Week 5 - Turning Points

At the end of today’s session Mamas to Market will be halfway through its course, so it makes perfect sense to spend some time reflecting on the project in this blog post. Where did the group start off and where are they now? What’s changed, and what have they learnt so far? What is still to come in the next five weeks before they set up the market stall? I also want to reflect a bit on what I’ve learnt from being part of the project, as this has been a completely new experience for me.

Today is also a turning point in the respect that the group will now start repeating their recipes from previous weeks in order to perfect them for selling at the market stall. This week the women will cook spring rolls again, and they’ll repeat the marinated, chargrilled pork from week 1. They will serve both dishes with a noodle salad, so there is a twist to the repetition. The noodle salad with pork is called bún thịt nướng, and the noodle salad with spring rolls is called bún chả nem - but there will also be the option of having both pork and spring rolls on top of the salad!

We have a learning session to start before the women head into the kitchen. This week we’re talking about the most common food allergens and how important it is to know which of those are in the different dishes when it comes to selling to the public. The group is eager as always to get started, which brings us to the first turning point. They get going on the spring rolls, but in their eagerness forget that there was meant to be an option for vegetarian rolls on today’s menu. It is not a big problem as such, but by the time Sarah reminds the group it’s too late to start working on the tofu, and so the vegetarian option will have to be left out.

Another twist to today’s session is that a group from the nearby St Mary’s Secret Garden have been invited to lunch. They will not have knowledge of the Vietnamese dishes beforehand, so it’s a great chance for the group to practise their customer service in English. This brings us to the next turning point of today. We are running a little behind, so even though Sarah has told the group that they need to eat before they start serving customers, the group doesn’t want to keep the building queue of ESOL participants - or today’s new guests - waiting.

The group has worked really hard on getting all the food ready, and they are really in need of a break, but the women want to push through it. Service goes well, everyone seems happy with their lunch and is chatting across the big table. The atmosphere was slightly chaotic, however, with the women tired and hungry. And at the end only very little food is left for the women to have for themselves. In the subsequent discussion, the group acknowledges the difficulties they’ve felt in today’s session. Although it’s been a hard day it’s a good starting point, as it’s become more clear to them where their strengths lie and what they need to work on a bit more.

For example, the women ask for more practice in serving customers in English. They are very confident as a group in terms of their cooking skills, but more unsure about the customer service aspect. It’s specifically about speaking to customers in English, which will be essential when it comes to running the market stall. It’s a big step the group has to take together, but they definitely have the drive and enthusiasm to work for it - and we need to ensure they get practice and start building their confidence.

So those are a couple of points for the women to reflect on as today’s session ends - and when they start thinking about next week.

For me personally so far it’s been extremely interesting to immerse myself in the group as part of my role. It’s been a lot harder than I had expected, even though I can take breaks in the sessions and don’t have anything hanging on me in terms of making the day run smoothly - or feeding everyone! But it still takes a lot of energy to be there, to go into the kitchen, observe and learn, and at the same time make sure I get good shots of everything that’s going on. The women are pro and know what they’re doing, keeping them always one step ahead and me always on my toes.

Somehow, I feel like we’re learning together as well, and that hopefully when the time comes to set up the market stall I will have had enough practice to be able to move about as swiftly as the group to capture the buzz and atmosphere at the end of a successful project.

But I’m yet to roll a perfectly neat spring roll.

New this week! Send me comments, questions, tips for getting those spring rolls perfect. Which of the past dishes would you like to pick up at the market stall?