Daniel’s Cooking Classes Offer a Cultural Immersion Experience
What’s your story?
I am deeply passionate about creating social impact and championing the underdogs. I founded Food Playground in 2012 to provide flexi-work employment opportunities for stay-at-home mothers and active seniors. My desire was to empower them to share their culinary passion with visitors to Singapore through hands-on cooking classes. I also envisioned them creating corporate team-building activities in the kitchen.
The inspiration to set up Food Playground came from my adventure travels across South America and Southeast Asia. I had the rare privilege to learn how to cook Thai, Vietnamese and a variety of Latin American cuisine during my travels. It occured to me that cultural cooking classes allow travellers to dive deep into the local culture by connecting with locals and tasting local heritage food. The epiphany moment came when I was shipwrecked on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands and we had to jump ship. It was a real wake-up call for me to quit the corporate rat race and pursue the social causes I’m passionate about.
My idea to set up a cooking school for tourists was because the market was still largely untapped. The Singapore Tourism Board recommends places for travellers to feast on signature favourites like laksa, chicken rice, and chilli crab, but, I saw that there was no avenue for them to learn how to cook these dishes. Realizing this, I knew straight away that there was pent-up demand for cooking classes featuring Singaporean cuisine.
Unlike other cooking schools in Singapore, Food Playground does not hire trained chefs to teach our cooking classes. Instead, only amateur home cooks are hired. The reason for this is that I discovered a segment of stay-at-home mums who had extensive culinary knowledge, but no avenue to share it. Many of these women had left corporate jobs to care for their families and were seeking a way to re-enter the work world. Hence, I wanted to help women who wanted to return to the workforce and tap into something they are comfortable with – which is cooking – what they do every day. So I reached out to this talent pool and amassed a team of mums to lead the cooking sessions at Food Playground. The women demonstrate meal preparation with a mixture of compelling storytelling and practical kitchen know-how.
Within a short span of time, Food Playground, being an underdog, was able to beat Goliaths in the competitive tourism industry and establish a strong reputation, both locally and internationally, for delivering the best learning experiences. This is why we are consistently rated the Number 1 Cooking School in Singapore.
What excites you most about your industry?
I’m very excited to be in both the Food & Beverage industry and the Tourism industry as food has now become a main motivation for travellers’ choice of destinations. Travellers are spending more time and money on unique food and beverage experiences. It’s also heartening to know that culinary experiences like ours, are increasingly popular among travellers, especially millennials. And with the exposure from social media and television shows, we are growing rapidly.
In fact, the World Food Travel Association is also recognizing this rising trend in Food Tourism with the launch of the Food Trekking Awards in 2017, to promote excellence and innovation in food & beverage travel experiences. I’m happy to share that Food Playground is one of the four global winners for the Food Trekking Awards in 2018, for “Best Use of Food/Beverage for Cross-Cultural Understanding.” We are certainly doing something good for the industry!
What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and bred in Singapore, and spent five years working in the airline and hospitality industry in Thailand and China before returning to Singapore to start Food Playground.
Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore. Because of its political stability, transparent business policies, a skilled workforce and the use of English as the main working language.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Steve Jobs famously said this during a commencement speech at Stanford University back in 2005: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” His advice for the Stanford graduates left an indelible impression on me, and has helped me a lot in overcoming the many setbacks in my entrepreneurial journey.
Who inspires you?
All the stay-at-home mothers who work at Food Playground inspire me everyday because of their resilience and determination. They not only have to juggle work and full-time caregiving responsibilities at home, but also have to face discrimination when looking for employment opportunities. Many of them put in crazy hours to brush up their public speaking and storytelling skills because they believe they are competent enough to teach cooking classes despite the lack of professional culinary training. In fact, these ladies are the reason why Food Playground is able to consistently outperform the other cooking schools helmed by professional chefs. They constantly remind me of the biblical story of how David, despite being the underdog, is able to defeat Goliath the giant.
What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I recently completed my first-ever, full marathon in Chiang Mai, after many months of preparation and training. This gruelling experience taught me that there are no easy shortcuts to success. We cannot simply cheat our way into good shape or good health. We have to show grit and work hard for it to happen. The same applies for business!
If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would not have done anything differently. When I look back at my youth and early career, I realize that everything that I have experienced, both good and bad, enabled me to take the unexpected route of becoming a social entrepreneur. Now I am able to clearly connect the dots looking back, just as Steve Jobs said.
How do you unwind?
I like to unwind by going for a slow jog along the beach to enjoy the fresh air and a good workout.
Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Thailand. Because it is so affordable to indulge in resort stays, spa retreats and delectable food, without feeling the pinch!
Everyone in business should read this book:
“Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” by Simon Sinek. It is imperative for entrepreneurs to realize that people won’t truly buy into a product, service, movement, or idea, until they understand the WHY behind it.
Shameless plug for your business:
Do you know that Food Playground is consistently rated the Number 1 Cooking Class in Singapore on Tripadvisor? At Food Playground, you get to dive deep into Singapore’s food culture as well as gain hands-on experience to cook up family recipes passed down through many generations.
Enjoy the fruits of your labour, which is a sumptuous 3-course local meal, that you will whip up using fresh ingredients, and hear intricate stories of how your local hosts (all of them stay-at-home mums), have overcome personal struggles and overwhelming odds, to return to the workforce and put their talents to good use. Find out more about our classes at www.foodplayground.com.sg
This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connects’ series of more than 500 interviews
Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder and CEO of MBH Corporation PLC. He is the author of three best-selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’, ‘Agglomerate’ and ‘Entrepreneurial Investing’.