Cooking Group
Classes at Food Playground tell the stories of Singapore’s flavorful culinary tradition. Photograph courtesy of Daniel Tan.

Booth 101: Cooking Local

A life-changing year of travel inspired Daniel Tan, ’11 (AXP-10), to start a social enterprise with sizzle.

After earning his Executive MBA from Booth in 2011, Daniel Tan, ’11 (AXP-10), decided to take time off to recharge and rediscover his passion before returning to the corporate world. Family and friends advised against it, saying he should leverage his new degree for a promotion and pay raise.

 

Daniel Tan Daniel Tan, ’11 (AXP-10)

But Tan stuck to his plan, and looking back, he has no regrets. “The entire year of slow travel in Latin America and Asia helped me discover so much about myself and the social causes I’m passionate about,” Tan said. “That eventually led me to quit the corporate world and become a social entrepreneur.”  

During his travels, Tan realized he had reached his limit in visiting temples, museums, and other typical tourist destinations. He yearned for unique local experiences, and started taking cooking classes wherever he could.

Singapore is an immigrant country. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Eurasian: our cuisine is a blend of all of these.

Daniel Tan, ’11 (AXP-10)

“It was a good way to get to know a place,” Tan said. “The cooking-class teachers bring you to the markets. You get a crash course on local ingredients. It’s a complete cultural immersion.”

After his yearlong travel sabbatical, Tan returned home to Singapore. He hoped to continue his culinary-cultural education but couldn’t find any authentic cooking classes. “There are many cooking schools in Singapore,” he said. “But they all teach you how to cook French or Italian. I discovered this market need.” 

Inspired, Tan set out to create a cooking school in his home country. But he threw in one extra key ingredient: his venture launched with a social mission. Food Playground, founded in 2012, does not hire trained chefs to teach its cooking classes. Tan discovered a segment of stay-at-home moms and female retirees who had extensive culinary knowledge, but no avenue to share it. Often, many of these women had left corporate jobs to care for their families and were seeking a way to re-enter the work world. Tan reached out to that talent pool and amassed a team of moms and active seniors to lead the cooking sessions at Food Playground, where the women mix compelling storytelling and practical kitchen know-how.

Food Playground navigates Singapore’s tight labor shortage by hiring women who technically aren’t even part of the workforce. Cooking-class students get to hear authentic stories about Singapore’s rich food history directly from sources who have grown up enjoying and creating the cuisine. For employees who stepped out of the workforce but hoped to come back, Food Playground’s flexible work schedules and engaging environment provide a bridge. Tan has seen several of his instructors return to corporate life. “The whole idea is we really want to provide more flexible employment for women who need that flexibility,” Tan said. While Tan has yet to hire a stay-at-home dad or male retiree, he would if the opportunity arose. 

In the next five years, Tan doesn’t want to build an empire of cooking schools around the globe. Instead, he hopes to inspire more companies to see the benefits of flexible work and be agents of change in finding creative solutions to roadblocks people face when attempting to return to the workforce. For instance, Tan designed class times around his employees’ preferred hours, scheduling mid-morning and early afternoon sessions for those who have children in school.

Hands-on classes last a half day at Food Playground. Students cook three complete dishes from an ever-changing menu in the teaching kitchen. “Singapore’s food reflects our multiracial culture,” Tan said. “Singapore is an immigrant country. Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Eurasian: our cuisine is a blend of all of these. A lot of the food you find in Singapore, you can’t find anywhere else.”

As he faced obstacles to starting his business, Tan leaned heavily on his Booth background. “When we started, we wanted to apply for government grants,” Tan said. “But nobody believed in our idea, that somebody would pay a premium to learn from amateur cooks. It’s an unconventional business. My Booth education drilled inside my head a disciplined way of thinking and problem solving, which enabled me to overcome the many setbacks and surprises that came with starting Food Playground.” 

Singaporean Food 101

Chicken Rice At each session, instructors teach students how to make three full dishes including local favorites, such as Hainanese Chicken Rice. Photo from Shutterstock.

Food Playground instructors tell stories about the history of each dish and how Singaporean cuisine has changed over the last half century. “We hope people will appreciate that racial harmony is something that is possible, especially in Singapore,” Tan said. “We cannot take that for granted.” Here are some of the most popular dishes prepared at Food Playground:  

Laksa: A spicy noodle soup with Chinese and Malay roots. It typically has rice noodles and chicken, fish, or prawns in a spicy broth of coconut milk curry.

Nasi Lemak: A Malaysian coconut milk rice dish; the English translation means “rich rice.” The rice is infused with pandan leaves and is typically served with deep-fried protein such as fish, chicken wings, or anchovies, and garnishes such as sliced cucumber, chopped peanuts, eggs, and spicy chili paste.  

Hainanese Chicken Rice: Considered one of the national dishes of Singapore, it comes from early Chinese immigrants. Flavorful chicken poaching liquid, combined with ginger, garlic, and pandan leaves, is used to cook the rice. The dish, sold on the street in stalls around Singapore, is often served with red chili–garlic dipping sauce. 

Ang Ku Kueh: A traditional Chinese pastry that’s known as “red tortoise cake.” The sticky cakes feature a glutinous rice-flour skin wrapped around a sweet filling, served on banana leaves. The cakes are traditionally prepared for good luck during Chinese New Year celebrations as well as Chinese festivals in Singapore. 

Team Building through Food

Located in Singapore’s Chinatown, near the central business district, Food Playground is ideally situated for tourists. It’s also conveniently placed for companies looking for a tasty way to inspire their employees.  

Although Food Playground was founded to serve tourists, the business has evolved. Today, some 60 percent of Food Playground’s business comes from corporate groups looking for team-building activities. 

Singapore is a thriving tech hub, and groups of up to 45 can fit in the teaching kitchen. Food Playground has grown into a popular choice for companies looking to build all-important camaraderie and cooperative skills. “It’s about working together in a new environment,” Tan said. “The groups learn to work together, cook something together, and cooperate. Food has a very interesting way of bonding people together.” 

 

—By Heather Lalley