Food Academy

Business Times Singapore
03/15/2005

CHEAH UI-HOON goes back to school to check out the status of Singapore’s culinary education

THERE was a time that if you wanted to learn cooking, you either went to a community centre or turned to classified ads to look for someone offering lessons on dim sum or fish head curry in her own home. Cooking instruction has got a lot more structured since, with more structured cooking schools and a myriad of different courses available.

You can learn everything from cooking traditional Nonya cuisine to slicing fish the sushi way. You can even learn to be a personal chef, or sign up for a one-to-one customised cooking lesson for $500 a pop to perfect your croissant baking technique – thanks to a few drivers behind the culinary education scene who are passionate to see standards raised. Read on to find out what options there are for those who want to make cooking a serious hobby, or life-long vocation.

Make California roll

CALIFORNIA-ASIA SUSHI ACADEMY Meidi-Ya Supermarket, Liang Court Tel: 6728 0006 For class schedules, look up w www.learnsushi.org

HERE’S a young chap with grand ambitions. Mass Communication graduate Sinma ‘DaShow’ Tham, only 31, spent a year teaching Japanese cooking at various community centres. No few people, of course, have wondered why this Chinese guy is teaching Japanese cooking. And he’s not even a chef by profession.

Come next month, he will open California-Asia Sushi Academy – a full-fledged show kitchen/restaurant which is designed for TV filming at Liang Court, taking over the former Petit Village restaurant space. Teaching cooking, as Mr Tham notes, is different from owning and running a restaurant. Furthermore, this is Japanese cooking, which is still inaccessible to non-Japanese speakers.

This is a situation which California Sushi Academy addresses – a training institute in the US which also operates restaurants there, six of which have been rated by USA Zagat Guide as ‘cultural landmarks’. This is where Mr Tham spent three months – learning how to broil, fry, steam, simmer; make mother sauces; and maintain knives and utensils – before coming back to start an Asian version of the school here.

‘California Sushi Academy was started by this Japanese chef who wanted to de-mystify Japanese cooking, by teaching it in English,’ explains Mr Tham. He ‘discovered’ one of the academy’s restaurants when he was working with a Canadian IT company but doing a lot of travelling to California. ‘Every time I was in Venice, California, I’d have a meal at the restaurant.’

He finally made a business proposition to Toshi Sugiura, the CEO and founder, to start a branch here in Singapore. ‘It was a wild idea, and I was probably a bit high on sake at that time!’ quips Mr Tham. He quit his job and took an intensive three-month course in California at the academy, and came back to Singapore at the beginning of 2003.

Unfortunately, the Sars outbreak shelved Mr Tham’s plans for the first half of the year, until he got his first cooking class off the ground in October 2003, at a community centre. That started the ball rolling, and soon Mr Tham was also giving classes at schools and country clubs, even Coffee Club outlets and Meidi-Ya.

That California-Asia Sushi Academy has taken up the space vacated by former Les Amis chef Justin Quek’s Petit Village shows the stamp of approval the Japanese supermarket is giving Mr Tham – currently a one-man show, although he has a partner/assistant.

That will change once the Academy is properly set up. What Mr Tham wants to do with the space, once his film studio-cum-open-kitchen is ready, is to host celebrity cooking demonstrations with guest chefs from the US and Japan as well as the region.

One of the culinary classes which Mr Tham hopes to further develop is ‘Sushi 4 Kidz’ – where he’ll teach primary school children how to cook. Another programme he has started is leading cooking tours around the region. Last year, he led a group to Bangkok, where participants took lessons at a local cooking school there. Other plans include tours to Vietnam, Korea, North America and Europe. And who knows, maybe he will turn himself into a celebrity chef too.

Be a personal chef

AT-SUNRICE Fort Canning Park, Fort Canning Centre Tel: 6336 3307 For class schedules, look upwww.at-sunrice.com

AT-SUNRICE’S reputation and market position is such that they have tourists dropping in for their twice-weekly gourmet classes. They’ve even had frequent transit travellers who pop by for half-a-day cooking class to learn some new recipes and kill a few hours, before catching their next flights out.

Then there are twice-weekly evening classes for working professionals at the school which has a well-established reputation for its Asian cooking classes since they were introduced three years ago.

What’s less known is that at-Sunrice is now making strides as a professional culinary academy, providing a unique study-work programme for some 70 full-time students.

There’s the advanced culinary placement diploma which takes students for a two-year study-apprenticeship programme, and then there’s the 12-month diploma in culinary craft programme for students. Both courses run concurrently.

Founder Kwan Lui’s vision is to give the culinary students a globally-recognised qualification, and she’s already in touch with five-star hotels in the US to start arranging placements for the first batch of advanced diploma students when they graduate next year.

This year, what’s exciting will be a new course to be launched in the middle of the year – a private and personal chef diploma (PPC) which trains chefs to work for private employers in their homes, yachts or planes.

‘The job scope is very different from training to work in a hotel or a restaurant,’ explains Mrs Lui. ‘The demand for private chefs is really big now in the West.’

‘The format of the curriculum is focused on gourmet cuisine and is more recipe-based, compared to the other two professional courses,’ she adds. She thinks that the one-year course will be eminently suitable for people who want to travel and expand their horizons, or even those with a mid-life crisis and want a change of jobs.

‘Also, it’s ideal training for the ‘tai-tai’ because it could be like finishing school training for them,’ she says. While there are few private chefs to be found in Asia now, she recalls how it was part of the heritage of a lot of families a generation or two ago.

‘The career scope for those with culinary education is endless. And being a private chef is quite a niche profession.’

Be a chocolate connoisseur

THE CHOCOLATE ACADEMY Barry Callebaut Institute; 26 Senoko South Road, Woodlands; Tel: 6755 1877 Courses are open to working professionals in the F&B industry only

SO your day job is computing the highs and lows of share prices, but being a chocolate connoisseur, you thought that you might want some rudimentary lessons on how to create chocolate-based desserts.

Ideally, you’d head for the Chocolate Academy – which sounds like it popped out of the well-known movie Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory – but unfortunately, you might be better off heading to the Baking Industry Training Centre instead because the Chocolate Academy isn’t open to non-industry related persons.

However, this seven-year-old academy does serve a growing group of students here because it’s one of seven institutions under the French chocolate supplier Barry Callebaut’s banner, and it’s the only one in Asia.

‘Eight out of 10 students we get are from the hotel industry, while the remaining two are usually from companies which manufacture chocolate products,’ explains Jean-Marc Bernelin, an instructor at the Chocolate Academy.

Classes cover the gamut from basic chocolate treatment to making showpieces – because students here either come from places where chocolate consumption is very new, or from Singapore or Japan where chocolate use is at more sophisticated levels. Students typically come for a two-day workshop, and the Chocolate Academy also has a network of 60 ‘ambassadors’ – renowned pastry chefs – who travel around the different academies to give master classes.

The public’s appreciation of chocolate has increased a lot, Mr Bernelin thinks, compared to a few years ago. ‘During Christmas, it’s amazing to find the range of chocolate desserts and cookies at the shops. It’s totally different compared to two years ago.’

Customised baking lessons

BITC 201 Keppel Road, Level 11, Annexe Block Tel: 6276 6337 For class schedules, look upwww.bitc.com.sg

FOR $500 for four hours, and $100 for every subsequent hour, you can have the undivided attention of a master baker to find out why your croissant isn’t rising, or how to make wanton noodles from flour and eggs and water, or shape a siew mai or har kow, or make pralines.

‘The customised sessions are quite popular among regional visitors like Indonesians who fly in for a couple of days and come to the institute to learn something specific,’ says Fabian Doh, Baking Industry Training Centre’s (BITC) principal. ‘They’re usually entrepreneurs who own a food-related business, and when they just want to focus on a particular recipe, they’ll make an appointment with us.’

Otherwise, the standard method of instruction is through full-time professional courses or one-off four-hour-long classes held in the evenings which are open to the public.

The BITC, set up in 1993, which is located conveniently next to Prima’s flour mill, has really risen to the challenge of providing a succession of well-trained bakers and cake makers to the F&B industry.

‘Our qualifications are recognised worldwide, and although students get local certification, it’s seen as the Singapore brand,’ says Mr Doh, proudly pointing out how the curriculum is patterned after Australia’s bakery standards and curriculum as well.

BITC is getting noticed, in fact, for its expertise in making Asian noodles – something which one can’t find in a Western baking centre, for example.

The main drawback, for the baking hobbyist, is that the classrooms use industrial-size and strength machines. The recipes and the baking methods are the same, stresses Mr Doh, ‘but when students bake at home using their own ovens and all, they might have to adjust the baking time, for instance, using their own judgment’.

‘Most importantly, our theoretical classes give very fundamental information, so we teach you the principles of baking, which is a precise science, and once you know the theory behind why flour needs to sit, and why for a specific time and so on, this is when you can excel as a baker.’

For classic fundamentals

SHERMAY’S COOKING SCHOOL Chip Bee Gardens (Holland Village) Blk 43 Jalan Merah Saga #03-64 Tel: 6479 8442 Two-hour cooking classes are usually held on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. For details, look upwww.shermay.com

IF you drop in for a class at Shermay’s, you can expect to pick up the fundamentals of cooking – Nonya and Western – because the Cordon Bleu-trained cookbook author is a stickler for the classics.

For Shermay Lee, 29, a former investment banker, the cooking school is an extension of her desire to pen down her family’s recipes. She’s already done two, with three more in the pipeline – one of which is a compilation of her grandmother’s never-before-published recipes.

So thanks to her passion for preserving the tried and true Nonya recipes, those who want to learn traditional Nonya dishes now have this reliable teacher to go to, who’s personally tried and refined every single recipe in The New Mrs Lee’s Cookbook, volumes one and two. ‘Two thirds of the classes I conduct features my grandmother’s traditional recipes, while the rest of the classes look at Western cuisine,’ she explains.

This month, for instance, she’s designed six special classes on the ‘Basic Principles & Techniques of Classic French Cuisine’ which looks at how to make a roux, beef stock, sauces/dips, white and brown chicken stock and so on. There’s also a guest chef appearance by Oscar Pasinato of Buko Nero, who’ll demonstrate a three-course Italian meal.

‘The cooking school is also a place I’d like to use a platform for showcasing other chefs’ cuisines, techniques or approaches,’ she says. But we’re talking a variety of cuisines which will always be true to its roots. None of the fusion stuff for her.

For a school like hers which comes fully equipped with De Dietrich induction technology, Ms Lee says the recipes and methods are very family friendly – not industrially-oriented as some of the cooking classes held at hotels or professional cooking schools can be. ‘I make sure that every ingredient we use here, you can buy at the supermarket or gourmet shop.’

The take-up rate, she notes, since the boutique cooking school started offering classes a year ago, has been good, with an average of 10 to 14 per class. ‘Singapore has always been a culinary destination, but I think we can also become a culinary education destination.’

Singaporeans, she notes, are getting used to the idea of taking cooking lessons now, that they can do it for fun, and not just because it’s a vocational thing.