Grace Wu and Jenny Leung first met as twelve-year-olds at St Francis’ Canossian College in Hong Kong, and now the long-term friends are organising an international cooking class fundraiser through their popular online World Kitchen Club. Over the past year the Club has run private parties, corporate events, and a series of group and private classes hosted by chefs from around the world. Using the Zoom video app, they have overcome the restrictions imposed by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic and brought some joy and cooking experience and expertise to friends and clients around the world.
Wu and Leung have lived in different countries for decades. Wu left Hong Kong when she graduated from secondary school in 1990 and went to the US to study. She now lives in San Francisco with her husband and their dog. Leung stayed in Hong Kong, where she lives with her husband – but they have a cat instead of a dog.
Early in 2020 Wu and Leung began working on a cultural tourism project together, originally conceived as a travel and food cultural experience for adventurous travellers. The Covid-19 pandemic soon destroyed these plans, and Wu found she couldn’t go on a planned trip to Paris where she was looking forward to taking a cooking lesson with a French chef.
It wasn’t only Wu. Many of those who had signed up for the chef’s cooking class had to cancel. Wu suggested the chef hold his class online, but he was reluctant because he had no experience in giving online cooking lessons. Eventually, though, he agreed to give the class just to Wu and her friends, then all living in lockdown in the US.
Leung had just finished an online interactive yoga class when Wu rang her to tell her about her experience with the chef in France. Ideas began to take shape across the ocean from Hong Kong to the US. If Zoom could be used for an interactive yoga class and a jury-rigged Zoom cooking class, they thought, why not for regular interactive cooking classes?
Plenty of cooking classes are available online, in many languages, but there are far fewer interactive options, with chefs ready to answer participants’ questions and help them with cooking dilemmas, and discussion between participants in various locations.
“It turned out to be really good and people enjoyed it,” Wu says of her first class with the French chef. “Then we started to have classes with chefs in Italy, in the US, in Mexico, in Peru.”
The World Kitchen Club soon expanded to offer company events and private parties, and now two cooking class fundraisers for a worthy cause. These two fundraising events will raise money for the family of a Vietnamese refugee named Jack Ha who lived in the US and recently died of the combined effects of lung cancer and Covid-19, leaving a wife and two young children.
Appropriately, a female Vietnamese chef, My Tran, will use Zoom to teach the two World Kitchen Club class fundraisers, beginning with a visit to a traditional market in Ho Chi Minh city, moving on to a talk from one of Jack’s relatives, and ending with a lesson on how to cook a traditional Vietnamese pancake, known as banh xeo. Jack used to cook these pancakes for his young relatives. The first fundraiser for Jack, scheduled for April 18 (Hong Kong time) is now full with 12 participants, and a second will be held on April 25 (HK time).
“It’s way beyond my expectations, what we have done this past year,” Wu says of the World Kitchen Club. “Especially this event for Jack, I’ve found it particularly meaningful.”
Wu has worked in tech for most of her adult life, for Uber and then for Apple in the US. For her part, Leung left a job at a travel agency in Hong Kong to concentrate on the World Kitchen Club project. “I’m not even good at cooking,” Leung says with a laugh. “My cooking skills are so-so. But I love cooking culture, I love to see the stories behind, and the people’s story.”
Since the World Kitchen Club began in 2020, the business model has evolved. Twelve chefs have signed up to offer private as well as group lessons. Corporate team-building events are on the agenda and lessons in cocktail-making on the menu.
The Club recently ran a cooking class birthday party for a US resident turning 80, a woman with family spread across the nation. Her grandchildren joined the Zoom party because they remembered their grandmother’s delicious cooking. Everyone, Leung says, was delighted by the event. “I’m so happy because I’m 80, but I’m still learning new cooking skills,” the 80-year-old told the host chef, Leung says.
World Kitchen Club lessons are given by skilled amateurs as well as professional chefs. One foodie, originally from Hong Kong, taught participants how to make dumplings and mango pudding.
Participants usually pay from US$40 to $50 per log-in for regular classes, and Wu and Leung expect more than one person to learn from each log-in – maybe a mother and daughter will participate, or a husband and wife. The fees for private events depend on the choice of chef, amongst other things.
Leung expects the World Kitchen Club will change when the pandemic loses ground and eventually comes to a halt. “Grace and myself, we do want to hold in-person events,” she says. “For the coming six months we try to plan some O to O activities, on-line to offline. We can have a couple of people in Hong Kong in their office, in their meeting room, so they can join together and connect with the chefs in different countries.”
Eventually, she thinks, the Club will be able to organise foodie tours abroad, offering a flexible mix of private and public, online and offline elements.
The World Kitchen Club was not the first group to offer online cooking classes, which have proved popular with cooks around the world during various national lockdowns of varying severity across Asia, Europe and the US. The goodwill and fellowship generated by the World Kitchen Club, though, has surprised the two founders.
“I think it totally exceeds our expectations,” Wu says. “Jenny and I first had a talk about maybe doing something meaningful, from a cultural aspect and also to show people a better way to connect.” The World Kitchen Club, she thinks, has managed to do both.
“I have been in the high tech industry for all my career and one of the things that bothers me a lot is that with technology, you would think it would bring people closer together, but it did not. I think that’s because people are posting on Facebook, but they don’t actually talk to each other and see each other.”
A keen cook and gourmet, Wu was interested in learning and sharing more about the world’s celebrated cuisines. “We wanted to do something meaningful to share the cultural aspects and see what is an authentic Italian cuisine, what is an authentic French cuisine, why the food matters and what is the culture associated with the food,” she says.
She and Leung were both keen to use the World Kitchen Club to help Jack’s family in Orange County, California. When they were first told about the circumstances, Jack was still alive and fighting for his life. A refugee from Vietnam, his plight resonated with many of his compatriots, and chef My Tran, found by Wu and Leung for the fundraiser was sympathetic, cutting her fees. But by the time My Tran had been signed up, Jack had died.
“Nothing has been more rewarding or fulfilling; for our one year anniversary we can do something for Jack and his family and be able to connect to a chef from Vietnam to celebrate his life and reminisce about life in Vietnam,” Wu says. “We both feel that’s very important, that we’re able to contribute during this time.”