Saiyuud “Poo” Diwong, author of the waggishly titled “Cooking with Poo” and owner of Cooking with Poo and Friends, a cooking school in Khlong Toey, is more than an affable entrepreneur and Thai culinary maven—she’s a role model for the people living in Bangkok’s slums. When a fire ravaged her home and cooking school a year ago, she rebuilt it from the ashes and continued in her quest to help locals lift themselves up by the bootstraps. This month, Poo talked with Bangkok 101 about her life and work: past, present, and future.
How old were you when you started cooking?
I started cooking when I was 13 or 14. My mother was my first teacher.
Why did you call your book “Cooking with Poo”?
My name is Chompoo, but Thai people like to shorten names. For example, if your name is Apple, your friends will call you “Ple.” So people call me Poo. At first, I didn’t know what “Poo” meant in the Western world. Every time I would introduce myself to foreigners, they would giggle. But my friends and I turned the silly little problem into an opportunity by using my name on the book, which is really eye-catching and funny at the same time.
What inspired you to open your own cooking school?
I sold made-to-order food [aharn tam sang] for more than 10 years. But during an economic crisis in 2007, ingredients suddenly became more expensive, and I could no longer make a living selling food and had to close my own business. Luckily, an Australian who had been living and working in the Khlong Toey slum for years, Anji Barker, who was also my customer and neighbour, told me that I shouldn’t stop cooking. She and her friends from Urban Neighbours of Hope gave me the support I needed to start my cooking school.
Do you have any plans to expand?
My answer will always be no. Some people have called me a fool for not expanding the size of my classes or adding more branches, but I believe cooking is more about caring and understanding [than only making money]. Having fewer students in each class means we can focus on every person. I used to go to cooking classes where the owner never even talked to the students. People expect to see me, and they will always be able to see me.
How did it feel to work with Jamie Oliver?
To be honest, I didn’t know who he was at first—not until a friend told me he’s really famous. But working with him was such a nice experience. We had so much fun, but that day was seriously tiring. We filmed for close to nine hours for a 5-minute-long video! Jamie encouraged me to keep smiling for the video, though. When he posted about us on his Instagram account, we started getting even more customers coming to our cooking school.
How have you able to recover from the fire that claimed your school and home?
After the fire, we all were really shocked and sad. But we got so much support from people around the world, including Jamie Oliver and some friends we did a cooking tour with in Australia. Fortunately, we had set up an insurance policy just one week before the fire, too.
In what ways has Cooking with Poo and Friends improved the lives of people living in Khlong Toey?
We’re always coming up with new projects and ways to get involved. We provide food and drinks for the school in our community and we give money to support the students. We take people from our community to explore the world, not just in Thailand, but also abroad. We encourage them to speak English with my customers. We help them run small businesses so that they can make a living by themselves. I strongly believe that we only have this new cooking school because of the kindness of others, so I feel compelled to do something in return to help those in need.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your day-to-day work?
Every day we meet a lot people from different cultures, and of different ages. Some eat spicy food, some don’t. Some don’t like to drink the water, because they think it isn’t clean. One time, a student of mine, who was a nutritionist back home, kept admonishing me for using shrimp heads. “You cannot put shrimp heads in the pad thai,” she said. “They contain so much cholesterol.” Also, even though I always try to be at the cooking school, sometimes I just can’t, which makes some customers feel upset that they didn’t get to see me. And my employees often feel upset when our customers look disappointed, so recently I changed our name to “Cooking with Poo and Friends” to avoid this problem and make my staff feel better.
What else are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m doing research for a new book. There are so many dishes that I want to write about, and many more that people have suggested. Khao soy has been requested by nearly everyone. I also want to include food that isn’t quite as popular now, like moo ka ta.
What are the most popular dishes you teach how to make?
Definitely pad thai and green curry. Normally we change the menu every couple of years, but those two are always there. My team and I teach them all the time, in classes in Thailand and abroad. We cook pad thai and green curry so often that we never eat them anymore!
What are your favourite street-eats?
I love khao niew moo ping. I normally get it from 70 Rai or Bang Nam Pueng Market. And also yam [the tangy salads found on streets nationwide]. All kinds of yam.
Have any favourite restaurants?
I like to go to Ma Yer Goong at Phra Pra Deang. There’s a big pond in the restaurant where you can fish for prawns by yourself. The prawns, especially, are really tasty.
What can home cooks in Bangkok do to improve health and well-being?
I think we should stop using MSG in food. It is just not good for you. And we can do without it. All the ingredients we have here can make food taste wonderful.