updated 9 Aug 2011, 15:26
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Fri, Jan 07, 2011
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Gravy pursuits
by Sheela Narayanan

THE pretty jars of chutney and pickles, arranged neatly on the long table in front of Mrs Cheryl Mukerji's shop (top image), garner curious glances from the local pedestrians heading for the Chinese roast pork purveyor or the coffee shop in the Ubi industrial estate. Very often, they stop, walk in, ask about the products and end up buying some jars.

Mrs Mukerji, whose brand The Gravy Train deals mainly with Anglo-Indian food, is part of a growing bunch of expatriate wives who are eschewing the kitty party lifestyle, rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands greased with cooking oil to run their own catering business.

And it's not that the friendly, no-nonsense woman in her 50s, who worked as an executive in several multinational companies during her time in Kolkata, has to work for a living to begin with. After all, the permanent resident has a comfortable lifestyle in Singapore with a husband who works as a senior executive in a multinational company. She claims she is not of the kitty party ilk. She would rather get her hands elbow deep in flour or chop up ingredients for catering parties and events.

"I have a deep interest in cooking and I want to keep my Anglo-Indian heritage alive. When I came to Singapore, I realised that there were people supplying north and south Indian food, no one had thought of Anglo-Indian food. I had even tried the Eurasian food to see if there were any similarities and there weren't, so there is certainly a market there," says Mrs Mukerji, who had a home catering business in Australia when she lived there from 2005 to 2007 before moving to Singapore.

After registering her business, Speciality Foods, in Singapore and receiving her caterer's licence from the National Environment Agency (NEA), she scouted around for a suitable spot for her industrial kitchen as caterers are not allowed to operate out of their homes. It took her a long time to find one and she now operates from Ubi Avenue 2 where she has rented a 1,000 sq ft shophouse. It has an air-conditioned room where she works on cakes and pastries as well as a kitchen where she makes the savoury dishes.

While Mrs Mukerji's menu specialises in Anglo-Indian dishes, it also offers Bengali cuisine as well as cupcakes and other baked goods. And while her fledgling business is taking off - she gets more than 20 catering requests a month, largely from the expatriate community - she has already hit a speed bump: She has no manpower. She needs a kitchen assistant especially over the weekends to help with her catering jobs.

At the moment she is still a one-woman show doing everything from the cooking to the cleaning.

Mrs Bharti Dhanupal, 60, knows what that feels like.

When this homemaker-turned-caterer started her business, Pangat Restaurant and Catering, nine years ago, she too was a one-woman operation.

An expatriate wife, a permanent resident who has been in Singapore with her engineer husband Dusane Dhanupal for the last 30 years, she took to the catering business, providing vegetarian north Indian food, when her son and daughter left the nest for their studies and careers in the United States.

The soft-spoken woman, who grew up in Pune, says: "Cooking was a hobby of mine and, when we had parties at home, our friends would always say that I should start a business because my food was good. After the children left home, I had nothing to do, so I started the business. I found that nine years ago, with the number of NRIs growing in Singapore, more people were looking for vegetarian food."

She initially catered for house parties and eventually went on to corporate events, handling all the orders herself. Nowadays, she caters for about 10 to 15 events a month, more during the festive seasons. She also has a sub-contract from several local hotels to provide vegetarian Indian food to them.

The growth of her business led to her hiring people to help her in the kitchen in 2004. Currently she employs 22 people and has even ventured into the food and beverage industry: She has opened a stall in Suntec City and is opening another in a foodcourt in Vivocity.

In Mrs Arti Bhatnagar's case, the Singapore permanent resident who hails from Delhi had been working with halwais or wedding caterers during her time in India. When she moved to Singapore with her trader husband Sanjeev more than 19 years ago, she pondered over starting her own catering business here.

However, sheer necessity pulled her out of contemplation and set her into action when they lost their life savings in the 2008 financial crisis when their investments went awry.

"With our savings wiped out, I had to find a way to help my husband repay the loans we had incurred," she tells tabla!.

In March 2009, the 44-year-old housewife registered My Food Spa as a business but realised she didn't have the capital to lease the right location and commercial catering equipment to fulfil the NEA requirements for registered caterers.

She and her husband, who helps her with the marketing end of the business, felt that a joint venture with a local partner who had the financial capacity while tapping her expertise in north Indian food was the way to go. They found a partner in early 2010 and set up their kitchen in Syed Alwi Road in March.

Her niche is children's birthday parties and school functions.

Most of the business comes from word-of-mouth publicity, mainly in the expatriate community.

"We felt that it was an area that very few Indian caterers were looking into, as many NRIs throw large birthday parties for their children and there are not that many Indian caterers who can say they can make kid-friendly food," she explains.

They do about 20 parties a month and Mrs Bhatnagar is looking to expand into catering for the corporate sector. In fact, she sees catering, while challenging, as a growth area especially for women who have the culinary touch.

"With the Indian community and the number of Indian companies in Singapore growing, there are many opportunities to explore," she says.

Hear that, ladies? It could be time to make your lovely dishes earn more than just compliments.

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