“Be ready for pick up at 6.15 am said the briefing”. Hmm, this seemed a little early for anything but a very enthusiastic market tour but ok. I was happy to play along. Being a great believer of the “see what happens next” school I prepared myself for this ridiculously early pick up. Perhaps I should have opened all the attachments and seen what was in store.
After being driven to a secret resort in the midst of the Mengwi rice fields we sat and waited for the rest of the contingent to arrive from Seminyak and Canggu. Surrounded by the verdant green of growing padi, it was no hardship. Finally they arrived and we wandered down a small incline to where there were dozens of bicycles awaiting us. Bicycles? I thought we were cooking! It all became scarily clear way too soon. The plan was to bicycle to the market a mere 40 minutes away, inspect the market and then cycle back before starting the cooking class. Silly me. I should have read the brief.
Pleading the need to stop and take photos, I was allocated a motorbike instead. And a driver! Ok! I could do this! After filling up on cups of Bali coffee, we were almost ready to roll. The girls from the south had arrived and high spirits prevailed.
Our luck was in. Today Will Meyrick, boss and innovator of half a dozen of Bali’s and beyond best restaurants, was going to lead the tour. As the creator of Sarong, Mama San, (and others in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur) Tiger Palm, E&O Jakarta, Hujan Locale (In Ubud), Will enjoyed a sterling career in cooking, before branching into restaurants, and other facets of entrepreneurship. Not for him to stand behind a steaming stove night after night, although he does keep his hand in with frequent appearances in his burgeoning empire. Before he ever came to Bali, Will was already a force, and he has gone from strength to strength. Then came Sarong, the restaurant of choice for hordes of discerning Australians, before further expanding his empire.
Now Will also conducts mountain bike tours and who knows what else, creating an enviable balance in his life that not so many of us can achieve.
We were a little late for the market, so after a cursory tour, we headed across the road to a small warung for a memorably good breakfast of Balinese nasi campur complete with an arresting little choko soup (or Sayur Jepang as it is known here). Then it was time to return to the Mengwi resort, a mere 40 minutes away. I tried not to feel smug as we effortlessly overtook the panting and sweating cyclists, handing out beatific smiles so they wouldn’t feel bad.
After a temple stop, and without even time for a cigarette break, we headed to the secondary kitchen where Will’s assistant, Kadek had been manhandling some chicken, preparing it to make ayam betutu, one of Bali’s most delicious ceremonial dishes. We get there in time to see it being smothered in the fragrant bumbu – before being wrapped in a dried banana leaf and buried in smoking rice threshing where it would cook slowly for the next few hours.
And then, we were off to school. A short walk took us to another villa complex and a large shaded area looking over the rice fields. Twelve individual cooking stations await us, each with a mini gas cooker, chopping board, extra sharp knives, our own stone mortar and pestle, cute little packets of gulamerah, cabe, kunyit, bawangmerah, bawangputih, candle nuts , belachan, daunsireh, daun kefir, limes, kefir limes, all in little coconut leaf packages. This cornucopia of spices goes into the making of all Balinese cuisine. Cold water, fresh santan and cooking oil stood at the ready. Really it is cooking without the stress or the setting up.
Soon everyone was chopping with the big sharp knives. I had been planning to be an observer, but was quickly drawn into the chopping frenzy. It was simply irresistible. Each table setup had its own assistant and if you got tired of chopping or thirsty, help was always at hand. In fact sometimes I had to bat the help out of the way. It was interesting to see every single one take to their chopping jobs seriously.
And soon the various piles of spices were reduced to smooth pastes. As we chopped new techniques were introduced. Like the one hand chop, and then the advanced two handed chop favoured by Balinese men. They love the two handed chop in which they regard the rhythmical percussions as a kind of music. It was all great fun.
With chopping mastered, we moved on to satay shaping – “pinch and pull “ commanded Maestro Will. “Pinch and pull”. And in all too short a time, we had stacks of gorgeous duck satay moulded to their sticks.
While we were doing all this work, we were constantly regaled with offers of drinks. Icy juices including the intriguing nutmeg juice, other juices, soft drinks, teas, as well as cold beer, cocktails or wine. Alcoholic drinks were extra but all the refreshments were included.
While chopping and moulding, Chef Will regaled us with hot tips of how to chop, how to cut, how to mix. Best tip which can be used for hamburger making, to slap the mince across the side of the bowl, for some time. This gets the air out and helps the mix stick together much better. Try it next time you make hamburgers and I guarantee they will stick together much more effectively!
Finally all the preparation was done. Each of our offerings were put into individual cartons with our name on it. The satay was taken away to be char grilled and we were left with big fat juicy prawns to sauté in the rich Udang Karengasem sauce.
Finally, all was done. Our satays were returned and big plates with rice were brought out to each of us so we could heap piles of our delicious efforts on to them. Plates in hand we wandered over to the bale overlooking the rice fields. Wine and beer was available for those who desired and we sat happily with the maestro ingesting our efforts.
What a day! This is a BIG DAY OUT. A few guests had peeled off by this time, and while some of the girls were staying for a massage, we felt it was time to head back to Ubud.