Honestly – I thought I was being punked. I awoke this morning – thrilled that I was about to join a group of people for my first cooking class in Asia. Thrilled because I have been craving human contact … emailing friends recently about the loneliness that has been setting in after countless solo meals and solitary sojourns in beautiful, albeit highly foreign, towns. So the thought of communing with others around a table laden with food sounded like just the ticket. And then …
“Lady. LADY!!! You follow me…” This from an energetic Vietnamese man wearing a Red Bridge Cooking School baseball cap who was quickly walking out of the peaceful patio I had just been lounging around. It was 8:30am and I was finishing an iced Vietnamese coffee (laden with condensed milk, of course) with my guide Phi. Other class participants gathered around dark iron tables gabbing away – all in small groups. At one point one of the cooking school staff led a distinguished elderly gentleman over to my table and seated him next to me. We exchanged introductions, me enthusiastically shaking his hand and welcoming him to my quiet part of the patio. And then the staff apologized, asked him to follow them and whisked him away. And I was left alone. Again. I quickly asked Phi, “We are cooking in groups, right? I won’t be doing this on my own?” And he assured me yet again that yes, I would be with others. And I decided to trust him, despite the fact that groups of people were being led out of the patio into the bustling streets of Hoi An.
So when the spirited man (who I would soon learn was named Thanh) yelled “LADY!” and pointed at only me to follow, I thought to myself, “you have got to be kidding.” But I grabbed my umbrella and zipped up my rain jacket and hurried after him. He quickly explained that he had been up since 4am, shopping at the market he was leading me to, and he didn’t feel like leading a big group. Seriously.
As we arrived at the loud, pulsing market we came upon another couple waiting with a guide who Thanh greeted briefly. They were a lovely, elderly couple from Holland and – as you can imagine – I eagerly shook their hands with a huge smile on my face. The four of us marched off with Thanh leading the way – showing us all manner of fruits and vegetables and herbs – tearing off pieces of fresh Asian basil and placing it under our noses so we could inhale the pungent anise scent. Introducing us to fish and chicken and pork vendors and explaining the Vietnamese way of using only the freshest ingredients – pointing out that not a fly could be found amidst the countless tables of meat. The care he displayed for every vendor we encountered, every piece of fruit he held up was heartwarming. Despite our abrupt beginning, I was coming to very much like this man.
I would learn later that he is a very highly regarded chef in Vietnam. That he helped host a fancy Bon Appetit editor during his trip through Hoi An. This man of contradictions … frenzied yet calm – renowned yet humble … this man became my best friend today. He was the head chef – a man obviously used to being in charge as he commanded our group in the art of Vietnamese cooking for several hours. But he took the time to seat me directly in front of him during his instruction. Every time he finished preparing a dish – as he sent us to our individual cooking stations – he would say to me quietly, “Lady – you try,” and would proffer whatever he had just prepared. At one point he grabbed my iPhone from my chair and walked across the room to snap my picture. He personally showed me how to prepare a rice pancake, reminding me to swirl the delicate rice and water mixture over the cotton cloth stretched across the simmering pot of water. At the end of the day, he even brought me my bag and umbrella, delicately looping my purse’s long strap over my head as I balanced my belongings.
This man never knew my name. I never called him by his (only referring to him as “Chef”). But I soon forgot about my loneliness … and even the chatter of my fellow cooking students – the ones I had so wanted to commune with – melted into the background as this man – this kind, crazy, lovely man – took me under his wing and into his care.
PS – I had intended for this post to be about food – one of my favorite subjects. But somehow it morphed into this. Just as today morphed into something completely different than what I expected. Ah … expectations – silly, dangerous things they are.
PPS – I WILL write about food soon. It’s impossible to even know where to begin 🙂