One of the main reasons I am in Chiang Mai at the moment is to check out the situation of Thai cookery classes. I not only wanted to attend a couple of classes for my own benefit, but I also wanted to write some reviews for the enjoythaifood.com website. I had done most of my research in advance. On the Internet I had discovered that there were at least 15 cooking schools in Chiang Mai alone. In comparison, I think Bangkok only has two or three. Before I left I wrote emails to all of the schools asking if I could visit them to take pictures. Only five schools bothered to write back to me. These were: A Lot of Thai, Thai Farm Cooking School, Air’s Thai Culinary Kitchen, Chiangmai Thai Cookery School and Gap’s Culinary Art School.
Once I had arrived in Chiang Mai I did some more research. First I checked out the free magazine to see if any of the schools were established enough to take out advertising. I only found two adverts: Chiangmai Thai Cookery School and Baan Thai. Apparently, these were the first and second school respectively that were established in Chiang Mai. All of the other schools just seemingly jumped on the bandwagon. I next visited the Tourist Authority of Thailand. Here I found an excellent brochure made by the cooking school A Lot of Thai. It was really nicely done with beautiful pictures of the dishes and a handy map of Chiang Mai. The person at the information desk handed me a list of cookery schools which has now added a few more to my already long list.
Next I visited a few of the Tour Agencies. There must be hundreds of these in Chiang Mai. If you want to book treks, elephant rides, bus tickets, dinner theatre tickets etc., then you won’t have much trouble. These agencies are like 7–Eleven and you will find them on almost every corner! Although these agencies acknowledge that there are other cooking schools, they are always trying to push you into signing up for their favorite school. The name “Pad Thai” came up a few times. It is really difficult to know how sincere these people are. Are these schools genuinely the best or are these just the ones that pay out the highest commission.? Most courses seem to be around the 800–900 baht figure. However, I hear that some greedy agencies can demand up to 250 baht commission per person. To counteract that, I saw on some brochures and adverts that they say you should ring the schools directly and not go through an agency. Some even offer you a discount if you do that.
This morning, I went to visit Sompet Market as I had heard this was a good place to buy fresh produce. I was mainly going to take pictures rather than buy anything. You will find this market on the eastern side of the old city close to the moat. By the time we arrived it was 10 a.m. and there weren’t that many people around. I was the only foreigner there and there were probably about a dozen or so Thai customers. I wandered around taking a few pictures of ingredients and people shopping. Then I spotted a group of foreigners arriving. They were all carrying shopping baskets. I then realized that this must be one of the local cooking schools bringing their students to the market for a visit. I went closer to see what the teacher was saying. She was explaining about the different vegetables. There were about six students in the class. I tapped one on the shoulder and asked what cookery school he was attending. He gave me a blank look and then turned to his friend. I thought maybe they didn’t understand my question but it turned out that they had no idea!
A short while later another group of foreigners turned up with their Thai teacher. Then another and another and another. We were there about 30 minutes and in total I counted six groups! I am not joking when I say that the foreigners were now outnumbering the Thai customers. We did our best to listen to what the teachers were saying and also to find out what school they came from. Most of the teachers were young and their English wasn’t really that good. They had a strong accent and no confidence. Some didn’t seem to say much and others seemed to say too much! During my research, I got the impression that the teachers were all very experienced and were quite often the owners of the schools. But now it was starting to look like that they were sometimes passing the classes onto younger, less experienced people.
One of the schools that was sending their students to Sompet Market was Baan Thai. I was impressed with their website and was keen to visit. But, I was disappointed that they never bothered to reply to my email. With so much competition I think it is really important that they have an Internet presence. But, maybe they didn’t need to worry, as like their brochure proudly boasts, that they are “recommended by Lonely Planet”. But that means nothing. From experience, once these places get themselves featured in LP they then never bother to improve their business. As Baan Thai didn’t seem to be far away we decided to go and take a look for ourselves.
We found the cookery school down a narrow soi that was really only wide enough for a car and a half. It was a quiet soi but it looked like that many of the private houses had now been turned into guesthouses or restaurants. Parking was a real problem for us but I guess most of their clientele are backpackers and they would be walking. The funny thing is, we counted four cooking schools here alone! It looked like that everyone fancied themselves as cooks and teachers. It was a bit like them saying, “Well if my neighbour can do it then so can I!”. So, they bought a few cooking stations and put up a lean-to around the back for the classroom. Simple really.
I was really hoping that Baan Thai was going to be more than just a cooking school that operated round the back of someone’s house. I was impressed with their advertising and website. I had heard they were the second cooking school in Chiang Mai. But, to be honest, I was a little disappointed. The pictures on their web site had made everything look so spacious. But, it wasn’t. We inquired whether the owner was at home but was told that she was away. It didn’t look like she taught any more. The front room had a low table where the students could sit on the floor and eat their creations. Around the back we found the students in the middle of a lesson. There were only four of them. They seemed happy though I felt that the teacher seemed a little unsure of herself. Maybe she hadn’t had much experience yet.
When you come to pick a school you need to decide whether you want the small personal touch from a school run in a family home or a more professional school that can have 20 in a class. I like the idea of a family run school. But, the owner would also have to be the teacher. Once that person delegates their work to other people then that place loses the personal touch. Tomorrow I will be attending my first cookery class. I have chosen A Lot of Thai partly because it has small classes taught by the owner, but also because the husband of the teacher was so chatty in his several emails to me. I will let you know later how I got on with this class.