Cooking With A Conscience
I love to eat; yet I have never harboured similar sentiments towards cooking, or even baking. So when the assignment to attend a “hands-on” culinary class at Food Playground and write about it landed in my inbox, my trepidation was substantial.
The Chinatown-located cooking school is a social enterprise that prides itself on being the only academy in Singapore that does not hire professional chefs. Instead, its instructors are made up of stay-home mums and active seniors who enjoy cooking.
Helming Food Playground are Daniel Tan and Lena Tan, who set out with the vision of offering flexi-work employment opportunities for this group of individuals who often fall through the gaps.
“We want to tap their cooking skills, and give them a platform to showcase their abilities,” says Lena, 40, who herself was a stay-home mum for four years and has a passion for gastronomy.
Beyond that, the two founders also planned the business with an unconventional spin: the class will teach how to cook some of Singapore’s most beloved local dishes such as nasi lemak, char kway teow and kueh dardar.
This is offered as a three-hour Cultural Cooking Class from Monday to Saturday, and makes up 40 per cent of the business. The remainder comprises of team building workshops.
“This model works for us because we want to share Singapore’s food heritage with locals, expatriates and tourists. The classes are a good balance between cultural and culinary experiences,” says Daniel, 39, who has more than a decade of experience in the travel and hospitality industry.
Going by their successes, it seems the duo are doing it right. Within six months of Food Playground being established in 2012, it was rated as the number one activity to do in Singapore on TripAdvisor. The following year, its Cultural Cooking Class won Best Learning & Travel Experience at the Singapore Experience Awards.
Key to its progress is the team of six instructors and two kitchen helpers that run the classes, all of whom are personally trained by Lena. “Our basic criteria is they must love being around people, and cooking,” she reveals.
And those traits clearly shine through in my instructor Lesley Ma, who taught the class I attended how to cook Hainanese chicken rice and wonton soup. “Don’t worry, the classes here are simple enough to follow even if you don’t cook,” she reassured me, after I confessed I was a stranger to the kitchen.
As I sliced and diced my way through garlic, shallots, chillies and chicken, she kept a patient, watchful eye on inexperienced me to ensure I did not cause a kitchen disaster. It was not long before my inhibitions melted away.
Admirably, she always maintained her cool, even as she attended to the myriad of questions posed by seven occasionally forgetful participants – hailing from Taiwan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and the US – whenever we had trouble remembering the next steps. “I can tell you were all paying attention,” she said, wagging her finger at us, as we laughed sheepishly.
In addition to a running commentary about the ingredients and steps to make the two dishes, as well as tips and interesting facts about the process (for instance how steaming makes the chicken more succulent than boiling it), Lesley also offered a brief history on the street food scene in Singapore.
“I really enjoy interacting with the tourists,” she reveals to me. “I’ve learnt all sorts of interesting things from them – did you know there are people allergic to coriander?”
She admits it was challenging at the start, when she first began work at Food Playground. The mother of two teenagers had stopped working for 16 years before she took on this job at Food Playground.
“My family was used to contacting me 24/7 but when I’m conducting a class, I cannot be reached,” she shares. She also had to cope with juggling her duties of being a mother, wife and instructor.
Three hours later, it was a satiated table of participants that sat around the table, squeaky-clean plates and bowls before us. Yes, after you cook the dish, and even learn how to plate it as a restaurant would, you get to eat it.
I am happy to report that the cooking class yielded pleasantly surprising results for me. Not only were the dishes edible, they were also tasty.
Check out their website to book a cooking class today!
Food Playground is located at 24A Sago Street, Singapore 059020. They offer classes every day except on Sundays.
If you want to find more about socially conscious living in Asia, check out Asia For Good's social enterprise directory.
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