What’s cooking? A lot of things, actually

A catering trend is blowing new winds across Dien Tho Commune in Quang Nam Province, empowering women, creating off-farm jobs and spreading prosperity. Thien Thanh has the story.

Rural falvours: Residents of Dien Ban Town cook their farm produce at a harvest festival. Fish, potatoes, maize are cooked on straw or firewood stoves. Rural areas in the town are a favourite destination for rural lifestyle tours offered the tourists. (Photo: VNS)

On weekends, long before the onset of dawn, things start buzzing in Chau Lau Hamlet.

In fact, it gets busier – and noisier – than a beehive. Courtyards echo with the sounds of people calling out various things from the kitchen. Then there’s the thump of big knives pounding on big chopping boards, the clanging of pans, the sound of water running…

But the strongest evidence of a feast, or several feasts, in the making is the aroma of shrimps being stir fried that float into the small streets. And along these winding streets, mini-vans soon get loaded with food trays.

“We can only have a simple meal of vegetables, either boiled or stir-fried, with rice to keep us going,” said Tran Thi Thu Ha, a local catering business owner.

“My favourite food is boiled vegetables with pickled cucumber dipped in anchovy paste,” she said, adding, “I cook and smell the food too much. Now I don’t like meat or seafood. I only crave vegetables.”

Ha sometimes takes as many as 10 catering orders a day. “Now we need to get food ready, when the minivans are back, the food must be ready to go, too. We cater to parties in Da Nang City and we must get there on time.

“During the weekends and on festive days, our days start at 2am and run till 5pm.”

Ha says she has 10 close employees and when orders come rushing in, she has to hire up to 40 or even 50 people.

“The biggest party I’ve served is 200 tables,” she said, meaning serving a wedding feast for 2,000 people. And these are seven-course meals!

Ha has been in this business for six to seven years. She’s gotten so busy she can’t take time off.

As soon as Ha and the women sip some tea to complete their meal, they head out to work. There’s plenty to do: picking and cleaning vegetables, chopping meat and ribs, slaughtering chicken.

Ha is soon glued to her mobile phone, taking or checking orders. Her iPad is full of food presentation photos. She is constantly looking to improve her service.

Finishing touches: The kitchen team of Ngoc Anh, a caterer in La Trung Hamlet, gets the food ready for serving. (Photo: VNS)

Hands on

We went to neighbouring La Trung Hamlet, which is also in a high bee-hive mode. Seeing off a line of motorbikes catering to smaller parties, Nguyen Thi Ngoc Anh returned to her huge kitchen, now empty because everything had gone.

She has been overworked. Her sleep-deprived eyes check out chickens being boiled in whole in a big pot. “Today we cater to eight parties. The closest one is a wedding in the neighbouring village. Thirty-five tables of ten.”

A mâm, or table, is a full seven-course meal with starters like salads, main courses, soups and vegetables, and deserts, for 10 people.

“Everyone has gone to the parties. I was here before the rooster began to crow. And I will be here until the last dishes of food is out at 4pm,” Anh said. Next to where she’s standing is a booking calendar that shows 12 catering orders for the day.

Though she has people helping in the kitchen, Anh maintains her job of marinating and being the principal chef in her kitchen.

“I get orders for the good food that I make with my own hands. I can’t make an excuse that I’ve got too many orders and pass the job to someone else. That’s not good. I want to keep my good reputation.

“Each day, I only accept orders for a little more than 1,000 people to ensure my good quality.”

When the orders rush in, not only are the chefs overworked, other villagers get their share of work, too. Nguyen Thi Tuyet, who helps out every time a kitchen calls, said: “Sometimes three or four people call in one day, so I have to serve the one who called first. There’s so much work to do. The only concern is if you can manage it.”

Deep fried:The stoves are busy and the kitchen bustles with a lot of energy. (Photo: VNS)

Military precision

In this business, the chef who directs her kitchen also needs to work in sync with what’s happening in the wedding hall.

When the master of ceremonies begins proceedings in the big hall, Le Thi Mai of La Trung Hamlet, de facto chef in the kitchen, snaps out her order: “Start!”  It is only then that the food will be taken to the plate.

Everything has to be very well organised so that the food trays are taken to the dining room in order.

“Hot dishes must be warmed up and served right then,” Mai said.

As the MC said “Thank you”, Mai called out: “Ready! Dishes, go!” Her team of 10 waiters, all decked out in smart uniforms, held the dishes up to their shoulders, and walked in harmony with the music, gently placing the trays on the tables.

“In the past, we used to get all the food ready on the table,” Mai said.

 “But just seeing too much food at one time, people felt full and did not find it delicious.”

“People need time to taste the food, so each course is served in an order. We wait for at least 10 minutes after the starter to serve the main course. We serve the fried dishes with accompanying soups. And we serve fruit for desert,” she said.

Anh, who still keeps the actual cooking job to herself, said: “Catering to parties is like getting married to a big family. You can’t say no to clients who come to you, but do not have so much to spend.”

The norm in the village has been to charge between VND70,000 to 100,000 per person.

“If the client cannot afford higher rates, then we try our best to serve them at between VND70,000 and VND80,000 per person.

 “We have to treat each and every client of ours the same way. Even if they cannot pay more, we still show them that we care so that they are impressed and satisfied. Only then can we survive in our business,” Anh said.

Served in style: Shrimps roosting on a glass, a popular starter. (Photo: VNS)

Fabulous Four

Until a decade or so ago, whenever food for wedding parties, birthdays and death anniversaries was talked about, everyone turned to the Fabulous Four: Tam, Dung, Hoa and Nu. These women are seen as the “founding goddesses” of the catering service in the village.

Then, all the women in the village followed the Fabulous Four to help with cooking and serving for big parties. They didn’t mind being called to only clean vegetables or peel garlic, or wash dishes.

Some of the women learnt the work and started to cook and cater for their family parties. And when guests began appreciating the food and service, the women started accepting bigger orders.

Ngoc Anh of La Trung is one of them.

“I helped out for a few years. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I can make all the dishes, why not try on my own?’ she said.

“The first party I cooked for was for my cousin,” Anh recalled.

“Guests coming here from Da Nang praised me to the sky. Then they asked me to come to Da Nang and cook. That was it.”

Anh said she printed name cards to give out at parties, and now she has more orders from Da Nang than from neighbouring villages.

“At first, I only wanted to do weddings. Now, I take any order: house-warming, birthday, special events and death anniversaries.”


 

Unions and reunions: The Ngoc Anh service now caters to all kinds of events in Da Nang City and neighbouring villages in Quang Nam Province. (Photo: VNS)

Win win

In the catering hamlets, some women have signed up for food safety classes or cooking classes, and have begun surfing the Internet to learn new dishes and expand their menus.

According to Vo Thi Tinh, chairwoman of the Dien Tho Commune Women’s Union, there are 200 catering households in the commune, mostly in the Dong Hoa, La Trung and Chau Lau hamlets.

To encourage the catering trend, the local Women’s Union chapter proposed that the Quang Nam Department of Labour, War Invalids and Social Affairs opens cooking and food safety classes.

“We have given out 100 cooking certificates (since 2013),” Tinh said. This has created more income-earning opportunities for the women of the district.

Almost all women have left farm work to their husbands and children, and gotten involved in the catering business.

“Everyday if I help out in the kitchen, I get paid VND200,000 ($9),” said Nguyen Thi Xi, a long-time farmer from Dong Hoa. If I work hard and come early to work in placing tables, I get VND350,000 ($15). Those who can cook get paid more than VND400,000 ($18) a day. Every month, we work for 20 days and we get bonuses too.”

The catering trend has turned a new page for the villagers of Dien Tho. The business owners have minivans and new villas. The supporting services have spread the prosperity. Those who can’t cook supply fresh food and seafood, they rent out tables and make-shift wedding halls or music equipment.

In Dien Tho, it’s hard to find a rundown looking old house. They are all new and clean.  

Having fun: Thu Ha, a caterer, and her husband participate in a TV game show.

Source: VNS

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