Meet Payal Thakurani, the talented chef behind one of Singapore's best Cooking Schools. Learn all about the lady behind the school and the incredible classes and catering Commune Kitchen offers.
Tell us a little about you and Commune Kitchen.
Commune Kitchen is a Singapore-based cooking school that offers affordable hands-on cooking classes across a broad spectrum of cuisines – Chinese, Southeast Asian, Middle-eastern, along with Gluten-free and vegetarian cooking. Our most popular sessions include traditional Chinese dumplings, Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings), gluten-free dumplings, and chili crab. Our classes are sought after by both locals, expats and tourists alike. All courses are taught by professional chefs in our state-of-the-art kitchen in Downtown Gallery. Apart from weekly cooking classes, we also accept bookings for kids’ parties, corporate team building sessions and private cooking sessions for up to 60 people. The philosophy of Commune Kitchen is to make cooking fun and accessible for people no matter what their age, ability or love of cooking may be.
How did you choose the name 'Commune Kitchen'
There are quite a few cooking schools in Singapore but only a handful of schools offer a truly hands-on experience and there are even fewer that offer classes at a reasonable cost. With extremely high rents, the cost of running a business is very expensive. This is one of the main reasons that other cooking schools struggle to offer reasonably priced classes. Additionally, ingredients are another high cost expense for any business or any home cook for that matter. Because of the high cost of groceries, many people in Singapore tend to choose to eat out in local Hawker Centers.
At Commune Kitchen, we work to educate our clients not just on recipes but sharing ideas on how to make cooking at home affordable and accessible to anyone. We also work to offer classes that are affordable and inspire our clients that eating out should be the exception and not the standard. We want to make cooking affordable for all and “Commune Kitchen” is a kitchen for all.
Who do you feel the classes at Commune Kitchen would appeal to most?
We love the fact that Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and that there are so many cuisines that define this city. Commune Kitchen takes pride in teaching the best of these cuisines and exposing our clients to dishes that they already love and new dishes for them to fall in love with. Our dumplings and Xiao Long Bao sessions are very popular as our clients love learning to cook local favorites so that they have the option of eating in and enjoying a delicious home cooked meal. We love to teach cooking from scratch and getting people back to the very basics, the heart of what makes cooking enjoyable. Cooking should be a pleasurable experience that ends with the joy of savoring the food that we have created. This is what we strive for in every interaction at Commune Kitchen. We take pride in sharing age-old recipes, local favorites and a variety of cuisines with new cooks and want them to know that making these at home is not only healthier but the results are way more delicious than paying for a simple meal.
Another area we have been working on is gluten-free foods and we are proud to offer 2-3 gluten-free sessions each month. The area of gluten-free is a growing area of concern and our clients love having foods made accessible again to them that were not. For a person that is gluten-free, the ability to enjoy dumplings or to dive into a pizza is a hugely happy moment and we love opening the doors for this experience. Our most popular gluten-free session is the dumplings class, which taste even better than traditional dumplings in my opinion :) Others include GF flatbreads, Thai cooking, Indian, Vegan and more and we are continually exploring and offering more and more gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan class options for our clients.
I have a copy of your amazing book 'Curries for the Soul', which I have to say includes much more than only delicious curries. How challenging is it to produce a cookbook, and how did you decide what to put in and leave out?
I have spent many years in other countries including living in Hong Kong and Shanghai. I ran a wonderful cooking school in Shanghai before my family relocated to Singapore. “Curries for the Soul” is a book dedicated to my students in Shanghai and my journey from a passionate educator in Hong Kong to a passionate cook in Shanghai. The book contains tried and tested recipes from my kitchen and ones that I have collected over the years through my travels in Asia. I didn’t realize at the time but many of these recipes are gluten-free as well. This book is a look into my journey so far and my passion for food.
It took me almost two years to finish “Curries for the Soul”. Of course, making sure that the recipes work by the teaspoon is the most challenging part of writing a cookbook. People may think that it takes nothing to write a recipe but they take hours of practice, of editing and of making sure that it is user friendly for the client who opens the book to cook their first recipe. A lot goes on behind the scenes when putting the book together from design, glossary, photos, editing and more. The entire process can be very daunting but the finished product is a thing that I am immensely proud of. In “Curries for the Soul” there are many recipes we had to omit as they did not fit the Southeast Asian genre of the book; recipes with middle-eastern and European influences which we had to leave out. In my next cookbook, I am looking forward to getting the recipes I had to omit, the new ones I am developing and the ones I am learning as I go into the new book.
What is your favorite cuisine to cook? Is it the same as your favorite cuisine to eat?
If there is one cuisine I could eat all day every day it would have to be Chinese. I love everything about it especially the fact that it’s so diverse and changes from region to region in China depending on what is grown locally and seasonally. My favorite Chinese recipe is a simple homemade noodle dish of freshly made wheat noodles drizzled with soy-rice vinegar-chili-spring onion dressing - it screams comfort food!
I also love cooking Indian comfort food mainly because it a very familiar cuisine for me; it’s ingrained in me. I grew up eating Indian food and am moving towards eating more and more vegetarian at home. I find that some of the simplest and most delicious vegetarian recipes are Indian. And the fact that I don’t have to think too much before putting together a delicious curry is very helpful especially on days when I need something quick and comforting. To me, a simple dish of khichdi - porridge made with rice and lentils drizzled with hot ghee is pure bliss.
What 5 ingredients can you not live without?
Rice, tomatoes, butter, flour and chilies – I could live on these. Rice and chilies because I am Asian. Good tomatoes for they are pure umami; one of my most favorite things to eat is my mother’s spicy tomato chutney with Chapatis. Butter because it makes everything better and because Baklava is life :) Flour because there is nothing better than a loaf of freshly baked bread. I love my salt too but am sure I can source that easily from nature. I can put together an entire restaurant menu with five of these ingredients and salt of course ;)
Which 5 kitchen gadgets must you always have?
My knife, chopping board, wok, rice cooker, and gas stove. I can’t possibly survive in the kitchen without my knife and chopping board - they are my lifeline. I love my wok and use it for every kind of cooking. My rice cooker is one the best investment I ever made - I like my Jasmine rice perfectly cooked and I think I might have forgotten how to cook rice in a pot. And my gas stove because I love cooking on fire - after all, the hearth is the heart of a home.
How do you choose your suppliers?
I always go for fresh produce when possible, which can be challenging in Singapore. For vegetables, we go to the wet market every morning as that’s where the best produce is and it supports small business owners at the same time. Commune Kitchen believes that sustainability is key when it comes to buying meat. Personally, my family is working to consume less meat when and where possible. Personally and professionally, we are always looking at the impact we have on the environment.
What teacher made the most impact on you and why?
Prior to opening a cooking school, I worked in special needs education in Hong Kong for the longest time. My department head and mentor Ken Hudson was the most patient man I have ever met. I learnt a great deal from him and also from many of my students and their parents. Ken was Buddhist, vegetarian and spent many of his weekends at the monastery. He was a very simple man and I highly admired this quality of his. It was during my time with him that I realized how simple life really is. We really don’t need a lot to be happy and should count our blessings every day. There are many out there who face challenges every day and in so many different ways – physically, financially, mentally; we are very privileged and should be grateful for what we are. I try to remember the things I learned during this time each and every day.
Who is your favorite celebrity chef and why?
At the moment, it’s Yotam Ottolenghi but it changes based on changes in the industry, in what is trending and what my personal interests at the time may be. I have been fortunate enough to eat at most of his restaurants in London. I must say I have never had a bad meal at any of his establishments. In fact I have always ended my meals with a big smile on my face and a very happy tummy. Lots of herbs, spices, vegetables and a good, hearty meal is what I expect and get each time – his food makes me very happy. One of the most memorable meals I have had at Ottolenghi Spitalfields was a dish of fried Sardines - if a man can make sardines taste phenomenal he is a genius.
If you could be any famous chef, who would you be and why?
I’d love to be an entertainer like Jamie Oliver. I am very camera-shy and envy him for how comfortable he is in front of it.
Who do you admire most in life?
My father is the person that I admire the most! He is the most hard-working man I know and has always been an example to me of what hard work means and what it can do for you. He owns a garage and repairs motor-bikes and scooters for a living. He is now almost 70 years old but still goes to work without fail every day. He loves his job, still gets under those bikes with utmost ease, and takes pride in getting his hands greasy every day. I wish I am half as energetic as him at his age.
What is the worst meal you ever made and what was the lesson you took from that?
There are three,
- I over-salted cluster beans when we had my paternal grandmother coming over for lunch at our house. I was 15 and loved my salt then. My mother was furious. Lesson learnt: None! My grandmother loved those beans and I still love my salt.
- I rushed and didn’t caramelize onions for a fish dish I was helping my mother with. This time my mother-in-law was invited for lunch at my mum’s. My mum was even more furious. Lesson learnt: don’t mess with your mother’s recipes.
- I made fried rice with overcooked rice, definitely the most disgusting dish I have ever made. Lesson learnt – next time you overcook rice, make porridge instead.
When are you at your happiest?
Around good food and playing cards (a Taiwanese game called Big 2) with my teenage children.
How do you spend your free time?
Reading non-fiction, walking in nature, and cooking for my family and friends.
What is a new skill you'd like to learn and why?
I love horses - I think they are the most beautiful and majestic animals on earth. I want to learn how to ride a horse.
What do you always avoid ordering from a menu?
Steak, I don’t like the idea of too much meat on a plate and I am conscious of sustainability. I am a vegetable lover and there are so many amazing vegetarian and vegan dishes that are available to consumers.
What is your go to meal when you are low on time?
A simple meal of homemade dahl and rice.
What is your guilty pleasure meal?
I love fresh sourdough and freshly baked good bread! In fact, my most favorite dish is Paul Pairet’s Truffle Bread recipe. It’s simply toasted sourdough drenched in French butter and topped with sliced truffles.
What is the most overrated current food trend?
The Keto diet
What do you think the next food trend should be?
Healthy, hearty plant-based meals where vegetables take over and become the star of the dinner table. Cucumber is the new cool ;)
What country in the world has the best food?
Hands down – China; it’s fresh, seasonal and very region based. Many people know Chinese food through Kung Pao Chicken, and Sweet and Sour Pork, but there is a lot more to it. China is a beautiful country and its food is even more beautiful.
If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and why?
I have yet to see the South American continent. There is so much beauty, culture and some really amazing food to experience there. I would love to live there and not just visit for a short visit. To get immersed in a cuisine, one needs much more than a simple vacation.
What would be the easiest meal to make to impress someone?
My 10 minute truffle tagliatelle - butter, garlic, truffles, tagliatelle, parmesan, salt and olive oil.
If you could tell your 18 year old self anything, what would it be?
Stop drinking so much! But I am glad I finished drinking my share of beer in my younger years and haven’t touched alcohol in 19 years now.
What achievement are you most proud of in life?
Starting Commune Kitchen from scratch again in Singapore after leaving behind a successful business in China was extremely difficult. As a foreigner, there are way too many challenges in setting up a business in Singapore and to be able to sustain it is even harder. Just like any small business owner I have good days and bad days but I wake up with a positive attitude each morning and strive to do better each day.
What's coming up next for Commune Kitchen? Anything we should be excited about?
Lots more delicious plant-based meals from around the world
Our beef Xiao Long Bao – Silky-smooth pastry filled with succulent minced beef and hot flavorful stock – especially created for our halal clients, and hopefully a lot more…
Is there any advice you would pass on to anyone aspiring to become a chef?
The path ahead is not going to be easy. Becoming a chef is a 24/7 job – you are constantly working or thinking about work. But if you are passionate about food, there will be no stopping you. Feeding people is one of the most satisfying jobs in the world.
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I have attended a couple of classes with Payal at Commune Kitchen and loved every moment of the experience. Payal offers great hands on classes that are easy to follow and the end products were always amazing and delicious. I can highly recommend these classes for both locals and tourists. An exciting way to learn how to cook Asian, Middle Eastern, Gluten Free and Vegetarian dishes and a great all round experience.