In London, my first meal of the day often came at 10 p.m.. My assistant Katrina and I would reach for my cheap, Chinese plastic bowls – the ones with red, faded dragon motifs that we often ate from when all the good plates had already been used – and fill them with the remaining scraps of the evening’s food. Sometimes we were lucky and could feast on crab claws or the ends of a fish; the morsels that were too messy, too full of bones for delicate English palates. More often than not there was barely enough food for one person and I pretended not to be hungry, pushing the leftovers towards Katrina and secretly making a bowl of steamed rice scattered with a few roasted peanuts after she’d gone.
In the three years that we had been working together we’d seen a pattern develop. Our favourite classes were the ones full of ex-pats – Americans, Australians, Italians or Spaniards – enthusiastic people who liked to eat. It hardly felt like work at all. The crushing of coriander seeds and cumin, the pounding of lemongrass and galangal and the sluicing of walnut oil, lemon juice, or sherry vinegar through the evening’s chosen recipes were an easy, happy prelude to the eating that was to follow.
In these classes we needed only to fill platters with the dishes we’d cooked – quails in bitter chocolate sauce, prickly-sour lamb and date tagine, a seabass stuffed with pickled chilies and rough chopped herbs; and stand back. My apartment in London, tucked behind the pre-war facade of a shoe factory, reached by the rumbling of a freight elevator – a peaceful home by day and ‘word of mouth’ cooking school by night – became the scene for a spectacular eating and drinking frenzy. The Italians pushed past us for the emptied pots on the stove and scraped the bottoms with hunks of bread; skinny, French girls loosened the rungs of their black, clingy jeans as they slurped third helpings of coconut milk soup and long-simmered curry and timid Japanese couples made easy work of cardamom cakes that spilled with warm, salt caramel.
As we shuffled trays out of the oven, tipped bubbling pots into serving bowls and piled cocktail glasses and cutlery into the dishwasher, Katrina and I stopped occasionally to smile at each other. The carnage of empty bowls could only mean one thing; another perfect evening.
The worst classes, the ones we dreaded, read like the honour role of some leafy, public school. Fordhams, Watmores, Lawsons and Flemings. These were not names that loved to eat, these were names that would struggle with chopsticks, lose patience with rolling pins and eat flatbreads with a knife and fork. Reared on a diet of boiled potatoes and lamb with mint sauce, these were names with a wardrobe of navy blue suits and leather bound notebooks, names with pasty faces and lips that screwed up at the scent of fish sauce or the sour taste of tamarind, names that had laughingly come to see what ‘this cooking lark’ was all about.
Our faithful culinary re-enactments of small-village Oaxaca or Cambodian street food were lost on them, as were the tomatillos, jicama or lime leaves that I’d painstakingly sourced to make a perfect mole or an authentic salad. And when they left – taking their painful silence with them but leaving behind their recipe binders – they were also the most generous. With these names the leftovers were always plentiful.