In the Bangkok slums of Klong Toey, Khun Poo strives to make a difference – one Pad Thai at a time.
Poo, as she is known, used to make $6 on a good day selling green mango salad in the streets. Bangkok’s sidewalks teem with such fare, peddled by men and women crowded on corners, too poor to afford even the basest market stall. In 2007 rice prices rose, and Poo’s profits plummeted. She struggled to feed her husband and two sons. She befriended an Australian missionary, Anji Barker, and hoped for work. Perhaps, Poo asked, Barker knew someone who needed a maid? Barker had a different idea.
Today, Poo is a rare female entrepreneurial success story. Her company, Helping Hands, offers catering and cooking classes for Western tourists and ex-pats, including embassies and their staff. Poo teaches about 60 students a week, mostly Westerners paying 1200 baht, or $40 USD, per person for a 4-hour market tour and class. She can afford family vacations and days off, and a house beyond the slum if she wants. But she has no plans to move. Many residents of Klong Toey aren’t as lucky as she is, and in almost every aspect of her business, she helps her neighbors. Five years ago Poo not only found a job, but she also found a calling – and took a whole neighborhood along with her.
In Poo’s kitchen, nothing is wasted; food here is too precious. Leftovers feed neighbors. She teaches free children’s cooking lessons and also cooks for approximately 100 elderly residents each month. She has helped train a Klong Toey-based staff for a new local café, Munjai (slated to open in January), sponsored by Urban Neighbors of Hope, the same missionary group run by Anji Barker and her husband that helped Poo get her start. UNOH’s mission includes working with local urban poor to create their own businesses in Australia, New Zealand and Thailand. Poo’s Helping Hands is their most prominent success.
“Khun Poo feels like she has been given a great opportunity, and now she wants to offer opportunities to those around her,” says Nicole Dekkers, of UNOH, translating for the cook. (Poo’s English, while improving, remains halting.) “It's easy to receive, but for Khun Poo it's important that people also learn to give.”
In a sprawling metropolis that doesn’t lack for poverty or crime, Klong Toey ranks among Bangkok’s largest, poorest and most dangerous areas. Bombs and fires swallow hundreds of homes every few years, due to accidents and political unrest. Corrugated metal and plastic form walls and ceilings. Sturdier homes use concrete. Open drainage ditches bisect narrow sidewalks, crossable by wooden boards. Residents hail from northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. This is not a part of Thailand tourists see – guidebooks usually ignore the area -- and that has become Poo’s niche, offering Westerners a glimpse of the third world, from the nearby market with live snakes and dead crickets, to the ditches, and the alleys, and the smell of spices and damp shoes left outside to dry in vain.
Poo’s kitchen is makeshift by Western standards. Two electric hotplates on a table form her stove. Her knives are thick plastic. She has a commercial oven, purchased through a community grant that allowed her to expand her catering business. It sits just outside the entrance to the house, covered but more outside than in. The food is quick and simple: easy to make, and easy on the spices for the softer Western palate. American grocery stories carry most ingredients, give or take an exotic vegetable or kefir leaf.
Poo’s kitchen isn’t just a workspace, and she isn’t just a boss. During a typical five minutes of class time, she demonstrates a chopping technique, sets her assistant to watch the process, takes a catering order over the phone, takes another call about a friend’s birth, and yet another to console a woman whose husband cheated, and then back again to the lesson. She calls her oldest son over to fetch an egg, and ask how school went. Her employees radiate satisfaction, laughing and bantering with visitors, showing off a spectrum of photos of tourists sporting black and white “Cooking with Poo” aprons.
Poo takes pride in knowing that her nine employees, especially women, have little formal education and that, after a few months with her, will have a marketable skill. Some of her staff used to scrounge for food. Now they cook for Western diplomats.
Poo isn’t the only cooking class for tourists in Bangkok. Several high-end restaurants offer classes, but for more than twice the price of Poo’s. Most include demonstrations that end with lunch or dinner service, not the hands-on sautéing and simmering in Poo’s house. In Klong Toey, Poo preps, but the visitors work for their lunch.
Poo has sampled the high-end competition, and found them wanting. “Sometimes I go to beautiful hotel and eat and say, ‘I can do that’,” she says.
In 2011 she released a cookbook, “Cooking with Poo,” whose name caught the eye – and Twitter feeds – of chef Jamie Oliver and comedian Stephen Fry. She has sold thousands of copies through her Web site (http://www.cookingwithpoo.com/), and a new edition is slated for January.
Poo herself, standing in her kitchen, puts it simply: “I think I good luck.” It’s hard to know if she means she has found luck, or that she gives luck to those around her. It doesn’t really seem to matter.
Anne Miller is a Brooklyn-based freelancer who has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Slate and Smithsonian Magazine. She is a front-page editor and producer for Yahoo!.