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March 4, 2010

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Cooking up friends, networks

ETIQUETTE coach Lawrence Lo uses cooking classes for cultural understanding, team building and even romance. Sam Riley reports.

Sharing a meal has traditionally been the way people understand each other better, and etiquette coach Lawrence Lo is using food as a way of building cultural understanding for both Westerners and Chinese.

Lo is the founder of LHY Consulting, a firm teaching so-called "soft skills" such as international business etiquette and personal image enhancement to employees from big companies such as UBS Securities and the flight crew of Air China as well as the hotel staff of the Shangri-La hotel chain.

As an adjunct to his etiquette training, the keen cook has run cooking classes for 18 months on the weekends in a novel approach to building cultural understanding.

"Food is conduit to culture and culture can be a very complex issue, but I try to demystify it and make it fun. Since everyone likes to eat, this can be a great way for everyone to gain a better understanding of each other," he says.

Lo recently opened his home kitchen in a beautifully restored lane house off Jiaozhou Road.

His classes for Chinese usually revolve around a theme such as quick-and-easy desserts or how to prepare pizzas or pastas. They are designed to be interactive, lighthearted and sociable.

Classes for up to 10 people usually run from 2pm to 5pm. They can also be smaller and personalized.

In the classes, Lo addresses some of the queries and challenges he gets from students he teaches in his consulting.

Networking and building social relationships with foreigners are among the most challenging aspects of multicultural work environment, Lo says.

"I hope Chinese people learn through my cooking classes how to talk to foreigners at a dining table about food. Classes are a way to improve social networking skills," he says.

"I want my participants not necessarily to learn how to cook, but also to gain a cultural understanding of food and to feel comfortable to make small talk and social network because they have improved knowledge in this area," Lo adds.

Lo tailors some classes to be a corporate team-building exercise and a way for hard-working white collars to expand their social circle.

"I always try to team a man and a woman together because participants tell me they are white-collar workers who spend a lot of time in the office and don't have time to socialize," he says.

Some ask Lo to introduce them to potential friends and even a potential partner. "Even if I pair a couple and they don't get along, at least they have a nice piece of cake to eat at the end," he says.

While food may be a way to the heart for some, it is also a window into a new culture for many Western participants.

Lo, a son of a former Hong Kong diplomat, teaches traditional Cantonese recipes handed down to him from his grandmother, such as steamed fish and steamed meat loaf.

He also conducts tours of wet markets to demonstrate the range of ingredients in Chinese cooking.

With his wife Annie Zhen, who hails from eastern Guangdong Province, Lo also takes participants through some of the intricacies of gongfu cha (literally kung fu tea), a traditional Chinese tea ceremony.

They cover how to correctly serve and participate in the tea ceremony, how to pick a good tea set and how to appreciate different varieties of tea.

"Westerners have a wonderful opportunity to learn about a new culture, and food is a great way to begin to understand and demystify Chinese culture," says Lo.

He regularly writes and blogs about his food travels in China and abroad.

For more information on cooking classes and Lo's food writing, visit


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