Cooking spices up a retiree's life of leisure

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 January, 2009, 12:00am

Zhao Yurong , 51, retired four years ago from her job as a bus conductor in Beijing and went into catering. The self-taught cook said she was not concerned about making money - her biggest motivation was getting compliments from clients for her dishes.

How did you get into catering?

Some of my retired friends take buses to places because we have free tickets and some like to go to parks, but I love cooking. I don't rely on this to make a living. It's just fun to cook for others and see them enjoy my food. I just love cooking. I used to cook for a small child of a rich family, lunch for a small company and at a fast-food restaurant in the central business district. But [the last two jobs] involved cooking big servings and it was tiring. Then I had this idea of offering a private catering service and the owner of the fast-food restaurant said it was a brilliant idea. I had my daughter set up a blog so potential clients could hear about me. I put up a list with pictures of dishes that I am good at and some pictures that I took when I was on a Beijing TV cooking show.

How much do you charge for your service?

On average I charge 20 yuan (HK$23) for one dish. I can make a little money on vegetable dishes and almost no money on meat or fish dishes. The dishes are in big portions and in most cases clients can have leftovers for another meal. I think it's quite a reasonable price.

Have you trained at a cooking school?

I have never been trained as a cook. I learned from cooking shows and books. I love to study recipes and when I eat out, I order dishes that I have never tasted before and try to recreate them when I get home. I don't use knives as fast and as skilfully as a trained chef. An executive cook in a big restaurant who was on the same television show once said to me that even though I was not trained as a cook I was passionate about it and used my heart when cooking, which counted most.

Do clients have special requests?

Normally clients have no special request other than one family who asked me not to put sugar in the food because a family member had diabetes. I said I could cook any dish they liked but most of the clients just let me decide. I even had one client who just ordered the dishes in the same order as the menu.

How long does it take to prepare a dinner?

Normally, I cook for around eight people. I go grocery shopping in the morning and clean the vegetables at home and half-cook the meat dishes. For a dinner of 12 to 13 dishes, I will spend around two hours at a client's home. I might make 120 yuan on that dinner, which is very reasonable.

What're your specialties?

I am a native Beijinger but my husband is from Shanghai so I am also a good cook of Shanghai food. I learned to cook curry from a famous chef at a five-star hotel and made my own innovations on sushi, which all my friends and family love. They even eat the things that I don't think are presentable enough to put on the table. I tell clients I can cook anything as long as they name it. Once a native Chaoshan family wanted me to cook for them and gave me four days to learn Chaoshan cuisine. I passed the test and was hired, but I eventually fired them because they were a very rich family with bodyguards and maids. They asked me to live there, like a maid. So I told them I didn't need the job for money and it wasn't fun to cook for them.

How do you get clients?

If I handed out fliers at the entrance of a supermarket I'm sure people would throw them directly into the rubbish bin because they don't know about this kind of service. I get my clients through word of mouth. I give out my fliers at the end of the meal and if guests like my cooking they will call me. And they do.

What do clients say about your cooking?

Most of the requests are for a gathering of family or friends and birthday parties. I have never had one single bad comment. I don't do it for money. I just love to be complimented as a good cook. I have never had bad feedback from clients. When I was cooking lunch for the company, I made six dishes a day and never repeated a dish in six weeks. The staff, some from the south and some from the north, said the lunch was the thing they most looked forward to during the day. I was very happy to hear that.