From banking to cooking school

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At19 Culinary Studio was established five years ago for people from all walks of life.At19 Culinary Studio was established five years ago for people from all walks of life.

For many in the financial services line, becoming a general manager at a bank would be the pinnacle of one’s career. But Hellen Fong walked away from such a post with no regrets.

That’s because she was pursuing her passion – for food. Throughout her 20 years in the financial services industry, which is a hectic one indeed, she had always found time to cook.

So, when she managed to save enough money to start her own business, she quit her job and founded a cooking school.

At the time she had had no cooking school experience. But her two decades in the financial services line, including some years in audit, taught her to be meticulous in everything she did.

So, Hellen didn’t just dive in head first, like many entrepreneurs would do. “I interviewed other cooking school owners, went down to Singapore to look at how cooking schools operated and picked up tips by talking to various cooking school owners,” she recalls.

She certainly did her homework. For good measure, she even sent out survey forms to friends, ex-colleagues and relatives asking whether they would like to join leisure culinary classes, what they thought of her ideas, the price they would be willing to pay for a class and so on.

So, she went into the business fully prepared and with her eyes wide open. But with business being business, there are no certainties. And some things she did have to learn through trial and error, which is only to be expected.

“You can’t take anything for granted,” she says. “In business, anything can happen. But it helps to be as prepared as possible and to plan ahead.”

When she started her cooking school, At19 Culinary Studio five years ago, there weren’t that many professional cooking schools around. The few that existed were mainly informal classes taught by instructors in their own homes. So, with her professional set up, Hellen was able to achieve good growth for At19 in the early years.

Today, the challenge is different. It’s no longer about growth but sustainability. “We have lots of competitors now and many more coming on-stream, so it’s not easy,” she says.

Hellen FongHellen (pic) believes one of the school’s key success factors is its faculty. “I am blessed to have my current crop of chefs who are well qualified, passionate and dedicated to their craft,” she says. “I couldn’t ask for a better team.”

But having a strong team isn’t enough in this highly competitive market place. That is why Hellen has taken other measures to give her school a leg up.

Last year she and four of her cooking instructors banded together to produce a cookbook entitled “Lost Recipes of Malaysia”, which has been nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Award for the Best Historical Recipes category. The finals will be held in the middle of the year in Yantai, China.

“It’s very satisfying being able to build up a brand from scratch,” she says.

She is also diversifying her revenue streams. Providing cooking classes is still the core offering but Hellen has looked beyond the school walls and now caters to companies wishing to offer cooking as part of their team-building activities.

Other non-traditional offerings include corporate services like organizing cooking competitions, customer appreciation events and product branding events. The school also has chefs for hire and she is planning to introduce an “Underground Supper Club” (private dining), a phenomenon that is starting to become popular in Kuala Lumpur.

For Hellen, leaving a high-flying job to pursue her passions has paid off. For those who want to follow her lead, she offers this piece of advice: “It has to be something you really love doing because when the going gets tough, you’ll need to persevere and find ways to overcome the challenges. You can only do that if you are really passionate about what you are doing. Otherwise you’ll give up and go back to being an employee again.”

Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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