Remember school? It had desks and textbooks and geometry sets with our names on. It had bullies and cliques, gold stars and red pens. It had very tiny toilets. Well, we're at school today and we're glad to report it has none of the above.
Our classroom is a wide open space with no walls, just a view out onto a glimmering, sunlit lake. Our equipment hangs from hooks and nails, a collection of battered woks and time-worn cleavers above the reassuring heft of pestles and mortars. Our uniforms are embroidered aprons in saturated hues. Our desk is a vast table, covered in oils and sauces, spices and things we can't identify yet. The only technology in sight is a line of gas hobs hooked up to giant canisters. We do, however, have a teacher.
The energetic, eloquent and annoyingly talented Cherry founded the C&M Vocational School on the idyllic island of Koh Phangan with her sister Mary in 2011. It offers everything from massage courses and yoga to Thai language lessons, but Cherry's domain is the kitchen. We've come along for a private family cooking class, partly to save any other students from having to tolerate us but also to learn about a relatively alien cuisine alongside our daughter.
The morning begins with a rundown of the basics. We learn about the different depths of soy sauces and when to use them. We get to grips with noodle soaking. We taste the difference between palm sugar and deep, fudgy coconut sugar for ourselves. This is learning by eating, which is our kind of lesson. Cherry explains that Thai food is a balancing act, walking the tightrope of salty, sweet, sour, bitter and spicy. And on top of that, there are the textures, from the crunch of peanuts to the slither of bean curd.
In front of us, the table is laden with a rainbow of ingredients. There are velvet dove-grey mushrooms and electric green limes. The scarlet gloss of chillies clashes with the knobbly gnarl of fresh galangal. Everything is fresh and looks like it's going to do us the world of good, which is a relief considering the prevalence of a very unnatural ingredient in Thailand today: MSG. When we ask her for local recommendations, Cherry tells us her favourite place to eat is her house. This isn't because she dislikes eating out, but because it's so tough to find a restaurant that doesn't coat every dish with liberal lashings of monosodium glutamate, that scientific-sounding little bottle of deliciousness. Like crack for noodles, it's addictive, it's a crowd-pleaser. And it's really, really bad for you. At C&M though, it doesn't exist, because it doesn't need to.
Moving onto our chosen dishes, we gobble each one as soon as it hits our plates. We cook the things we'd order as a takeaway, yet are clueless about when it comes to cooking from scratch. We learn to make pad Thai, chicken with cashew nuts, fried rice, spring rolls and a fierce tom yum. We also learn to learn.
Lori can cook, you see. He's owned a restaurant and run food events. He knows his way around a kitchen. Only problem is that he likes to be in control. Here though, he met his match. Because as sunny and lovely as Cherry might be, she takes no prisoners and absolutely no bullshit. If it's wrong, it's wrong. Lori is put back in his place, repeatedly, with a nudge or a firm word, and he loves it.
River, a little young for school yet, alternates between munching rice crackers in his buggy and being cooed at by an assistant who walks him along the flaking paint of the terrace, murmuring calming words into his ear and entertaining him with the lake outside.
Olivia, however, is hungry, learning, and hungry to learn. Cherry is wonderful with her, coaxing her into trying things she'd never even look at if we suggested them, and shadowing her while letting her do the work as she pounds aromatics or folds up her very first spring roll. The delight on her face is contagious. And the truth is suddenly obvious. If you let a kid cook, they eat.
I remember when Olivia was little, and we were struggling to get any food into her at all. While scrabbling around the internet for advice and answers, the most powerful article I read said this. Look at your kid, in her highchair. Now imagine being that kid, with giant people surrounding you, looking down at you, brandishing a spoon, pretending its a bloody aeroplane, shouting "MMMMMM" and barking at you to eat. Do you feel like eating? Of course you don't. You feel like refusing point blank and sealing your lips completely shut so that no morsel stands a chance. That resonated then. And it has done ever since.
We need to sit down with our kids when they eat and talk to them on their level, which contrary to popular belief is not the IQ of a goldfish. But it's more than that. We need to involve them much earlier in their meal, because food doesn't start when it lands, steaming hot, on your plate. It starts as a series of ingredients, which then undergo various processes and experiments and fun that turn them into lunch or dinner or snack or feast. So, if you let your child cook their meal, you won't just be fostering an appreciation of food and a useful skill. You'll be massively upping the chances that they'll eat it.
We leave our school that day armed with full bellies, a booklet of recipes and a little girl who has realised something important. That if she's invested time and effort and love into something, it would be a waste to leave it. And so thank you Cherry, for our future peaceful dinnertimes and plates licked clean. Because, whether you meant to or not, you might actually have cracked it.
C&M Vocational School
Ko Pha-ngan, Koh Pha-Ngan, 84/4 Moo. 8, SURAT THANI 84280
Phone: +66 (0) 89 487 6207