If delicious food and supporting a good cause appeal to you then look no further than Kunyah Café @ SOE. We speak to its founder, Aaron about what it’s like to run a social enterprise here on campus.
Exploring new food options around? Why not check out the newly-opened Kunyah Café at the School of Economics (SOE)?
It is a café specialising in Singapore-style sandwiches, rice bowls and more! We head down to Kunyah Café ourselves to find out whether you should pay them a visit for your next meal.
Checking Out the Vibes
Kunyah /kuɲah/ = to chew with teeth prior to swallowing
Once you reach the stall (psst… it’s right next to Tea Party!), you are greeted with vibrant orange and yellow wallpaper featuring cat-themed artwork. The stall is surprisingly large and has a relatively open concept kitchen, which allows you to see the talented chefs preparing the food. The menus are prominently displayed on boards outside the stall.
Without close scrutiny, it isn’t obvious that this kitchen is different from any other food stall kitchen. At this point we meet up with Aaron Yeoh, the founder of Kunyah, who courteously invites us to take a seat and try the food.
Let’s “Kunyah” the food!
From top to bottom: Chicken Katsu Sando and Chicken Rendang Rice Bowl
Being a bunch of hungry hippos, we could not resist trying out Kunyah’s signature dishes. We ordered the Grilled Chicken Rendang Rice Bowl and a Chicken Katsu Sandwich and were pleasantly surprised to find out that each main dish came with a free packet dish.
The Grilled Chicken Rendang Rice Bowl was EPIC. Generous chunks of tender grilled chicken were covered in fragrant homemade rendang sauce. The rice bowl came with a slab of steamed egg which made the meal that much more flavourful and nourishing. Complemented by the sweetness and crunchiness of sautéed cabbage piled atop white rice, the flavours and textures exploded in almost perfection. It was a great portion for a filling lunch.
The Chicken Katsu Sando was visually stunning. Boasting a gigantic chicken cutlet, sweet teriyaki sauce, eggs and vegetables enveloped by toasty flat-cut bread, this sandwich honestly looked fine enough to qualify for a beauty pageant. Digging into the Sando was an even more delightful experience. Sinking your teeth into this joyfully humongous sandwich, one is instantly rewarded with the crunch from the freshly fried and tender chicken katsu. Notably, the breading on the katsu was slightly thicker than most other places and provided the chicken with a crispy outer shell. The slightly-sweet, umami flavour from the teriyaki sauce complemented the katsu well, and was applied in an adequate amount to properly coat most of the katsu. The scrambled eggs and vegetables also served as a good contrast of texture and flavour to balance out the fried katsu. Rounding out the Sando experience would be the bread, which, despite its unassuming looks, was toasty and held up the contents of the sandwich well.
The food was delicious so we were curious who were the hands behind our meal…
A Passion for a Good Cause
Siew May (kitchen assistant) and Aaron (founder)
Sitting down with Aaron, we learnt that he is no stranger to social causes, having worked in social services for 10 years prior to starting Kunyah. It was about 5 years ago, when he was interacting with friends who were visually disabled, that he realised they had aspirations to pursue cooking as an interest and career.
However, Aaron highlighted that the problem was that there were few F&B employers willing to hire such individuals in the kitchen, preferring to place them in more customer-facing roles such as being waiters or cashiers. This stemmed from the fact that working in the kitchen involved handling potentially dangerous items such as knives and sharp cutlery. This notion did not sit well with Aaron, especially since an increasing number of staff in service roles could be replaced by advancements in technology. As such, he was inspired to found Kunyah with a simple mission:
“Using food to change lives of persons with disabilities (PWDs) who are keen and talented in cooking”
By employing PWDs in the kitchen, they can pursue their passion for cooking while making a living for themselves. Beyond benefitting PWDs, Aaron also tries to impact the lives of abled-bodied elderly in the community, and makes an effort to hire such elderly staff and pair them up with the PWDs in the kitchen. Aaron informs us that the elderly staff are generally more patient, and contribute to creating a more inclusive and empathetic working environment to support the PWDs.
Furthermore, Kunyah adapts a farm to table concept; Aaron himself would harvest herbs and vegetables from the garden behind the School of Accountancy (SOA). Talk about fresh! Not only is Kunyah a cause for people, but a cause for the environment as well.
An Uphill Journey
Running such a unique café certainly has had its fair share of challenges.
While they had initially received funding from angel investors and government grants, these sources of funding were only helpful in the short run. High costs of operations and slower sales also added to the challenge. Nevertheless, Aaron tells us that the café has slowly been seeing more footfall.
Managing a team of PWDs and elderly staff also had its complications. For example, the visually impaired chefs would need Aaron’s assistance to identify when the oil in the cooker was overboiling, or if any cutlery fell off the counter. Enabling PWDs to work well also meant investing in special equipment in the kitchen itself.
A ramp for ease of access into the kitchen
Bringing us around, Aaron highlights some of these special features, such as a specially coloured combi oven to provide colour contrast for the visually impaired, dimmers for the lights, and a ramp for ease of access. He also tells us that they had specifically knocked down the interior partitions left behind by the previous vendor to create an open, U-shaped kitchen to allow for the PWDs to work more seamlessly.
It’s All About Purpose
Despite the challenges that may lay ahead, Aaron appears unfazed. He constantly emphasises to us that the cohesiveness and purpose are driving forces that keep them running, even on days where the staff have to come as early as 7AM to prepare the chicken.
“It’s about being happy and celebrating every moment of success and stupid[ity],” Aaron tells us.
We could certainly see this in action when we spoke with Siew May, whose jovial nature certainly brought a smile to our faces. She is one of the kitchen assistants at Kunyah and was born with cerebral palsy. She maintains her enthusiasm towards her work and tells us that she loves working at Kunyah and with the whole team.
Rounding up our conversation, Aaron shared that he hopes setting up shop in SMU will inspire more individuals to use social entrepreneurship as a means of tackling social issues in the community, a heartwarming message that certainly resonates with us.
The next time you’re at SOE, why not give Kunyah’s sandos and rice bowls a try? You can fill your stomach with delicious food while supporting a noble cause.
Alternatively, you can support Kunyah's vision to empower persons with disabilities by contributing to their fundraiser here!