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Wok and play

By Sun Yuanqing | China Daily | Updated: 2012-04-17 14:36

Wok and play

Zhou Chunyi (right), owner of Hutong Cuisine, teaches her students how to make Chinese dishes. Provided to China Daily

Chinese chef teaches 'home kitchen' classes in capital

In a traditional courtyard house or siheyuan right in the heart of Beijing, Zhou Chunyi peers over the shoulder of one of her students as she wrestles with a wok. "More oil! And stir faster," calls Zhou, whose students are mostly Westerners. She is teaching them how to make moo shu pork, a classic Chinese dish.

"I want to teach them authentic Chinese cooking. Those who come to me for the first time usually marvel at how delicious homemade Chinese dishes really are. That's my proudest moment," Zhou says.

Zhou, 39, operates what many consider to be the longest-running "home kitchen school" in the Chinese capital. She offers a "genuine taste of Chinese home cuisine and hands-on experience" with a three-four hour class for about 250 yuan ($40, 30 euros).

"I keep coming here because I can learn new and practical things that I can actually try back in my own kitchen," says Liliana Torres, from the United States.

Zhou's lessons can be traced to the hands-on cooking classes for travelers and expatriates, which are said to have taken off in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s following the popularity of the chef Julia Child, who launched her L'cole des Trois Gourmands, also known as the School of the Three Food Lovers.

Zhou's students and many others say it only seemed natural that the trend found a place in the capital of the country with one of the greatest culinary traditions.

Brought up in Guangdong province in the 1970s, Zhou majored in chemistry in college and was supposed to live a nine to five routine as a chemist in a decent company.

"But I never liked chemistry. I found it to be dull and tedious," Zhou says.

In 2003, having worked in the sector for nearly a decade, Zhou decided to visit Sichuan province to shrug off the "mounting resentment" she had developed for her job.

During her travels in the southwestern province, the local fare, famous for its spicy and strong flavors, ignited Zhou's love for food.

"You know us Chinese people. Wherever we go, we think first about what to eat," Zhou laughs.

After returning from Sichuan, Zhou was reluctant to go back to the life of a chemist. "Sichuan food is so tasty. Why not take a break and learn to make it?" she thought.

She soon resigned from her job and took a three-month course in Sichuan cuisine, becoming a certified chef along the way.

"The more I learned, the more fascinated I was," Zhou says.

Returning to Guangdong, Zhou sought to continue her studies with a part-time culinary school while she looked for a proper job.

"But all the training institutions were for full-time chefs. What I needed was some part-time course as cooking was only my hobby at that time."

Zhou decided to invent one such course for people like herself.

"There must be many others who love cooking but only have time for part-time courses," she says. She went online and did her research. Her questions were finally answered when she discovered the concept of "home kitchen classes".

The trend had reached Asia from the West in the 1990s but it was not until the last decade that similar "home kitchen schools" were reported in big Chinese cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.

With her cooking expertise and fluency in English, Zhou became one of the first to explore the new territory in Beijing.

"When it came to tourists and expats, it had to be Beijing," Zhou says, adding that the capital's culture and lifestyle, markedly different from her southern home province, also attracted her.

But the first two years of running her kitchen were tough, Zhou says. It took some time before she could finally settle down in the present siheyuan, amid an increasingly expensive city dominated by an expanding concrete jungle.

"I like the open space and the sense of neighborhood in the hutong. It's the best place for the guests to enjoy genuine Chinese cuisine," Zhou says. She named her school after its location - Hutong Cuisine.

The place remained little known until two years later, when the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games brought large numbers of tourists, giving a boost to local tourism including small businesses like Hutong Cuisine.

"We received about eight customers a day in midseason in 2008 and the years after. Before the Olympics, the number stayed around five or so," Zhou says.

The after-effect of the Olympics continued to provide sustainable growth for the home kitchen business in the capital. Various home kitchen schools joined the fray, catering to the growing number of tourists and expatriates in the city. But only a few, including Zhou's, survived.

Zhou is considered by many to be the only native owner of the few kitchens that have survived.

"I tend to keep things simple in my kitchen and focus on what I can teach to the students as a local," she says. "My peers have also got their own specialties like ambience and networking, catering to different ranges of customers."

Comparing the home kitchen class scene in and outside of China, Zhou says that the schools "in countries like Italy and Thailand are more mature and diversified. Those in Italy are concentrated in holiday resorts and usually provide all-round leisure services. Those in Thailand are usually small and cater to travelers. As the capital of China, Beijing has many expats, and that would probably be the springboard for us to develop our specialty".

Tourism-related businesses in Beijing are also returning to normal.

"I hope the home kitchen school scene here can be more diversified in the future. Every kitchen should develop their specialty, be it Peking duck or kung pao chicken," Zhou says.

She has also tailored hundreds of recipes for home use. Her students, with their varied experiences, remain some of her biggest inspirations. She is also considering publishing her recipes.

"I would go and try the dishes my students encountered while they were out dining. After that I make it on my own and develop my own recipes that are practical for home kitchens."

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