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ELT secrets to Michelin-stardom - parallels between culinary acrobatics and classroom antics by Noreen Lam

I am a self-confessed foodie.  So when it comes to almost everything in life, I automatically see the link between my passion for food and (insert subject here).  You can say I’ve always got images of sugarplums dancing in my head…in fact they are constantly there doing twirls, spins, double-backflips and triple salchows, all in the name of breaking the monotony of this simple “dancing” business.  Because it’s all about innovation, creation, and coming up with something unheard of – fusion is definitely in.

So really, how does this all relate to our area of interest, to our field of education, namely ELT?  More than one may think, at first glance. Back in February, I ventured to my first ever IH conference in Barcelona to see if I could pick up some tips from the great ‘chefs’ of the ELT world about the ‘dining’ experience (teaching) and the ‘diners’ (students) themselves. 

On Friday afternoon we were welcomed to the conference by plenary speaker number one, Michael Legutke.  He stressed that the key to an excellent dining experience is to find out what appeals to the diner, and then work backwards.  What is it that attracts the clientele, and how can we get them towards experiencing this euphoria on the tastebuds?  We must try and create appealing meals (tasks) and then work backwards to consider what it is that we need to provide in order for them to have the Michelin Star dining-encounter.  And what is the role of the cook in all this?  Support the venture as the diner picks up their spoon to take the very first sip, assist them in analyzing the finer details (flavours, aromas, esthetics) and continue to offer guidance into future dining experiences.

To round off the first short day, I went to see Nicky Hockly discuss how we can use technology to embrace the dining experience.  Rather than tell the clientele to turn off their phones, why not equip them with tools to better enhance the event?  Allow them to incorporate their knowledge with these familiar objects to research what they are eating, tweet about it with others and then once they leave the establishment, continue to stimulate the senses and savour the flavours they have just discovered in their own time.  That is the true essence of reaching the customer – when their dining experience fails to end even though they have left the restaurant.

We’re fragile, fragmented souls who are very sensitive to criticism.” – Gordon Ramsay   Who was he talking about?  Perhaps it’s true, we teachers are as sensitive to criticism as anyone, and perhaps even more so at the beginning of one’s career.  We hope to have the best class ever, and struggle down the hallways laden with books, toys, stationery and a backup activity, just in case.  Just how can these habits get weaned out of us?  Perhaps a dash of Dogme, as suggested by Scott Thornbury in his talk at the conference, will do the trick.  This “little idea” is a fusion of six “big ones” he put forth from past greats, and essentially all focus on drawing out the experience, rather than inputting and overloading the individual without reacting to their personality.  Therefore, for a top executive chef, each VIP client they receive is unique and they must support and embrace this, rather than try to mask it in a layer of spices.  Some are more knowledgeable than others and, to start, you can communicate with them and build on this, rather than just offend with oversimplicity.  Find out what they want, allow them to explore freely and work with the authentic, natural flavours that arise from the freshest and finest ingredients. 

Inspired and enthused, I rushed from room to room picking up more tips from more great dicers and slicers.  Just how can we get diners to take pleasure in the act of consuming the food placed before them? 

Stimulate their minds, get them to visualize their enjoyment and satisfaction, and then you will have succeeded in a great experience.  And in this Jessica Mackay, another speaker at the conference and Mario Batali, celebrity chef, agree. As the latter said that “the objective is to achieve a comfort level between the cook/artist/performer and the customer/viewer/diner.  And if we can achieve that, and the customers are happy and the cooks are happy, then we have a great experience.”  Substitute the above with teachers and students in place of cooks and customers, and we all nod wholeheartedly in assent. 

In his session Gerard McLoughlin focused on the details, discussing how we could draw attention to ingredients, and help diners learn about flavour combinations and how certain blends work harmoniously to create a fascinating brew.  Those are the ones we need to educate them about.  Rather than analyzing each and every ingredient separately, why not look at them in chunks, or say which go well together and should stay together.  I learned and swear by the goat’s cheese/pear /honey /walnut combination upon a slice of toasted baguette for a great explosion of flavours in the mouth.  In this is the key – recognising what is mutually complementary and thinking of them as a melodious blend rather than stand-alone components.

As the day went on, I discovered more secrets and have since come to this conclusion:

Recipe for a perfect meal

  1. Choose top-quality ingredients
  2. Dash of spice
  3. A pinch of cheese (optional but won’t hurt)
  4. Mix well and allow the flavours to melt
  5. Taste and adjust as necessary a gusto!
Recipe for a perfect class

  1. Choose the grand ideas you wish to impart
  2. Dash of pizzazz and zing
  3. A bit of cheesiness
  4. Combine and let simmer and reflect
  5. Experiment and tweak as desired by you and your students


Karlos Arguiñano, a Spanish celebrity chef known for his relaxed and enthusiastic cooking shows, swears that “if you are well-fed you are prepared to play, to laugh, to make love, to work”.  The nourishment he mentions could have a lot to do with not just intake of essential vitamins and minerals, but also sustenance from knowledge, information and education as a whole.

The great Julia Child put it best when she declared: “You have to eat to cook.  You can’t be a good cook and be a non-eater.  I think eating is the secret to good cooking.”  So how does that relate to us?  We’re constantly “cooking up” lessons, preparing educational material, and essentially, putting a “meal” out on the table.  So in order to become better at this, we need to eat, which is to say, be students ourselves.  We need to try, experiment and be learners as well.  If not, we may skillfully create a perfectly beautiful “meal” that is inedible to even the non-fussiest of diners.

Thanks to the speakers at the IH Barcelona conference (Feb 4-5, 2011) for the inspiration, and the greats of the culinary world for their wise words:
  • Gordon Ramsay (1966–) – Scottish chef with 12 Michelin stars and known for his TV shows “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares”.
  • Mario Batali (1940–) – American chef, writer and expert on Italian cuisine
  • Karlos Arguiñano (1948–)- Basque chef and TV presenter known for joking and singing during his show “Karlos Arguiñano en tu cocina”
  • Julia Child (1912—2004)- American chef, author and TV personality known for introducing French cuisine to the American public.
Author’s Bio:
Noreen got her CELTA while travelling around Europe and decided it would be a great tool to have on hand. Nowadays she sustains her travel bug with short breaks when possible, and combines that and her culinary interests with teaching at IH Santander. She spends most of her time taking unlimited free trips through the world of YL songs and stories.

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