Put 15 college freshmen -- from all walks of life, different states across the country/different countries around the world, and seemingly incompatible social groups -- into a weekly, 3-hour long seminar that explores the relationship between flavor and neurobiology while demanding intimate collaboration (think rubbing food coloring onto the tongue of someone whom you've just met).......what do you get?
The perfect recipe for awkwardness.
For shyness. Discomfort. All of the feelings I felt before every piano class.
When I first saw this seminar on the course atlas last semester, I tried to contain my excitement. I have a bad track record for developing high expectations and later being disappointed by reality, so I reminded myself to keep an open and realistic attitude towards this class. On top of that, I knew that I couldn't get too excited because I had to write a 500 word essay and apply to be accepted into the class.
A few weeks later, I was delighted when an email from the professor popped up, congratulating me for being accepted. I returned to the course listing and reread the course description,
"This course explores the biology of deliciousness. We will focus on the brain systems that allow us to taste and smell and how the chemical, physical, and cultural properties of different foods affect our experience of eating. The class will meet in a test kitchen on campus, and every class will include cooking and eating, as well as discussion of assigned readings.Grades will be based on written assignments and on classroom participation."
What could be better? I love to cook, I (now) like biology(love is a strong word for anything related to academics), I can easily manage the workload. The description was vague enough for me to have an idea of what the class would be like, without fantasizing about culinary school like experiences. What could go wrong?
Unfortunately, I still left the first class, and each subsequent class, disappointed. We spent minimal time cooking and excessive time discussing the densest primary research articles. The act of cooking is also generally reserved to the professors, and we've used packaged snack foods for our in-class "labs" more than composed meals. Given the structure of the class, there was little time for any of the students to bond and get to know each other -- just three weeks ago, (about six weeks into the semester), we unanimously realized that we didn't know each other's names...yet it's a class of 15! We sat around for fifteen minutes, playing the same game that I remember playing with my hallmates on move-in night -- you know, the one where we take turns naming each person in the circle. Having a class that requires you to work intimately with others while only two classmates are friendly, is a little uncomfortable.
A week later, I arrived to class early and sat in a study lounge across the hall from the kitchen to do some work. One of the professors stepped into the lounge and said "hey". I responded and said "hi", but he continued in an apologetic voice: "We actually have to use this room for a class...". I looked at him blankly, and bluntly replied, "Um...I'm in your class...". (I know, at least he was polite the entire time). He stared at me for another long five seconds before cringing and saying, (a little too loudly, I might add), "OHH, of course, I'm sorry, I would have recognized you if you were sitting in the original classroom!"...
......I was not amused......
I mention this list of grievances not to complain about the class (okay, maybe just a little) but to help you better understand the sense of dread I feel before each class. Don't get me wrong, the information that we've learned have been, for the most part, interesting, but I think I focused too strongly on the idea of cooking each class and forgot about academics and the reality of how the class was structured. So when the professor reminded us of upcoming field trips to different chefs' kitchens, I tried to feel excited but ultimately found myself completely apathetic and unenthusiastic.
Fortunately, my rather indifferent attitude helped me to avoid thinking about the field trips, thus preventing me from conjuring my infamous, unrealistic, romanticized, idealistic-beyond-imagination, expectations. And I emphasize "fortunate", because this experience was so wonderfully valuable and meaningful, to the point that it surpassed any potential expectation I could have dreamed of.
On a beautiful Wednesday afternoon, we uncomfortably piled into taxis, very much aware of our personal space while attempting to make small talk about each other's spring break. We finally arrived to "The Third Space", where Chef Asha Gomez teaches cooking classes, located next door to "Spice to Table", Chef Gomez's restaurant in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward.
My initial reaction of The Third Space? :
BEAUTIFUL. MODERN. CLEAN. CAN I PLEASE LIVE HERE?
(Disclaimer: This photo does not do the space justice.)
The room was welcoming and felt like home while maintaining a professional, fresh, modern aesthetic. Chef Gomez, herself, was all smiles as she graciously welcomed us with her bubbly personality. (Later on, in the cab ride back, we all agreed that she reminds us of Aarti Sequiera, champion of The Next Food Network Star).
The intent of this trip was to learn about spices, black pepper in particular, from Chef Gomez -- while her last name is Spanish, she is in fact Indian. Chef Gomez introduced herself by explaining that her last name changed when the Portuguese controlled her hometown, Kerala, India, and converted natives to Catholocism. Given that India's social hierarchy was based on the caste system, which has a religious connection and is tied directly to last names, the religious converts were given new last names, hence Chef Gomez's unique last name. (I believe her last name has actually been passed down through her family since her grandmother!)
Our discussion about spices began with Chef Gomez's acknowledgement of the stereotypical foods that Americans associate with Indian food -- particularly curry. Much like how cuisine differs vastly between regions of the U.S. or how pizzas are made differently across the four regions of Italy, it makes sense that cuisines differ between the four major regions of India as well! Kerala, which is located in Southern India, has access to fresh seafood, so many of its dishes are seafood-based, unlike the Northern region's, which is known for its breads and dairy-based sauces/curries. More distinctly, due to Portuguese influence, Kerala is one of the few places in India that eats cow, which is considered sacred and is uneaten by most Indians. Lesson #1: regional foods differ because of the unique nature of physical terrains. Think about that -- it's difficult to put it into words, but that makes so much sense and is rather deep. Reflecting on the U.S. alone, the unique food culture of different parts of the country are strongly influenced by agriculture and food supply; what's local and freshly found (or freshly caught/slaughtered) heavily influences the stereotypical cuisine of the region. New England clam chowder? Southern Californian tacos? Wisconsin cheese? And furthermore, what about the "farm to table"/seasonal menu/purchasing locally movement? The bottom line is that food, for the most part, should be regional for ethical and environmental reasons, and that the beauty of culture, history, and food rests heavily on geographical location.
Chef Gomez continued by elucidating the common misconception that chili peppers are native to India because of their prevalence in Indian cuisine. Black pepper is actually native to India, but chili peppers come from the Americas. As we discussed the chemical constituents that make up black pepper in class, Chef Gomez encouraged us to waft whole black peppercorns and compare the scent to that of freshly ground (with a mortar and pestle) black peppercorns. To no surprise, the ground peppercorns smelled more robust, and that beautiful, lemon-y scent (courtesy of limonene's presence) was significantly more potent. This all to demonstrate (in my opinion) that freshly ground spices are major differentiating factor between gourmet foods and the average home-cooked meal -- volatile chemicals are responsible for the scent (and therefore taste) of spices, so all pre-ground spices have lost their potency because the volatile chemicals have already vaporized. Chef Gomez followed with a description of how she approached the meal that she prepared for us -- she wanted to emphasize black pepper because of it's strong history in Southern Indian cuisine, so to complement it in her chicken dish, she also added allspice.
Right at that moment, her good friend (and James Beard awarded) Chef Linton Hopkins, whom she calls "Sir Hopkins", walked in. Sitting in front of him was a little intimidating; his white chef's jacket and confident stride put me in a state of pure awe. Chef Gomez recalled her first time meeting Chef Hopkins: before the two of them became friends, Chef Gomez was taken to Restaurant Eugene (one of Hopkins' famous restaurants in Atlanta) for her birthday, and Chef Hopkins came to wish her a happy birthday during dinner! (This was also Chef Hopkins' first time hearing this story!)
These two friends poured out their knowledge about the history of the American South and its influences from various cultures across the world, including African, Native American, Spanish, French, German, and in recent decades, Asian (including Indian). Having only associated Southern food with fried chicken and grits, I was really humbled and intrigued by how the chefs described the unique contributions of different cultures to Southern cuisine, and I realized just how complex Southern flavor can be. My bias for the North was further challenged when the chefs lauded the Southern culture of collaboration. The North is undeniably cutthroat and competitive, but the South? -- not at all; here, it's about working together, sharing, and learning from each other. How refreshing is that?
While Chef Hopkins has been involved in the culinary world since his graduation from college, Chef Gomez is fairly new to the business, having only entered it five years ago. Prior to her career as a chef, she owned a spa (cab conversation - "that's why she looks so young!"). However, her attention to detail and hospitality then revolved around the very same principles that guide her in her approach to food today; the idea of a complete experience was and still is very important to her. Her entry into the culinary world was unexpected, following the closing of her spa during the 2008 financial crisis. Former spa customers, however, returned to Chef Gomez, asking her if she'd continue cooking, since their spa treatments always ended with a delicious meal that she prepared. And since then, she's been a chef! Nope, no professional training needed :)
During her early days as a chef, Chef Gomez was trying to figure out what she wanted to serve at her restaurant. She sent a homemade lunch (of curry, I believe?) in a pot to her inspiration, local Chef Anne Quatrano. A few hours later, one of her servers came to the kitchen to tell her that Chef Quatrano was standing outside, with the pot! Chef Gomez's knees buckled and she scurried out of there to greet Chef Quatrano, who responded, "I was taught to never return a pot empty-handed, so I've made you dinner", resulting in a dinner between the two, full of collaboration (coming back to that idea, wink wink ;] ), and thus blossoming their friendship.
How wonderful are these friendships?!
Something that Chef Gomez mentioned that resonated deeply with me was that it took her time to find a balance between career and family -- she battled between wanting to be at home and wanting to be an independent business woman, and after much work and sacrifices, she's able to be with her son afterschool by setting earlier restaurant closing hours. Yes, early closing hours means less business, but it's all about compromises, and at the end of the day, she can still have a career that she loves (and that has given her much success, to the point that she taught cooking classes of 200+ people at local stadiums before opening up The Third Space!) while being able to spend time with her son. Chef Hopkins chimed in and added that he too felt the same way earlier in his career; his strong value for family is why he goes home to eat with his family every night instead of working at the restaurant. I think that most people are torn between the two, and it was encouraging to hear two successful, admirable, value-driven individuals share their advice.
To top off the continuing list of reasons why we all fell in love with Chef Gomez, she's also passionate about women's rights and ending world hunger, and described the empowerment of women through simple tools, such as those that allow women to weave their own products and sell them through fair trade. Empowerment and socioeconomic independence help reduce poverty, tackling another pressing issue that both chefs feel strongly about: food insecurity.
Unfortunately, I was too absorbed in the conversation to remember to take notes (don't worry, I have plenty for my next piece on Chef Hopkins!), so the bulk of what I've written so far constitute everything that's come to mind when I think about this experience...everything with the exception of the food ;).
So let's dive into the food:
Chef Gomez's server passed out heaping, individual portions of banana leaf wrapped coconut rice with boneless, black pepper chicken thigh and potatoes, served next to a colorful cabbage and carrot slaw that was simply dressed with sorghum, nutmeg, and vinegar. The coconut rice and chicken smelled heavenly --- and I mean it! Nothing has ever smelled that good, and given the simplicity of this dish's components, Chef Gomez has converted me to believing that freshly ground spices make a world of a difference. The rice was rich and as soft/fluffy as pillows (Dad and Will, you would have loved it!). The chicken was so tender that my fork could just pull it apart as if it were slow-cooked, pulled pork that melts in your mouth. (Yes, this made me so happy to be eating meat again.) While the dressing on the slaw was simple, it really transformed the ingredients properly to cut the richness of the banana leaf wrapped contents.
As we were eating, Chef Gomez's adorable son, Ethan, delivered Masala chai to each one of us. I had a feeling that there was milk in the chai, but given that the food was incredible, I had to try the chai too...and it was well worth the risk! I've had chai from Trader Joe's tea bags and from Starbucks, but they have never tasted good. Chef Gomez's, on the other hand, was transformative -- and I'm not exaggerating. This chai tasted like Thai tea - creamy, smooth, comforting, and sweet.
Returning to that theme of collaboration once more, Chef Gomez even graciously gave us her recipe for chai:
Recipe: Masala Chai
Courtesy of Chef Asha Gomez
2 bags (I think?) of mid grade black Assam tea
1 cup of whole milk
1 cup of water
3-4 cardamom pods, crushed
a little bit of nutmeg, shaved (meaning that it has to be fresh!)
a little bit of sugar, to taste (Chef Gomez doesn't recommend honey because honey has a very distinct, strong flavor)
(optional variations/mix-ins: ginger, black pepper, clove, cinnamon)
1. In a pot on the lowest flame possible, infuse the spices into the milk and water mixture until fragrant.
2. Add the tea and steep for 3 minutes.
3. Finish by sweetening to taste and adding freshly ground cardamom on top.
Our enjoyment of the delicious food concluded our visit, but the beauty of the trip didn't end with us leaving. We all piled into the taxi cabs again, but this time, we were gushing with excitement and eagerly shared our thoughts of the entire event. We asked each other about our own taste perceptions and whether or not our cultures/different taste preferences influenced our enjoyment of the food --- yes, we talked about our cultures and backgrounds! I can't begin to explain how rare the topic of culture has been among conversations with my friends, and here we were, pouring out our excitement and backgrounds to classmates that we had felt so distanced from, just two hours prior.
This experience was incredible, and I am so out of this world grateful for the chance to learn first hand from such talented and knowledgeable chefs. I'll end this post with (a poorly) restatement of something that Chef Gomez mentioned that sums this experience pretty well:
Food is the most accessible gateway to appreciating other cultures.
P.S. Look forward to my piece on my trip to Chef Hopkins' two restaurants, Holeman & Finch and Restaurant Eugene, next week!