Out of the Office and Back to Grandmother’s Kitchen

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / March / April 2005
August 10th, 2007

Shermay Lee was born to cook.

Her grandmother, the late Lee Chin Koon, of Singapore, was famous in the mid-1900s as a food personality. She gave cooking demonstrations, taught classes at home, and in 1974 wrote a now-classic guide to the local Peranakan cuisine, a hybrid that came out of the intermarriage between Chinese traders and Malayan women starting in the fifteenth century. Shermay Lee’s mother, Pamela Lee, coauthored the book, helping her mother-in-law codify measurements and clarify complex techniques for a wider public.

As a child, Shermay Lee learned at her grandmother’s side, but as an adult she fought her culinary fate. She studied political science and history at Brown and went into investment banking in Hong Kong and Singapore, logging 100-hour work weeks and traveling frequently. At one point she took a year’s sabbatical to attend Le Cordon Bleu, the French culinary arts school in London.

A year and a half ago, she cut bait, opening Shermay’s Cooking School (shermay. com) in Singapore. There, Lee teaches Singaporean and French cuisine and brings in guest chefs to teach other cuisines. Her students, she wrote in an e-mail this winter, “are working women, housewives, expatriates, and a smattering of tourists—both men and women.” Also, “ladies who have had disastrous experiences in the kitchen.”

One of Lee’s first projects was to update her grandmother’s book, which had been through several editions over thirty years but was looking dated. “My grandmother grew up in an era when a woman’s entire self-worth and potential as a prospective bride depended on her ability to cook and clean,” Lee says, noting that Peranakan woman, who are called Nonyas, guarded their recipes closely. Her grandmother’s openness was very progressive. “A generation later,” Lee observes, “my aunts and cousins are lawyers, stock brokers, and doctors.” (It’s worth noting that her uncle founded modern Singapore and her cousin is now prime minister). Now, Lee says, she and her peers are concerned about “corporate fatigue” and experiencing what she calls quarter-life crises, quitting corporate jobs for alternative careers “because we want a better work-life balance.”

The New Mrs. Lee’s Cookbook (published in two volumes by Times Editions ) reflects the changing times. Full-page photographs depict each dish on vibrantly colored antique porcelain. A glossary of ingredients, equipment, and techniques is clearly photographed. While keeping traditions alive, Lee also offers shortcuts: she urges the harried to use a blender rather than a mortar and pestle. And she advises those concerned by the fat in coconut milk to dilute it. “I haven’t created new dishes for the health-conscious, but have included suggestions for how to make vegetarian or more healthy versions of the original dishes,” she told a local paper. The book has been translated into Chinese and at the 2004 Gourmand international cookbook awards it was cited as the year’s best cookbook in English and singled out for a special judges’ award for traditional cuisine.

“The irony,” Lee told a local reporter, “is that my parents have sent me to expensive schools, and I’ve gone into banking, only to quit and do what Grandma was doing.”

Sometimes you just can’t fight your genes.

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March / April 2005