By Professor Peter Jones MBE FCGI FIH FRACA: Every day is a school day, the power of learning how to make a Mutton Biryani.
Winston Churchill is reported as saying, “I am always ready to learn although, I do not always like being taught”.
Learning from a master of their craft is more than just learning, it is also a privilege. Churchill drew the distinction between learning as being active, rather than being taught, which, for many can be passive sometimes sleep inducing.
When working alongside a master, it provides an understanding of professional skills and moves beyond demonstration into real learning. Recently I had such a privilege.
As a judge at the Young Chefs Olympiad, 2023, I along with a fellow judge Stephen Carter, Executive Chef at Boodles, were able to spend time in the traditional kitchen of ITC Sonar Bangla Hotel in Kolkata. We were under the masterful eye of Chef Pradeep Sharma, and his brigade. The idea was to learn how to cook a traditional West Bengal, Mutton Biryani, one of the most popular dishes on the hotel’s menu.
I say learn advisedly. Whilst we both learnt, what we witnessed and participated in was a true masterclass. We came away with a much better understanding of the complexities in the use of the spices and the other ingredients, and something of the different processes, but to say that we had truly learned how to make it, not yet. More practice required.
With all Masters, the intuitive understanding of the materials, the timing of what to add and when, how much, and how, is not just a technical exercise, but an emotional one, crafted through learning from the experience of doing. It has a cultural dimension and pride, as well as being rooted in the flavours and values of the region, or as the French would put it the ‘terroir’. This level of understanding is developed over time with strong elements of passion in what you are doing.
With our Master nothing was weighed and did not need to be. The measures were both with the eye and the hand and had been crafted through experience, adjusted and modified as required. The final dish was always in sight of the chef, he knew exactly what it would look like and taste like at every step of the way. The final dish was far more than a random combination of the 18 different spices and the other ingredients, it was a manifestation of craftsmanship, skill, pride, passion, and tradition.
The opportunity we enjoyed, was more than just an experience, it was confirmation of the power of learning. The learning was through watching and following the actions whilst trying to copy the skills to be able to produce something similar to the master. In my case, I did not see what happened to my attempt, it was last seen on the side of a stove.
What that experience also showed, was the bond established within the profession. We did not share a spoken language, although their English was much better than my Bengali! We did share the language of kitchen craft, a language shared by chefs the world over.
That is also the story of the Young Chefs Olympiad, we were in India to be part of an international gathering of culinary expertise, we learned much from the experience. The YCO creates the opportunity for young chefs from over 50 countries from Armenia to Zambia, to come together to compete. Although it is not just about the competition, it is also about sharing the experiences and bringing together the future talent for the international industry. They were able to share the language and craft of the kitchen in the same way as we were with our Indian counterparts.
We all learn by doing, we also learn from each other. Winston Churchill understood the power of learning. He just did not always like to be taught!
The story is not yet over, Stephen has suggested that he will source the ingredients and we will try to re-create the Mutton Biryani in his kitchen. He has also threatened to video our attempt to send to the Indian brigade. Probably more for their entertainment than their education. But do not forget for all of us, every day is a school day.