Army of home­less chefs seize con­trol of their lives

Un­der­dogs take on elites in a bat­tle for culi­nary supremacy, writes Penchan Charoensuthipan

Bangkok Post - - NATIONAL -

Kan­nika Pu­jina, a for­mer vagabond ac­cus­tomed to sleep­ing in pub­lic squares, found her­self com­pet­ing with chefs from pres­ti­gious restau­rants in Bangkok this month in a cook­ing con­test aimed at pro­vid­ing home­less peo­ple with ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The com­pe­ti­tion f ea­tured sev­eral Thai dishes in­clud­ing som tam (pa­paya salad), pad Thai noo­dles, grilled chicken and bua loi (rice balls in warm co­conut milk). The con­tes­tants had to cook the same menu but were told they could pick a del­i­cacy of their own choos­ing.

As the home­less team squared off against pro­fes­sional chefs in the “Aroi RICE Ban” event, co-hosted by the Thai Health Pro­mo­tion Foun­da­tion (ThaiHealth) and a net­work for home­less peo­ple in front of Bangkok Art and Cul­ture Cen­tre on Sept 2, a few silent prayers were ut­tered.

But in the end, the un­der­dogs held their own and the two teams fin­ished nearly tied, with the pro­fes­sional chefs just squeez­ing ahead.

Ms Kan­nika, a Tak vil­lager who now lives at a home­less shel­ter in Bangkok’s Tal­ing Chan dis­trict, de­scribed the event as a huge con­fi­dence booster.

The 39-year-old said she and the rest of her team im­proved their cook­ing skills by watch­ing YouTube videos as they had no money for pro­fes­sional train­ing. She first got a taste for cook­ing while work­ing at a re­sort in Su­rat Thani sev­eral years ago, she said.

She said she wound up in Bangkok with a baby boy in 2001 af­ter get­ting preg­nant at the age of 23 and be­ing re­jected by her fam­ily.

As she had no rel­a­tives in the cap­i­tal, she and the boy ended up stay­ing at Sanam Luang — an open field in front of the Grand Palace — with other vagabonds. She later moved to the shel­ter and started try­ing to de­velop her cook­ing skills. Her son is in Mathayom 3 (Grade 9).

Ms Kan­nika said she found a kin­dred spirit with the same pas­sion for cook­ing in the form of 47-year-old Jin­tana Meechin, an­other home­less woman.

They sought out oth­ers at the shel­ter who en­joyed cook­ing and worked with au­thor­i­ties to or­gan­ise some rudi­men­tary cook­ing classes for meat dishes and desserts, she said.

Their group soon be­came bene­fac­tors to the va­grant com­mu­nity, cook­ing dishes and dis­tribut­ing them for free at Lan Khon Muang in front of City Hall.

Ms Jin­tana said she wanted to en­cour­age oth­ers to come and live at the cen­tre, which of­fers not only food but op­por­tu­ni­ties to bet­ter them­selves. Her group of am­a­teur cooks, for ex­am­ple, now earns a small in­come by pro­vid­ing a cater­ing ser­vice for sem­i­nars with the sup­port of ThaiHealth and the Hu­man Set­tle­ment Foun­da­tion. Some of their rev­enue is de­ducted to pay for util­ity costs and other ex­penses at the shel­ter.

About 12% of va­grants in Bangkok are food ven­dors who pos­sess ba­sic culi­nary skills but lack the bud­get to de­velop them­selves, ac­cord­ing to Chu­la­longkorn Univer­sity’s So­cial Re­search In­sti­tute.

Ko­ra­nee Phuprasert, who works for ThaiHealth, said the agency has ar­ranged sev­eral vo­ca­tional cour­ses for home­less peo­ple to help them earn a sus­tain­able in­come.

Yanika Ak­sorn­num said the com­pany was set up about a year ago to help home­less peo­ple seek gain­ful em­ploy­ment. She said there are many able-bod­ied in­di­vid­u­als dealt poor hands by fate who just need a bit of sup­port so they can re­store their self-be­lief and cap­i­talise on op­por­tu­ni­ties to get back on their feet.

She said the com­pany’s phi­lan­thropy kills two birds with one stone: It helps the un­der­priv­i­leged to help them­selves and helps al­le­vi­ate the bur­den on the state.

PATTARAPONG CHATPATTARASILL

Par­tic­i­pants cook up a dish as they join the ‘Aroi RICE Ban’ cook­ing con­test aimed at pro­vid­ing home­less peo­ple with ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties. The home­less team squared up against pro­fes­sional chefs as the event was co-hosted by the Thai Health Pro­mo­tion Foun­da­tion (ThaiHealth) and a net­work for home­less peo­ple in front of the Bangkok Art and Cul­ture Cen­tre.

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