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From burnt toast to Phad Thai in a day

Cooking school in Thailand turns Chef Boyardees into wizards with woks

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If you've considered attending cooking school, drop your chopsticks, get a plane ticket, and head for the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

It is to cuisine what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is to physics. I base that bold statement not on culinary experience. I have none. Nor have I been to other cooking schools. But if the CMTCS can teach cooking to a "burning machine" like me -a man who'd resigned himself to a life of burnt toast and slushy spaghetti - it must be No. 1.

Not to boast, but now not only do I know the difference between a wok and a squash, but I can make a meal Martha Stewart would be proud of -without using a takeout menu and the phone.

Cooking school is becoming very popular among vacationers, especially in Thailand. There are more than 100 registered cooking schools in Thailand, with 40 of them in Bangkok, highlighted by the one at the venerable Oriental Hotel.

About 450 miles north of Bangkok, in Chiang Mai, Thailand's third-largest city (pop. 175,000), there are 15 such schools. Chiang Mai Thai Cookery is the oldest, and by far the most popular, with classes seven days a week and more than 900 students per month during the peak season, which runs from October to March.

The school was founded in 1993 by Somphon Nabnian, an amiable thirtysomething chef who can out-wok Mr. Wok. The son of a butcher, Mr. Somphon spent nine years as a monk, and then, as a young adult, he became a trekking guide. He married one of his clients, a British woman named Elizabeth, in 1991, and together they decided Somphon should open a school.

"From when I was a little boy, I always cooked," says Somphon. "I wanted to share my joy for Thai food with visitors and to give them real contact with Thai people and culture."

You definitely feel Somphon's joy and get close to the Thais at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery. Indeed, Somphon still teaches almost all the classes himself, and his primary classroom is an indoor kitchen in a white stucco building next to his house, which is a 15-minute drive from downtown Chiang Mai.

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