In China, compulsory education is 9 years, 1st through 9th grades with a kindergarten option. There is also a preschool system, but it is not mandatory. Ninth grade, at least from my observations is part of middle school. Once students enter their 9th grade year, they think about their options for the final three years of secondary school. There are three: the academic route for those students who have a chance at attending university, going straight to work for those students with immediate family obligations and who have not shown academic prowess, or vocational school. It is the latter type of school that we had the pleasure to visit.
Xi’an Taoli Tourism & Cuisine Institute is an award winning culinary arts school, was established in 1976, for future chefs in training. Unlike the previous school we visited, this school teaches real-world skills through experience and practice. It is not a fancy school and seriously lacks ventilation, but they employ over 50 highly skilled professional educators, who are all award-winning chefs in their separate specialties. There are three specialties in which students may concentrate: traditional Chinese cooking, Chinese pastry cooking, and western cooking.
During their 9th grade year, students decide if vocational school is their preferred route and they they apply. For this institute, students apply at age 15 and must go through an interview process and pass a simple test. I was told it is not excessively difficult to be accepted into the school, but the testing for the western cooking program is more intense. Students attend for three years, until they are 18. Once they graduate, they have a Chef’s license and can go straight to work. One interesting note – while both girls and boys attend the school, girls are only allowed to student Chinese pastry cooking, as cutting is deemed too taxing for them. Currently more than 2000 students attend the institute.
Mrs. Jou, who runs the school, boasts that their students win many awards for their cooking and that many teachers are gold winners in national competitions and are considered masters in their fields. She explained that students participate in many competitions during their studies at the school in order to increase their passion for cooking and to maintain their focus on their studies. A typical class has 40 students. They first watch the master model the lesson, then in groups of 8, they take turns practicing the new skill. She stated that it takes at least 5 years to become a master in a specialty, so students are not maters when they leave and will need more practice in a restaurant.
During our visit we saw demonstrations by four of their top teachers. One of the Chinese cooking masters showed off his cutting skills by chopping up soft tofu and placing it in water to show how finely he’d cut it. Floating in the water, it looked like a flower. He then cut a cucumber on top of a balloon without popping it. The cucumber was sliced so finely that it stuck to the balloon.
A second Chinese cooking master demonstrated food art. He cut a radish into a flower, another into a swan, and used jam to draw a beautiful shrimp on a plate. He can cut a peony in 1 minute and 19 seconds flat. He holds a national championship in flower cutting.
The Chinese pastry chef (a female master chef), with the help of several students, demonstrated the fine art of the Chinese dumpling. She made Four Season Happiness Dumplings, which have four pockets, one for each season. During this demonstration many of our cohort were invited to try and wrap a dumpling. They chefs then cooked the dumplings and, at the end, we were able to eat some of our creations.
The youngest master chef, only 22 years old, demonstrated hand-made noodles. Several of the boys twirled dough for noodles as the chef demonstrated. By twisting and folding the dough 13 times, the master chef made the thinnest noodles I’ve ever seen. It was amazing. More of our cohort had the chance to try their hand at the skill, too. It was much tougher than it looked.
The vocational school option is controversial in some areas of the United States and most vocational schools still have an academic element. Students in my district can take vocational classes, but they are only half days and there must be room in their schedule for such classes. Most students aren’t allowed to really focus on a vocation until after graduating from high school. In China, students have the option of skipping the academics of high school and really focusing on their chosen field. I’m curious about your thoughts on this. Please comment – let’s start a discussion…