The Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures

I was in Paraty (pronounced pa-ra-chee) with three others; an English woman, an Ecuadorian tour guide, and my best friend. Paraty is located on the Bay of Ilha Grande along the Costa Verde in the Brazilian State of Rio de Janeiro. It is a popular tourist town for Brazilians as well as international visitors, because it’s heritage-listed as one of Brazil’s first Portuguese colonial towns. In the Tupi language of the Guaianas Indians who lived where the city now stands, ‘Paraty’ means ‘river of fish’. It was a major gold port in the 17th Century, and the gold trail into the jungle is a popular walking tour.

After an afternoon of exploring Paraty, with its old town filled with 250 year old cobbled streets (precarious to walk on – I imagine the town has the highest rate of ankle injuries in Brazil), we decided on a restaurant we’d seen earlier in the day. It specialised in lasagne made from palm hearts (coração de palmainstead of pasta – lighter and more flavoursome, and an excuse to eat more cheese.

During the meal we were visited by a woman with fliers. She needed people to be part of a television cooking show, and would we be interested? Damn right we were.

The next day, we had to phone the casting director to schedule a meet-‘n’-greet session that afternoon, and because Paraty is also known for tropical islands and snorkelling, we then spent the day cruising around the bay on a yacht (as one does on holiday). We found the meeting place at about three that afternoon, which was at a restaurant called “The Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures” – we wondered if there was a kama sutra school in the upstairs rooms.

We were greeted at the door by the director of the shoot – a tall, handsome (as I found most Brazilian women to be) carioca (resident of Rio) – who was very professional. We introduced ourselves with much smiling and laughter, wondering what the hell we were getting ourselves in for. She spoke extremely good English, to the point where it was odd to hear her speak Portuguese: I’m so jealous of people like this. We left our names with her, and she told us she’d call before six with who she wanted for the show.

The whole thing was still a bit of a mystery other than that they needed four guests for a cooking show for an international audience, that we were in competition with a French family, and that the meal would cost around $100 a head. We were all sun-kissed and feeling a bit tired by six that night and we still hadn’t heard from the director. The four of us decided to just head out for dinner anyway – that they must have found other people, and as we put our feet out the door of the pousada (a cheap hotel), we got the call.

We arrived at the restaurant and were fitted out with microphones. We would have to be ‘ourselves’ in that contrived way of most reality shows – the director would prompt us on good ‘sound bites’ for the programme and we’d have to try to sound as natural as possible.

So we walked down the cobbled street (I’m sure I tripped in two of the takes), responding to questions from the director. “What do you know of Brazilian cuisine? What are you expecting from tonight?” When we entered the restaurant we were greeted at the door by a woman, Yara, the master chef and television host from The Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures, and her husband, John: an American who would, during filming, run off to the computer to read the latest on the Presidential campaign as he’d sunk a lot of money behind Obama. They were very nice, but it took most of the night to figure out when they were ‘switched on’ for the cameras or not.

One of the first questions asked as we gathered around the kitchen was whether we enjoyed cooking. I truthfully answered, “Yes, I love preparing food!” (Grin! for camera), but it wasn’t always that way.

Before I lived in Spain, two years prior to this Brazilian holiday, I wouldn’t be very adventurous in the kitchen, preferring to eat out or simple meals like baked beans or guacamole (preparation could never be longer than the eating part). I justified this by saying, “That’s just the way I am” – the malnourished version of me, anyway.

I lived alone in Spain and my apartment had a new kitchen to play with. Eating out was hazardous because most restaurants cooked with sunflower oil, which I’m allergic to, so I had no choice but to learn how to cook, or suffer anaphylactic shock. I started off by myself, but soon the perfect opportunity presented itself to me: one of the biology teachers at the high school I worked at wanted to improve her English. So instead of payment I asked if it was OK if I came over for lunch once a week and in exchange for English conversation she would show me how to cook the traditional Spanish meals she would have been making anyway. So now “who I am” is someone who is quite capable in the kitchen.

Back at The Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures, we were all nodding in understanding and/or flattering keenness, tasting spoonfuls of exotic ingredients (jackfruit relish, farofa, casava chips), and exclaiming how tasty they were. It was all quite cheesy, but the experience was too re-countable to be cynical about. My favourite part of the shoot was when Yara took the palm hearts out of the oven and asked what well-known vegetable it reminded us of. We all drew blanks in front of the camera. She then hinted at the colour and shape and I muttered, “Oh yeah, artichokes.” The director, a voice from behind the bright lights in the kitchen, shouted, “Sam, could you say that again?!” And in my best reality-TV show voice I repeated, “They remind me of artichokes!” “That’s right,” said Yara, and we were off again.

The rest of the shoot went well, all of us getting progressively tipsier from the fruity caipirinhas that were being made constantly by John off camera (we found out you can mix all sorts of fruit with the cachaça, not just the usual limes – strawberries, kiwis, whatever). By the end of it the crew were exhausted because they hadn’t yet had dinner (it was midnight by this stage), and the group and I had to get up early the next morning, so we bid our farewells and giggled our way back to the pousada.

The next morning my friend woke early to leave a gift at the Academy folk’s door. Her reasoning was that she wanted to thank them for giving us a unique experience. She is that kind of person, though. The thought never passed through my head to thank them personally. We gave them five hours of our evening and they fed us in exchange – we broke even.

Unfortunately, we never heard back from the production team again. They’d promised to send us updates of the episode via email, but this was 2008, and that was still a time when an email equated to an empty promise. I was a bit disappointed – I’d love to direct friends to the video of the one time I was a guest on a Brazilian cooking show – but I guess we’re not owed anything.

In fact, I should know: one of my greatest joys is cooking for my friends (now that I can) and I’m motivated only by shared enjoyment of the food. I hate when the person who cooked states obnoxiously after a meal that his or her guests have to do the washing up. That quid pro quo attitude spoils the moment. As a guest, you’re obliged to offer your hand (in Anglo-Australian culture, anyway), but no one should be told to reciprocate. I’ve always felt, as host, that being hospitable means you expect to do all the work – the guest is king. I’ve always found it poetic in cultures where this is the norm, yet I’ve been raised to reach for the detergent.

Back in Brazil our hosts for the night may have forgotten us, but at least they gave me pause to reflect: the ‘other pleasures’ of life come back to you when you learn how to give… and to accept a $100 meal graciously.


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