Thai food and flowers is winning combination for Fletton-based Tui Smith
When Tui arrived in Peterborough, after working in Guernsey as an accountant for a major bank and before that growing up on a farm in Thailand, she didn't know what she wanted to do next. Now, five years on, she's a businesswoman who runs Thai cooking and flower arranging classes from her home in Fletton – and she's incredibly surprised (and grateful) about the path she's found.
"I never thought I had a creative side," she said, speaking to Peterborough Matters in the garden where she grows many of the herbs used in her Thai cooking. "I was an accountant! But I've always loved cooking. I learned from my grandma; she had 13 children, and my family would all get up at 5am to watch her cook and learn about nature and gardening."
Tui's best friend in Guernsey encouraged her love of Thai cooking – she owned a restaurant near the water and would often ask Tui to assist on weekends, getting experience in the kitchen and feeding her passion.
It wasn't until she started volunteering in Peterborough that the idea for setting up a business where she taught people how to cook Thai food was suggested. In fact, Tui started the classes as fundraisers for St Margaret's Church. Attendees of these classes suggested that it could be a much bigger business – and they were right.
Around the same time, Tui volunteered to take retired florist, Iris Parker, to her flower arranging class so that the older lady didn't have to pay for a taxi every week. Tui also attended the classes, and found herself loving the lessons. Iris continued to mentor her – Tui says she "learned from the best" – and she now produces arrangements for weddings, as well as church and Peterborough Cathedral displays.
"It's actually quite emotional," she says. "The volunteering work with the church helped me find my path, guided me in the right direction. I was indecisive when setting up the business – I didn't know if I wanted to do flowers or food – but I haven't had to decide. Both is working. I do them separately, but I also do workshops combining the two, my two passions."
Tui's classes are taught in her kitchen in Fletton and last an afternoon. Refreshments and ingredients are provided, and students make at least three Thai dishes to take home with them.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought all of Tui's planned classes to a halt, leaving her unsure about what she would do during lockdown, but one of her customers made a request for takeaway food and added another layer to her business. Once again, she points out, there was a guide helping her find what came next.
Even now that classes have been able to resume (with fewer people, to allow for social distancing), Tui is still finding that she needs to adapt. Many of her ingredients are from Thailand, and the pandemic has meant that some aren't available as readily. Green papaya salad, a staple of Thai cuisine, has become swede and carrot salad in a few sessions – a similar flavour and texture, but not what people might expect! She grows many of the necessary herbs in her garden, although she notes that during the cold winter months they don't tend to thrive in the Great British climate and she needs to rely more on supermarket shelves.
Tui is already expecting a busy Christmas – she leaves the Christmas Day cooking for her husband, but wants to do themed classes throughout the season, both floral and food. She still seeks ways to give back to the community, be it through offering vouchers for her classes to auction or use in fundraisers or cooking for the homeless. And she wants to continue welcoming as many people as possible into her kitchen to whip up some Pad Thai or Thai green curry.