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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Imagine a school where instead of pencils the students come armed with cleavers and chopsticks. Instead of notebooks, their work is done in big, blackened woks. And the smells - oh, the smells - ginger and soy, garlic and chili pepper and oil. Well, you have in your mind right now the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine. It's in Chengdu, China, the capital of Sichuan Province. Sichuan, of course, famous for its fiery food long before it became famous for the earthquake in May. The cooking school reopened just a couple of days after the earthquake.

I visited at a happier time in April. It's where the next generation of chefs was being trained, several thousands of them. I put on a white chef's jacket and poked my head into a classroom, where second-year students are getting trained in three dishes.

Mr. CHANG LE (Student): (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: That's bullfrog.

Mr. CHANG: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: Fish-flavored stuffed eggplant.

Mr. CHANG: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: And that's squid with lychee-flavored sauce. Second-year student Chang Le is showing us around.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: The instructor told the students they have to cut the squid just right or it won't blossom into a flower shape. It's supposed to look like a chrysanthemum. After class, it's practice time. The students scoot across the hall and get busy working on the dishes they've just learned. First step, sharpen your cleaver. It's the only knife they'll use, whether they're carefully peeling ginger roots, chopping mounds of garlic, whacking slabs of pork, or gently squeezing the seeds out of chilies.

Mr. CHANG: If you don't do that, it's where you get to burn. Yes. So that is why.

BLOCK: So, you're going to burn if you have the seeds.

Mr. CHANG: Yeah.

BLOCK: Burn your mouth or burn what?

Mr. CHANG: No (unintelligible), no. That would be the color really change.

BLOCK: The color will be changed in the wok.

Mr. CHANG: Yes. Here you got pork.

BLOCK: You mean, pork chops?

Mr. CHANG: Yeah. It's so good.

BLOCK: Chang Le goes by Alex in English. He's 21.

Mr. CHANG: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: The name Chang Le translates to often happy. And are you often happy?

Mr. CHANG: Oh, yes, definitely. Hilarious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Alex first learned how to cook from his father, a hobby he practiced at home. Then when he graduated from high school, he made a big decision - he wanted to be a chef overseas.

Mr. CHANG: I'm very romantic. I don't want to be a chef in China. I want to go abroad just for working. (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: Chang Le says if you're a chef in China, you don't have a lot of stature. So he says, I decided I'd definitely try to go abroad. I really want to go to the Mediterranean, he says, somewhere I can work and chill at the same time.

Mr. CHANG: (Speaking foreign language)

BLOCK: That was Chang Le, talking with me in Chengdu, China back in April. Well, it turns out he did get to chill this summer. He went to an exchange program to France, Paris, Marseilles, Cannes, Monaco. It was just as romantic as he imagined. In the fall, he hopes to go to Australia for a one-year internship at a restaurant. Chang Le reports that his family came through the May earthquake just fine.

Tomorrow on the program…

Unidentified Man: Okay. Stir-fired, slowly.

BLOCK: Slowly.

From NPR host to iron chef. Look out, I'll be taking my turn at the wok.

Unidentified Man: Okay. Now, wait.

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