In Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, a unique two-week culinary vacation program for English speaking chefs has sprung up at one of the world’s most prestigious cooking schools: The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.
While culinary school vacations are not a new concept—cooking schools from New Orleans to Normandy have opened their doors to foodie travelers—this program offers something different. Initiated by New York-based businesswoman and food enthusiast Diane Drey, the curriculum has been imbued with the passion and deep knowledge of Fuchsia Dunlop.
An alumnus of the institute, renowned Chinese food expert and cookbook author, Dunlop has designed a program centered on her passion: Sichuan cuisine, one of the most celebrated schools of Chinese cuisine.
The story of Dunlop’s love affair with Sichuan cooking is nothing short of inspiring. While she was working as an editor for the BBC, Dunlop grew so intrigued by Chinese culture that she enrolled in evening classes to learn Mandarin. Later, she went to live in Chengdu, where she spent a year at Sichuan University before enrolling as a full-time student at The Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. This was only the beginning of the years of research that led her to author the award-winning ‘Land of Plenty’, the cookery book that introduced the culinary techniques and delicious dishes of Sichuan to much of the English-speaking world, and the acclaimed memoir ‘Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China’.
As for the two-week program Dunlop has designed, it kicks off with a Chengdu Hot Pot Dinner, and concludes with a multi-course celebratory banquet at a Sichuan restaurant. Classes are taught in Mandarin (with simultaneous English translation provided by an onsite translator) by experienced Sichuan chefs, who also helm established restaurants in Chengdu. These are the same chefs who train China’s finest culinary students to follow in their footsteps. “It’s essentially the CIA of China,” Drey explains, referring to the highly competitive Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
The first two-week session drew participants from around the world, including the United States, Britain, South Africa and New Zealand, indicating the international appeal of Sichuan cooking. The success of Dunlop’s books exemplifies the worldwide intrigue with Sichuan cuisine’s stunning flavors and precise preparations. What’s more, she is evidence of the profound impact Sichuan cooking tends to have on those lucky enough to taste it firsthand in Chengdu.
During the two-week immersion, students learn by example, observing each morning as the chef prepares three authentic Sichuan dishes like steaming bowls of Dan Dan noodles, Ma Po Dou Fu (a hot & spicy tofu dish ), Guo Ba Rou Pian (pork with crispy rice in lychee sauce), and spicy Zhong dumplings. The morning program is more than a demonstration of recipes; the why, how, and timing of each step is explained, along with a detailed description of each ingredient. In the afternoon, students recreate the morning’s dishes in their own woks, learning how to control the pan’s heat as they coax Sichuan’s famous “numbing-and-hot” and “fish-fragrant” flavors from the freshest ingredients.
At the conclusion of two weeks, participants in the program will have prepared close to 30 different dishes and gained experience wielding a cleaver to cut raw ingredients into various shapes. The close contact and feedback from master Sichuan chefs helps students gain a deeper understanding of the complex flavors intrinsic to Sichuan cuisine, and how each dish fits into the scheme of Sichuan’s 23 flavors.
Despite its flavor complexities, the cornerstones of Sichuan cooking are rather simple: “Preparation and ingredients are everything, and many dishes actually cook in the wok in just five to ten minutes,” Drey noted. With that in mind, students are led on an excursion to a Chengdu food marketplace, where they source ingredients and select spices for dishes they’ll prepare back in the kitchen.
Adding cultural context to the program, and providing a respite from cooking and eating, students also travel to attractions located near Chengdu. Transportation to and from the city is provided for these day trips.
There is an opportunity to visit Chengdu’s Research Base for Giant Pandas where Giant Pandas and Red Pandas can be viewed in their native habitat. The base has over 80 Giant Pandas. Another trip is taken to the Sichuan Culinary Museum, where students will see ancient cooking tools, and gain further insight into the development of Sichuan cuisine. Lastly, students will visit the Giant Buddha in Leshan, a fine place for exploring and unwinding in the beautiful park and monastery.
The two-week program is given biannually in March and October.