Shermay Lee shuts cooking school to focus on line of sauces

-- PHOTO: SHERMAY'S SINGAPORE FINE FOOD
-- PHOTO: SHERMAY'S SINGAPORE FINE FOODPHOTOS: THE FULLERTON BAY HOTEL, SHERMAY'S SINGAPORE FINE FOOD
Ms Shermay Lee (above, with The Fullerton Bay Hotel's Singapore Heritage Afternoon Tea, which has dishes based on recipes by her late grandmother, Mrs Lee Chin Koon) -- PHOTO: THE FULLERTON BAY HOTEL
Ms Shermay Lee (above, with The Fullerton Bay Hotel's Singapore Heritage Afternoon Tea, which has dishes based on recipes by her late grandmother, Mrs Lee Chin Koon) -- PHOTO: THE FULLERTON BAY HOTELPHOTOS: THE FULLERTON BAY HOTEL, SHERMAY'S SINGAPORE FINE FOOD

Shermay Lee shuts school to focus on sauce production; other cooking schools doing well

Shermay's Cooking School, an established name in the local culinary scene, will close at the end of next month after 12 years of conducting cooking classes attended by hundreds of budding cooks.

The school in Chip Bee Gardens will conduct its last lesson on June 21. Its owner Shermay Lee, 39, is closing the 1,200 sq ft school to focus on food consultancy work and ramping up production of her line of heritage sauces and marinades under the Shermay's Singapore Fine Food label, which was launched last December.

She says she has been considering the switch for the past two years. "My plan is to move away from a labour- and capital-intensive business to something much more scaleable."

Other push factors she cited are the rental hike of 12 per cent last month and the high turnover rate of her full-time staff.

While the demand for her cooking lessons has been consistent, she says capturing the interest of customers has become more difficult as the market for cooking schools here has become saturated.

Ms Lee, who is also a cookbook author, says coming up with original recipes and ideas for cooking lessons year after year can be labour-intensive. "By going into manufacturing food products, I can widen the reach of my ideas. It has the potential to go global. I have already received interest from a major supermarket in Hong Kong."

She has been encouraged by the warm reception to her heritage sauces. They consist of two versions of Cilicuka, a chilli and vinegar dip, and two versions of a marinade for bak kwa or barbecued pork.

Her two collaborations with The Clifford Pier restaurant in The Fullerton Bay Hotel have also been promising.

She curated an eight-item Peranakan menu, which included ayam lodeh (chicken and lontong in coconut gravy) and lo kai yik (chicken wings braised in fermented red beancurd sauce) to commemorate National Day last year.

The hotel's permanent Singapore Heritage Afternoon Tea menu is made up of 16 sweet and savoury bites, such as Kurobuta Pork Kong Ba Bao and Chilli Crab Bun.

These dishes are based on recipes by her late grandmother, Mrs Lee Chin Koon, who wrote the 1974 classic, Mrs Lee's Cookbook. Mrs Lee was also the mother of Singapore's late founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Come July, Ms Lee will work from a 1,300 sq ft industrial office space at one-third of the operation costs of running her school. There, she will develop new products and distribute and market them, while local sauce-maker Sin Hwa Dee will continue to manufacture her sauces.

She has confirmed an order with "a globally recognised Singapore-based company", which will serve and sell her Cilicuka by July. The Clifford Pier restaurant will serve the sauce later this month.

She expects to increase production of her sauces by two- to three-fold within the next year. She has sold about 6,000 jars in places such as Tangs Orchard and Culina in Dempsey Road. She will launch another sauce by August.

"I appreciate what the school means to my customers. Many of them feel the loss... It was a special time when we had those classes, but I am ready for the next chapter of my evolving career."

Instructors and students are sad that Shermay's Cooking School is closing.

Pastry instructor Hidayat Cosnan, 35, who has been teaching there for five years, was surprised by the news as the school has a strong branding, but he is happy for Ms Lee as she is "embarking on a good business strategy". The pastry chef at Siloso Beach Resort in Sentosa adds: "The school has given me lots of good memories of interacting with my students, who have gone on to become friends."

Corporate consultant May Loh, 62, who has been attending one cooking lesson a month for the past decade, says the school stood out for its "dedicated and knowledgeable instructors".

She says: "It is a big loss as the chefs were committed to educating us on the ingredients and cooking methods and not just replicating recipes."

Housewife Pamela Menon, 67, who has been attending cooking lessons almost every weekend for the past four years, says: "The classes were enjoyable and hands-on. Whatever I learnt from the classes, I could use at home."

Other cooking schools which Life! spoke to say there is healthy demand for their cooking classes.

New to the scene is ABC Cooking Studio, which opened its Singapore branch in Takashimaya in Orchard Road last month. The renowned Japanese cooking school says more than 3,000 people signed up for its trial lessons, which run until the end of this month. Its general manager, Mr Itaru Nagao, 29, is confident that the Singapore branch can break the record of having the highest number of sign-ups in the first month of a new outlet.

He says the school stands out by positioning its classes as a leisure option. "People here are willing to spend on entertainment. By making the classes customisable and conducting them in small groups, cooking can be an alternative to catching a movie."

Ms Lynette Foo, 43, owner of Palate Sensations in Biopolis, was surprised that last year was her school's best performing year, with a 30 per cent spike in revenue. She has at least 500 participants for up to 70 classes each month.

She says: "Consumers are getting more sophisticated and want to emulate professional chefs. They want to learn techniques, from knife skills to roasting, instead of learning recipes."

ToTT Cooking Studio in Dunearn Road has seen a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in demand for its classes. Its director Grace Tan, 37, says more customers want to learn cooking styles used in restaurants, such as the sous vide technique (slow cooking vacuum-sealed ingredients in a hot-water bath). She says: "As specialised kitchen tools are now more accessible to home cooks, they are encouraged to master these cooking processes."

But one school, Creative Culinaire in Tiong Bahru, has had a 10 per cent drop in participants in the past year. Managing director Judy Koh, 52, thinks strong competition from other schools and alternative cooking resources are the reasons. "It is becoming easier to learn cooking on the Internet or through books at people's convenience with minimal cost."

It has also been a challenge to cover operating costs with "continuous hikes in rental", so she has started other revenue streams to expand her 15-year-old business. These include opening a cafe, schools in Jakarta and Bali, and launching a catering business last month.

kengohsz@sph.com.sg