“Welcome everyone to the Poo Kitchen!” exclaims a beaming Thai lady to the twelve heat-weary foreigners perched on wooden stools before her. This is Khun Poo (short for Chompoo), head chef and owner of the Cooking with Poo school in the slums of Klong Toey. We, her twelve disciples, take a break after an unforgettable tour of the local fresh food market.
And when I say fresh, I mean heart still beating, legs still twitching fresh. We wove in and out of aromatic (to put it mildly) aisles, following our guide’s bobbing head past live (and not so live) frogs, chickens and fish; all manner of bizarre and brightly coloured fruits; khao neow and khanom wan; cucumbers and coriander; and every other edible imaginable (and several unimaginable). Yes, as fascinating as I found the market’s cascade of sights, sounds and smells, the more squeamish traveller may wish to give it a miss.
As we recover in the kitchen, Khun Poo gives an insight into her incredible story. Eighteen years ago, like thousands of other locals living in the backstreets of Bangkok, Poo eeked out a living selling street food. Fifteen hours of work brought home 200 baht, just enough to feed her family. At that time nine people shared the house, where she still lives with her parents and two sons, right above Poo HQ. A local missionary first suggested the cooking school but, lacking confidence and knowing barely three words of English, Poo declined. Yet the seed was planted and, true to her name, Poo was the perfect fertilizer for it.
She learned English and started teaching tourists the tricks of the Thai cooking trade. From just two or three students a day, the seed has blossomed into a thoroughly organized and in demand cooking school; public classes run six mornings a week with occasional private group classes in the afternoons. Poo has toured Australia and cooked with the “Naked Chef” himself, Britain’s Jamie Oliver, and her “Cooking with Poo” cookbook has sold close to 20,000 copies.
But this down-to-earth Thai matriarch is far from starry-eyed. She lives in the same wooden slum building as before and throws her heart into helping her slum community (which she naturally calls “our family”). Ten per cent of proceeds from every cooking class goes to local families and businesses. The school also funds five local projects: the HOPE shop, Second Chance upcycled gifts and jewelry shop, a catering business, and fresh food delivery service. Profits from the school and cookbook help lessen the burden of slum children’s school costs and the cooking team also bring food to a local preschool every couple of months. It’s not all been plain sailing though – a slum fire completely devastated Poo’s kitchen and much of her income. Business shut down completely until it was rebuilt.
In the eight years she’s run the school, Poo has seen the community change for the better. Now, she says, many students in “our family” go to university, and with the financial support, families are able to take weekends off and even have the occasional holiday from work. The twelve staff Poo employs are all neighbourhood friends. Since Poo trained them up they earn more money and rest time than they would otherwise.
Her staff are on hand as we step up to the (hot)plate for the first of four dishes: Tom Yum Kung. Our pre-prepared ingredients lie neatly at our cooking stations and Khun Poo explains that since the school’s earliest days she’s learned to cater to Western tastes. This translates into far fewer chilli peppers and no chicken skin and fat. With advance notice each dish can also be adjusted for vegetarians, vegans and food intolerances.
After a quick (and I mean under five minutes) demonstration, we are let loose on the hobs and it’s a surprisingly quick and easy task, even for someone like me, who can’t tell a spatula from a spoon on the best of days. Kids from around age seven are welcome to don their aprons and younger ones can play the Masterchef judge for the fun part: tasting the results! Khun Poo tells us how to tailor each dish to our preferred degrees of sourness, saltiness and spiciness. After cooking we try each other’s dishes and it’s amazing how different the same meal can taste. For dessert of course it has to be mango sticky rice along with a buffet of Thai fruits.
Taste buds more than satisfied and Facebook posts prepared, we have time for a peruse of the Second Chance gift shop and the souvenir “I Cooked with Poo and I Liked It!” aprons. I finally hug Poo goodbye, and leave with a huge smile and great memories. To learn more or book a class, please visit www.cookingwithpoo.com.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Ryan