Ten years ago, Australian expat Annette Lang came up with the idea of teaching helpers to cook and to plan weekly menus, having trained her own helper to do so. A decade later, the popular Expat Kitchen cooking school is as busy as ever, now also running diverse courses for kids and adults – offering everything from gluten-free and paleo recipes to “Amazing Vegetarian” and “Fussy Kids” classes. Here, Annette talks about her cooking journey and how she’s grown her business into the thriving cooking studio it is today.
Have you always loved cooking?
Yes, indeed – I used to hang out in the kitchen with my mum, who’s an amazing chef. She taught me the fundamentals, and this was a life lesson. One of the hardest things for a real cook is to relay a recipe when he or she gets “in the zone” – it’s all just a bit of this, a bit of that and a touch of spice, and, suddenly, you have a lovely meal. Often, when people ask for the recipe, I say “Ooooh, I can’t, really…!”
How did your passion develop?
It wasn’t really a passion, it was more an obsession. Back in Australia, I found myself always taking on roles that involved food trends and cookery developments. I love the supermarket and checking out what’s new, and I really enjoy visiting kitchen outlets, exploring new restaurants and food courts, and going on culinary adventures and tours.
What inspired you to start Expat Kitchen?
It was really quite by accident, and the whole business concept just fell in my lap. I had trained my own helper – who has been with us for 12 years now – to handle our family dinners, menus and shopping, and she understood how to create balanced yet tasty meals.
When we finally started doing dinner parties together, she was so proficient in the kitchen that I barely had to leave the table. My guests were always so impressed with her service, presentation and know-how that they started asking me to train their helpers. That was a light bulb moment – voilà! I said to myself, “Wow, I could probably train everyone’s helper to be capable in the kitchen. How hard can it be?” Hard, no; but easy it certainly was not!
How has the business grown and changed over the past decade?
I still can’t believe it’s been a decade! From its humble beginnings in my own kitchen, with just a handful of students, we now operate from an absolutely divine, re-purposed old temple that we renovated into a lovely kitchen. We have moved on from just helpers’ courses to kids’ classes and birthday parties, and classes for anyone who wants to learn to cook everyday food. Also, our corporate master classes are getting rave reviews and are so much fun.
What’s the biggest challenge of running your own cooking studio?
Any successful business is all about the little well-oiled cogs that rotate together, and I truly have a wonderful staff. This takes time to establish but once you’re there, it’s truly amazing. Sometimes a cog gets stuck, be it a sick child or forgetting to order stock or just not stepping up to the plate, and I have to fill in. So, I am always putting on different hats; and even when I’m at home my mind is always racing, thinking of what I need to do next. Balancing work and family can be a challenge, but having your own business also means that your hours can be flexible.
What do you love most about your job?
We are a family-based business, and all my staff members have kids. I respect that they are able to fit their work into their daily family life. Also, I love to see the success stories: those who enter our kitchen as novices, and leave as complete pros.
How often do you introduce new courses?
We really do keep our finger on the pulse of the food industry. We follow new trends, and we listen when our customers suggest classes they’d like to do. Some of our latest and most interesting classes have included “Spiraliser Suppers”, “Ultimate Paleo”, “Non-Carb Snack Attack”, “Sheet Pan Meals” and allergen-free baking. Most of our classes are geared towards good, healthy family food that’s doable and sustainable.
What do you most like to cook?
I love that I have been so heavily influenced by Asian cuisine; for instance, we do “Healthy Thai Eats” and “Saigon Street Food” classes. At the moment, I’m engaged in the revolutionary challenge of finding healthy alternatives for unhealthy foods. It’s so much fun!
What’s next for Expat Kitchen?
From the start, I’ve always wanted to franchise out to other areas of the island, and perhaps even to other Asian countries – anywhere where people are keen to learn how to make good, unpretentious family food.
Here’s a look at two cooking class highlights for next month.
#1 Cooking with Quinoa
Monday, 19 June from 10am to 1pm $165 per person
Dedicated to understanding quinoa and why it’s good for you, this class teaches you how to recognise the different quinoa varieties, make your own quinoa flour and prepare various nutrient-rich quinoa dishes.
#2 Healthy Thai Eats
Thursday, 29 June from 10am to 1pm $165 per person
Thai cooking is all about creating a harmony between four main elements of taste: sweet, sour, salty and spicy. In this course, you can expect a truly authentic Thai experience.