Fussy eater now cooks freely

AMRITA KAUR

While most kids his age are busy on social media, 16-year-old Rohan Nair Sureash is wondering if the grilled asparagus he is making will compliment the broccoli sauce.

At 13, he started as a weekend chef cooking lunch for his parents at home and occasionally dinner for his friends.

In August, Rohan decided to take his love for cooking a step further. He launched his own website (www.rohanschefology.com) and an Instagram page of the same name offering a home-based fine dining experience and decided that part of his earnings from the business will go towards cooking nutritious meals for migrant workers.

For the first time last Saturday, he cooked a meal for 40 migrant workers and organised a lunch service for them at a construction site near the Singapore Swimming Club.

The menu featured chicken curry, dhal, stir-friend potatoes and peas, rice, papadum, garlic pickle and a banana. Preparations started a day earlier when he went to Little India with his mother to buy the ingredients for the meal.

"Some shopkeepers realised I was buying large quantities of potatoes and chicken; they were curious and asked me what I was buying them for," said Rohan. When he shared his plan to cook for the workers, they gave him a discount. "People were naturally supportive," he said.

The year 1 International Baccalaureate student at United World College of South East Asia woke up at 6am the next day to prepare the meal with some help from his parents and helper.

"It was not as hectic and rushed as I imagined it to be. My parents and helper assisted with the cutting of the vegetables," said Rohan, a self-taught cook. "I made the chicken curry in three batches, dhal in a whole batch and potatoes and peas in four batches just so the quality of the food won't be compromised."

He finished cooking at 10.30am with an hour to spare before meeting the migrant workers to serve lunch.

During that hour, he did some food tasting and transferred the dishes into big pots to transport to the site.

Apart from the help he got from his family, he also roped in some friends from school to help with the food distribution.

"I started by distributing the rice and my friends followed with other dishes. I wanted the workers to have a meal as authentic as possible, so instead of paper plates, I bought banana leaves," said Rohan.

"It was very heartening to see them enjoy the food. After the meal, one of them told me that it had been a really long time since he ate on a banana leaf. That felt nice."

Many of them were surprised that Rohan was only 16. "He's so young and cooked for so many of us. Usually people just distribute packed food to us but he cooked, distributed the food and also spent time with us. We were very happy," said Mr Shanmugarahu, a worker from Tamil Nadu.

"Most days the food we get is normal. But on Saturday it was very tasty," the 31-year-old added.

Mr Karuppaiah Balraj, 31, "enjoyed" the food. "Everything was delicious; the chicken curry and the dhal. It was very well-cooked," he said.

Rohan's mother Shashi Bhaskar was "very proud" of her son. "There are many people who are more fortunate than others around them. He's on the right path of giving back to society," she said.

"We organised the lunch service in the afternoon and spent only an hour there. They (Rohan and his friends) thought it was really hot but then they realised that these migrant workers toil in the sun most of the afternoon and on many such days."

Rohan wants to organise a similar meal session when he earns enough money. "I don't want this to be a one-time event. I want to do it every four to six months if possible. It's rewarding and humbling. My friends also mentioned that it was a nice and warm experience being part of the food distribution," he said.

Saturday's initiative cost him $200, which he had put aside from his earnings from his online business.

Since starting it in August, he has earned $580 from five orders. He put aside $370 for the cause and saved the rest. He has set aside the remaining $170 to be used the next time he plans a similar initiative.

"I hope to do the same for underprivileged children or the elderly," Rohan said.

His love affair with food and cooking started when he watched an episode of MasterChef: The Professionals three years ago.

"I would try to re-create the dishes the contestants made in the show. The first dish I cooked on my own was honey, lime and soy chicken, some vegetables and rice," he said.

His father Sureash Balan, who enjoys cooking as well, thought his first effort was "pretty good".

Apart from the reality TV show, Rohan also owes his passion for cooking to his father. "When I was younger, he would encourage me to try different dishes. That expanded my palate. Now I like to try dishes from all over the world," said Rohan.

On some Sundays, the father and son cook together. "We try to make new dishes, re-create the fried rice from Din Tai Fung and critique each other's dishes and plating. It's good bonding and a healthy competition," Rohan said with a laugh.

The young cook was born in Stockholm, Sweden, when his parents were based there for work.

They moved to Singapore in 2006 when his father got a posting here and Rohan was just three.

"He was a fussy eater," his mother recalled. "We had a helper at home and the easy way out was to eat pasta all the time. But we made him try Indian, Chinese and Thai food and took him to food courts. His dad would make food in a creative manner for him such as thosai in the shape of an aeroplane."

Rohan started his business when he felt confident of his cooking abilities.

Rohan's Chefology offers diners three menus of three courses to choose from - Italian, Western and Asian.

He does most of the preparation work at home before he leaves for the diners' home. He carries his pans from home and cooks the meat such as beef, fish and prawns at their place.

"The experience has been great because I get to cook for different people. It has also helped me learn new things such as the quantity of ingredients required, managing my time and cost," he said.

In order to give people a fine-dining experience, he carries his own plates from home and plates them artistically before serving it to them.

Rohan charges $50 for two diners, $70 for three, $90 for four and $110 for five.

He has not decided if he wants to pursue cooking as a full-time career, "but it will remain a lifelong hobby," said Rohan. "I also want to do my best to use my hobby to make a difference to society."

 amritak@sph.com.sg

"It was very heartening to see them enjoy the food. After the meal, one of them told me that it had been a really long time since he ate on a banana leaf. That felt nice."

- Rohan Nair Sureash

 
 
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