Life lessons from the kitchen

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris in January, Hungary made the news as the PM shared his belief with the world that economic migration is endangering Europeans and should be stopped. He called for a Hungary for Hungarians. Fast forward to March, when Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Irish Minister of State for New Communities, Culture and Equality, addressed a Budapest gathering on St Patrick’s Day speaking of the necessity of embracing migration as a key part of global living. Two rather diverse opinions there for the taking.

Governments and their representatives know how to talk. Very often that talk, however motivating, is simply talk. It’s those on the ground, dealing with the daily pressures of life on a fixed income that can fall short of covering basic necessities, they’re the people who make the difference, with their attitudes, their openness, their initiatives.

In the north Dublin suburb of Finglas sits Coláiste Íde, a college specialising in life-long-learning programmes that equip students with the skills they need to pursue paid employed in the catering, tourism and business sectors. Deputy Principal Ms Lisa Bohan has been instrumental in developing three such programmes, overseeing projects for Art students in Florence, Italy, and Travel and Tourism students in Valletta, Malta. Since 2007, students from this Irish college have been coming to Hungary to complete the 15-day work-experience segment of the Professional Cookery course in Hungarian hotels and restaurants under the guidance of Mr Derek Flynn. The course is designed to equip them with the relevant knowledge, skills, and competence to work autonomously using a range of specialised skills in a professional kitchen. They’ve done their time at the Radisson Blu Béke, the Best Western Hotel Hungaria, Thermal Hotel  Viségrad, La Perle Noire, Mamaison Hotel Andrassy, the Arcadia Hotel, and various restaurants in Budapest and Szentendre.

But these are not just Irish students. This year, the 17-strong contingent aged 18‒38 included students from Malaysia, Moldova, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Hungary – all now living in Ireland. Melinda Novak (second row left), a former midwife from Szombathely, has been in Dublin for four years. She’s retraining to be a baker and this year she got to come home to Hungary as part of the Coláiste Íde group from Ireland.

The students learn more than their trade. They get a taste of how to deal with a foreign culture, and a language that no one but Melinda had ever heard before. They stay in Szentendre and make the daily commute to the city. The work is intense and slacking off isn’t an option, not that any of those I met would take it, even if it had been.

The food they prepared for a reception hosted by Irish Ambassador to Hungary, Kevin Dowling, had all the hints of great things to come, with a couple of future culinary stars in their midst. They showcased various Irish speciality cheeses, including a porter cheese that looked too much like chocolate to be real. We had the traditional smoked salmon, an Irish stew, and smoked Irish duck with Guinness marmalade. With a nod to the host country, Baileys cheesecake found competition in Hungarian desserts that the students had perfected during their training.

Culinary legend James Beard maintained that ‘food is our common ground, a universal experience’. This Erasmus+ programme shows that to be true. This six-nationality team are living proof that migration isn’t necessarily the threat it’s seen by some to be. Our common goal is survival, to live the life we’ve been given as best we can, working together, learning from each other. Thank you, lads and ladies. A timely lesson indeed.

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2015

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