Taipei’s Fun Food Revolution 

KP Kitchen goodies for teatime. PHOTO: Jules Quartly

Baking classes have become a fresh source of entertainment for many millennials, while healthy eating and do-it-yourself dining are driving demand for cooking courses.

Cooking isn’t just about eating, it’s also entertainment, which is why boutique-style baking courses and cooking classes are becoming a feature of life in Taipei. Housewives with time and money on their hands, millennials looking for new experiences, and tourists in search of local culture are among the many converts to the pleasures of DIY dining or home baking.

TV shows, celebrity chefs, YouTubers and Instagram are inspiring people to knead dough or pinch-and-twist the tops of xiaolongbao dumplings. Meanwhile, the food scandals of recent years have reinforced the idea that there’s no better way to ensure food quality than to prepare meals yourself.

An assistant at the newly opened Gloria’s Sweets. PHOTO: Jules Quartly

Baking courses and cooking classes have become a bit of a home industry in Taipei, spurred by enterprising individuals such as Gloria Kung of Gloria’s Sweets (幸福微甜), who have given up the day job and do something they love instead.

“It’s a lot of fun!” says Kung when describing the baking classes at her newly opened studio on ZhuangJing Road, a couple of blocks from Taipei 101. “It’s not like ‘real’ cooking. It’s all about making a cake, which is something beautiful, taking a selfie and showing it off. It’s a new leisure option, instead of the usual shopping, KTV, coffee shop, movie, or afternoon tea.”

Like many entrepreneurs in Taiwan’s fairly static economy, Kung needed to rethink the sustainability of her business. For years she had run a textile trading company that exported apparel, principally to the United States. Offshoring and changing times meant this model was no longer viable.

“It’s a typical Taiwan story because Taiwan used to be called the ‘Kingdom of Textiles,’” Kung relates. “But trading companies like mine can’t survive these days because manufacturing has migrated to China, Myanmar, Cambodia, and the rest. Competition meant that prices kept going lower and lower. Now the second-generation factory owners all speak English because they studied abroad, so they don’t need middlemen anymore.”

“The end had come and I needed to do something different,” says Kung, who was fortunate enough to have developed another skill over the years. Spurred by embarrassment at being the only one not able to cook for her high-school classmate reunion dinners, she started attending classes at a community school and developed a passion for baking.

“I loved it! When I baked a cake, it was so relaxing. After the first lesson I bought all the ingredients and equipment. I went all in. When I realized the trading company wasn’t going anywhere, I switched and started up the baking studio. Now I’m doing what I love. It’s the new Taiwan story.”

Kung had been inspired by a company called Ziji Zuo Dessert Shop (自己做 烘焙聚樂部), which started out in Taichung, but now has seven baking studios scattered around the country. The business model is fairly simple and effective. The streetside studios are bright and welcoming to passing foot traffic, so pedestrians can just pop in and bake a cake for NT$500 or so.

Naturally, customers can also bake for special occasions, such as birthdays, Christmas, and Chinese New Year. Word spreads chiefly via the power of social media. The Snapshot and Instagram generation see cake making as a golden opportunity to show off their colorful lives against a backdrop of filtered black forest gateaux, cupcakes, and apple pies.

They are often fans of reality TV cooking shows, YouTube demonstrations, and the cult of celebrity chefs. “People watch these programs and want to try it out themselves. This is not so much cooking for eating as entertainment,” Kung observes.

Customers tend to be women, but men are certainly welcome, as are families. The women tend to have a relatively high disposable income and come from one of two groups: either younger office ladies having fun with friends or older “teatime ladies” who have time on their hands, their children having flown the nest. Hence, baking studios tend to be situated in fairly affluent areas, like the popular Bake a Day’s location on Nanhai Road, near some newly built upscale apartments.

The pie guy

Alan Wickberg, aka “The Pie Guy.” PHOTO: Jules Quartly

Alan Wickberg, aka “The Pie Guy” (派派哥), was a telecom and power consultant in Asia for many years, before settling in the Donghu area of Taipei. He bakes at home and has developed a nimble company that produces American-style pies for all occasions. The majority of sales are online but he also runs pop-up stores and can be found most Saturdays and some Sundays at Maji Square, near Yuanshan MRT.

Like Kung, he was searching for something else to do when his previous business started to decline. Having enjoyed cooking from an early age, he thought: “What is it I can do here? What do I love? And what does Taiwan need?”

Though he doesn’t run classes, he is thinking about it. “It’s something we may do down the road for our brand. There are perhaps more opportunities for French and Japanese baking, because that is what people here are used to. But I am aware that home cooking courses are selling well because the market is becoming more artisanal.

“There is a desire to learn how to make one’s own food, but the challenge is that kitchens are often quite tiny, so this is difficult. Also, buying ovens can be difficult, though not impossible. One of the attractions for home baking and cooking courses is that people like to entertain and this will help them do that. Food always leads to discussions of other things and some of the best conversations are held in the kitchen.”

In previous generations, girls and maybe one of the boys in a family were taught to cook by their mothers or grandmothers. But no more. Instead of doing household chores, youngsters view extra homework from school as the key to a good job in the future. At the same time, there are plentiful and cheap dining and takeaway options in Taiwan, so it’s quite feasible to go through life without ever having done time in a kitchen.

As a result, many millennials can’t or won’t cook. It’s no longer seen as a necessity, but rather as something interesting and enjoyable to do as a recreational activity.

“People have become used to eye candy and for the 18- to 25-year-old generation, visuals are all that matters,” Wickberg observes. “So it could be they take these cooking and baking courses just to take some colorful pics, as much as learning how to cook. On the other hand, millennials are spending money on things their parents never would, especially on healthy and experiential things like cooking courses.”

Adding to the mix

Karen Farley of KP Kitchen. PHOTO: Jules Quartly

Karen Farley of KP Kitchen (凱焙廚房) stands in front of her “Bakers’ Wall,” a chalkboard with pictures of happy customers, at her kitchen studio on Fuyang Street in Taipei’s Xinyi district. She wears a big smile and describes her mission as: “Baking with a purpose. It’s more than just sitting down to eat, it’s about being together and doing something for someone. After they bake biscuits or cakes, they share the love with friends and family.”

The Canadian is a former project manager and a bit of a global nomad, settling in Taiwan after a stint in China. Wherever she lays her hat, she has taken cooking classes and now feels the time is right to share her expertise. Her company produces assorted spices and easy-to-follow cake mixes.

Online sales have been such a success that she is scaling back on the number of public lessons she gives. That said, however, Farley is a firm believer in the benefits of one-on-one classes. “YouTube videos and cooking shows have gone a long way to making cooking accessible, but there is so much finesse and so much is instinctual that it can’t substitute for hands-on lessons.”

While Farley agrees that many of her students like to show off on social media, she attributes this is largely to the visual appeal of baking and the sense of achievement it brings. “I know that some of our customers want to show off their baking pictures to their family and friends because they won’t believe it unless they see it.”

Farley has a good feel for the market and has packaged her cake mixes to suit the type of toaster oven used in Taiwan’s typically cramped kitchens. She also feels that unlike the North American market, where large amounts may be cooked and then frozen for later use, Taiwanese prefer fresh foods. She notes the huge rise in the number of bakeries and baked goods in recent years, adding that with the increase in leisure time, more Taiwanese are taking up hobbies like scuba diving, hiking and … cooking.

She also cites concerns about food standards and healthy eating as among the reasons for the boom in cooking classes and baking studios. “People are taking control of what they eat. I want the business to go beyond someone just buying a cake mix. I want them to love cooking and to take care of themselves.”

“Our demographic is young professionals and they want to provide something home-cooked for the family for a change. Also, parents want to bake with their kids and enjoy some family time, anything as long as it doesn’t involve a screen.”

Farley doesn’t say it, but this represents a change in food culture. Instead of paying for convenience, baking and cooking classes are promoting the value of taking the time to do it yourself, going back to basics and sourcing the ingredients oneself to ensure quality and nutrition.

 

Jodie Tsao of Jodie’s Kitchen. PHOTO: Jules Quartly

Jodie’s Kitchen, in the picturesque environs of Ziyun Street on Elephant Mountain, has been hosting cooking classes for 13 years. Owner Jodie Tsao is highly recommended by a number of guide books and has appeared on multiple TV programs about food in Taiwan.

While up to 80% of her clients are tourists, she has noticed an uptick in the number of “office ladies and gentlemen” who want to learn how to cook. “This is part of the slow cooking trend, including shopping at small markets rather than supermarkets. Taiwanese people tend to eat out because it’s fast and convenient. They can even go the 7-Eleven for a spaghetti that is cheap and fairly tasty.

“While office people tend not to have so much time to cook, the slightly older age group of about 40 to 60 has more time and is more concerned about their food. They shop and wash their food and prepare it lovingly. Home cooking is slow cooking.”

As for trends, Tsao is aware of the Cordon Bleu cooking classes offered by upmarket establishments like Bellavita in the Xinyi shopping district. High-profile chefs are on hand to take their students on a 12-week voyage of culinary exploration, which can cost hundreds of thousands of NT dollars. Those taking the courses tend to be young women with rich dads, or older wives with wealthy husbands, and their purpose is to entertain and show off at dinner parties. Tsao calls this is a “face thing.”

“Generally speaking, fewer people cook at home,” she says. “If people go to classes it’s like learning yoga, in a pretty studio with expensive equipment. Something you do for a while and then get tired of.”

As for her own classes, she claims not to “teach,” so much as inspire people to be mindful, trust in their own abilities and make the most of natural ingredients by selecting and combining them creatively.

Turning up the heat

Ivy Chen of Ivy’s Kitchen points the way forward for her keen culinary students Lynne Navarro and mom Benilda. PHOTO: Jules Quartly

A morning spent with Ivy Chen (陳澍娥) at Ivy’s Kitchen is well worth the time. She has been teaching “expatriates and foreign travelers” how to produce the perfect dumpling or pineapple cake since 1997. Her Tienmu apartment has been transformed into a cozy kitchen studio that radiates warmth and a love of good food.

She teaches as if putting on a show. There’s plenty of bonhomie, anecdotes, and imparting of tips. “I enjoy meeting people and sharing stories. It’s a happy class,” she comments, as she directs her two charges on how to roll dough, checks the oven, and flutters over the stove of steaming pork. “If you put in the work, it tastes better.”

On the day we visited Ivy’s Kitchen, her students were Filipinas Lynne Navarro and her mom Benilda. Lynne is a travel agent and takes a cooking class whenever she goes on holiday. She thinks cooking is a window on local culture and a good way to make friends quickly. She appreciates Chen’s congenial approach and likes small class sizes because they provide more opportunity learn by doing the tasks herself.

After the food is prepared, it’s shared and the conversation flows. When the Navarros leave, Chen reflects on changes to the cooking-class market in Taipei. Like Tsao, she says it’s a hard sell to teach Taiwanese how to cook local dishes because they think it’s a waste of time or money. They would rather learn to cook Western food because it’s “exotic.”

Chen says that while Western cooking classes are growing in popularity, they are expensive and more focused on social niceties. She says she has little use for YouTube cooking videos because they often skip over necessary steps and details.

Due to changes in local dietary habits over the past few decades, locals now like Western wheat products like bread and pasta, she says, which partly explains the rise of baking studios. “Members of the younger generation have a sweet tooth,” Chen notes. “They don’t bake in their own homes because they don’t have the equipment and don’t like the mess, so these studios work well for them.”

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