Ngaio Crequer discovers cuisine priorities at the launch of the UK's first Chinese chefs' school.
THE ambassador was adamant - the key characteristics of Chinese cuisine, in strict order of importance, are smell, colour and finally taste.
It is the aroma and appearance of a dish that lure the customer to taste it, Ma Zhengang said.
The Chinese ambassador to Britain was at the community centre in the heart of London's Chinatown helping to launch the first professional Chinese chefs' school in Britain.
Christine Yau, of Y Ming restaurant in Greek Street, who helped found the school, said there could soon be a shortage of Chinese chefs in this country.
On the one hand, stricter immigration rules mean that fewer Chinese chefs are able to come to Britain, and on the other hand sons and daughters in the Chinese community are no longer prepared to work the long hours - typically 12 to 14 per day - that go with traditional training.
Westminster College, in conjunction with the Chinese Community Centre and the London Chinatown Association, has designed a National Vocational Qualification Level 2 in Professional Chinese Cookery.
Martyn Wagner, head of the college's department of hospitality, leisure and tourism, said that hitherto there had been very little training available in ethnic cuisine.
In recent years, he added, Western palates had also become much more discerning and demanding about the quality of Chinese cuisine.
Carol Burgess, the college's principal, who welcomed the development of the new school, reminded the audience of restaurateurs that Westminster was established as Britain's first catering college in 1910. She added that the great French chef Escoffier ("inventor" of the peach Melba) had been on its advisory group.
Councillor Alex Segal, the Lord Mayor of Westminster, said that such professional training would help to raise the status of chefs and perhaps also contribute to job security. The course's emphasis on food safety and hygiene was also very welcome.
Mr Wagner said that the idea was to produce chefs du parti. These are chefs working under broad supervision, but with specific responsibility for a section of the kitchen or a particular part of a menu.
The college is converting one of the 17 training kitchens at its Battersea site into a Chinese kitchen. This will be equipped with fast gas-jet wok burners, steamers and a Chinese duck oven.
The Chinese community has managed to raise more than pound;35,000 to help equip the new kitchen.
The curriculum has been developed with the assistance of a panel of respected Chinese restaurateurs. It identifies key Chinese cooking preparations, processes and menu items and then links them to the national standards exemplified in the NVQ.
Centrepiece dishes include Peking duck, noodles, spring rolls, wonton and dumplings. Essential processes include wok frying, steaming and roasting.
"Students will cover areas such as preparing and cooking meat and fish dishes, soups, vegetables and rice dishes," Mr Wagner said. "They will also be required to learn how to work hygienically and safely. Finally, but certainly not the least important, is how to handle knives competently and cut in the Chinese style."
Students already employed in the Chinese restaurant sector can attend the course one day a week for a 36-week period. The unemployed or those not already working in the industry can attend three days a week for the same period. The college, which has been inundated with enquiries about the programme, now plans to launch a Level 3 NVQ in Chinese Cookery next year.
For some years now, the college has had Chinese students from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, many of them following English andor catering management courses. Now it also has 15 students from Beijing and Shanghai.
In the Chinese Community Centre, Eddie Lo was extolling the importance of presenting food in a desirable form. To ambassador Zhengang's litany of smell, colour and taste, Mr Lo might have added shape.
For Mr Lo, a cookery instructor originally from Hong Kong, had carved a fantastical menagerie of turtles, mandarin birds and phoenixes out of carrots and swedes.
Pride of place, however, was given to three gods: Fok, the god of health, Lok, the god of wealth, and Sau, the god of long life. All three will doubtless be watching over the launch of the new Chinese cookery school.