Army of homeless chefs seize control of their lives
Underdogs take on elites in a battle for culinary supremacy, writes Penchan Charoensuthipan
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.
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.