Kitchen in a box

Guest blogger Stuart Beaton has been busy interviewing a slew of authors on his podcast site, as well as getting back into the new teaching term. But he’s spent some time here blogging about his adventures teaching kitchen English. So bring out the milk and biscuits. Here’s Stu:

Teaching in China is not all beer and skittles.

In fact, now that I’ve stopped drinking, it’s not even skittles.

I get to spend less than two hours a week with each class, with an average of forty students per class–when you do the math, it comes down to less than three minutes per student per week. Not a lot of time to waste in such cases.

So I need to put together short, two part lessons that are able to deliver something of a punch every time. Given that there is no set curriculum for me to follow, I have to develop my own syllabus, chart out the (maybe) 18 weeks of classes, and then generate an exam at the end. All of that has to take into account the amazing variation in ability within each class… oh, and the fact that all of my students are training to be medical professionals, and thus feel that they have absolutely no need to study English whatsoever.

As the first week of semester is lost in general housekeeping, such as extracting a name list from the class monitor (lately I’ve offered to settle for teeth), making sure that students are in the right room (course shopping is rampant), and trying to outline what’s going to happen over the course of the term.

At the start of the second week, if I don’t grab the class’ collective attention, I’m buggered for the rest of the term – which is where the “Kitchen In A Box” comes in. In the dying minutes of the first week’s lesson, I give the students their homework – to go out and eat things, and think about how they’re made.

I started the “Kitchen In A Box” lesson two years ago, when I unexpectedly had to give a lesson to the British Culture Class of English Majors. Not being British myself, I had to think of something to fill two periods, and hit upon making scones in class.

Which is not as easy as it sounds – I had to get two strapping lads to move my oven to the room from our apartment, and lug my stand mixer over as well.

The scones themselves turned out well, but the students were more interested in the tools I used in the process of making them – spatulas, whisks, scrapers and the like. I’d also thrown on my chef’s jacket, apron and toque, just to make myself look a bit more presentable when handling the ingredients, something they’d not seen before.

The next semester, I found myself teaching one of the same classes I’d previously taught, and so had to scrap my pre-planned classes for new ones. Recalling the success of the class with the English Majors, I decided to do something about food – but the classroom I was teaching in had no spare power outlets (let’s face it, not many lecture theatres in China are really set up for an oven anyway!).

But I was determined to do something different, so I had a look at my kitchen…

As you can see, it’s set up so I can find the tools I need, when I need them quickly.

Grabbing a large storage box, I grabbed the ones I’d seen least in Chinese supermarkets and kitchens, and my cookies/cake icing kit and put them inside. Then I made sure my jacket, apron and toques were all clean, and laid them on top. Finally, I grabbed three cookbooks off the rack, and stuck the lid on.


The next morning, I carted the box up in the lift to the class, and started to get them thinking about cooking.

It turns out that most Chinese Uni students have no idea what happens in a kitchen… let alone how to prepare food.

Teasing the information out, slowly, in English, gets them thinking, starting with the idea of using the freshest possible ingredients available to them, through washing their hands before preparing food, up to what makes kitchens dangerous.

When asked about the most dangerous thing in a kitchen, one student bluntly told me that his mother was… strangely enough, I was thinking of hot liquids, sharp knives and fire, but, hey – she might be, I have no idea.

Then on to a brief introduction about recipe books. I use one that dates back to the 1920’s, one from the late 1970’s and one published a few years ago to show how recipes have changed over the past hundred years, from a simple list of ingredients and measures, with vague directions, to illustrated books with more explanation, up to the photograph rich, easy to follow books that are around now.

After that, I ask the class about what cooks wear in the kitchen, and why. Using a “victim” from the class, I dress them in my jacket, talking about the push through buttons, and how it’s made of heavy cotton to prevent burns. Then I slip a kerchief around their neck, explaining that now it’s used to look neat, but originally it was worn in case a tourniquet was needed! A black half-apron, talking about how it’s easier to wash flour out of an apron than trousers, and how the apron adds an extra, quickly removed layer in case of hot liquid spills.

Finally I top my volunteer off with a toque – my big, floppy pastry chef’s toque – which I then change over to the fluted ones more commonly seen on exec. Chefs here, then to the plain, low round one that most food handlers wear every day. At this point, zillions of pictures seem to be taken with cell phones, before I let my victim escape.

Next comes the kitchen tools, which I show to the class, asking them to guess what each is used for, before passing them around – and the name is put on the board.

It’s amazing the number of students who can’t identify a can opener.

Or is that just worrying.

Spatulas, graters, rolling pins, tongs, pasta drainers, measuring cups and spoons – all circulate around the class, and are subjected to eager scrutiny.

My range of cookie cutters draw a great deal of interest, but that’s probably because I have gingerbread men ones that lack heads, arms and legs – when pressed into the dough, and baked, they come out looking like someone’s already bitten into them.

None of my students have ever managed to identify a ricer or my ibrik, but maybe I’ll be surprised one day.

After about an hour, we’ll have exhausted the contents of the box, and I’ll send my students out for a ten minute break, while I restock the box, ready for the next class.

When they come back, it’s there’s just enough time to show them the first episode of Lorraine Pascal’s “Baking Made Easy”, in which she uses a number of the tools I’ve just shown them (mostly so they don’t leave thinking I’ve made it all up!).

With that over, it’s time for them to go, but not before I give them the homework for week three – to think about what makes food taste the way it does.

But that’s the subject for another post.


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