France.

The association has more than 2,000 members in France and more than 20,000 around the world.

The association is named after Auguste Escoffier, a French chef and food writer who ran the kitchens at the Savoy and Carlton hotels in London and the Ritz in Paris from 1890 to 1920.

In 1928 he was awarded France's highest honor, the Legion d'honneur, for his services to gastronomy, and in the 1960s an association was set up in his honor to further the knowledge of modern cooking. The China branch of the association was started in 2006 and has 145 members.

In Shanghai, the Disciples Escoffier has a particularly strong presence with 40 members and they are about to launch a major new training program for local chefs.

The Four Steps cooking classes are aimed at local chefs under the age of 28 and focus on teaching basic techniques to help them gain a deeper knowledge of Western cuisine.

Hilton Shanghai hotel executive chef Emmanuel Souliere, who is also the association's vice chairman for China, says the program is aimed at giving local chefs a solid professional grounding that could allow them to run their own kitchens.

The training course will involve intensive two-day courses at the start of each of the four seasons of the year.

Students will learn a range of skills, there will be cooking demonstrations by some of the city's top executive chefs and a test of the students' knowledge at the end of each two-day course.

"The idea of the association is to be able to pass on this knowledge and passion for Western food and help it spread throughout China," says Souliere who, along with Shanghai food and beverage pioneer Paul Fontana, is one of the founders of the association.

When he arrived in Shanghai in 2004, Souliere says there was not much in the way of associations focused on the long-term development of local chefs.

He says it takes at least four to five years to train a Chinese chef to full proficiency as a Western chef.

Young chefs

This involves more than just cooking dishes but being able to manage the kitchen, design a menu and develop proficiency in a number of different techniques and styles.

Another arm of the association's activities in China is to expose young chefs to the demands and pressures of competition cooking.

Each year for the past three years the association has gathered chefs from across the Asia-Pacific region to compete in the Escoffier Asia Young Hope Contest.

The most recent competition was in April where Paul Xing from the Banyan Tree in Sanya, Hainan Province, beat competitors from South Korea, Thailand and Singapore.

He will travel to Europe to compete in the global competition in Nice, France, in February next year.

Last year's winner, Lily Liu, a chef in the Hilton Shanghai's Leonardo's restaurant, competed in the global contest in Geneva, Switzerland, in February.

Liu says that the preparation for the competition involved daily training after work for two months prior to the competition.

She says the training she received in Shanghai and in Paris in the lead up to the competition has given her a great depth of knowledge.

"If you do not understand something of the culture and history behind a country's food you cannot cook it well," she says. "It was a difficult and nervous time competing in the competition, but if you give a lot you can learn a lot fromthe experience."


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