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Healthy French cuisine? mei wenti for expats, Chinese and ayis

ANYONE can prepare healthy French food with a Mediterranean twist and Frenchwoman Olivia Guinebault teaches expats, Chinese and even ayis how to whip up soup, souffle, salad and entrees. Mei wenti, says Sam Riley.

A love of cooking inspired Frenchwoman Olivia Guinebault to start her own cooking classes in Shanghai, teaching expats, Chinese and even ayis (domestic helper) how to prepare French cuisine.

Debunking the myth that French food is difficult to prepare and laden with butter and cream, Guinebault says her southern French-style recipes are healthy, easy to prepare and affordable.

She teaches students to cook one of her many Western and French-inspired recipes to which she gives a Mediterranean and international twist.

Guinebault is set to publish a cookbook of "bilingual" recipes that are English-Chinese, as well as French-Chinese. She wants to encourage people to ditch the fast food and home deliveries and cook for themselves.

"Among people my age, nobody cooks, but it can be very easy and you can make a soup or a salad without a lot of time or effort," she says. "I wanted to show people that cooking is enjoyable and easy and everyone can do it."

Guinebault cooks every day and she says she wants to encourage people to eat healthy, natural, home-cooked meals.

In keeping with this approach, she calls both her classes and her forthcoming book "Cuisine Mei Wenti," combining the French word for cooking and a common Chinese expression meaning "no problem."

"Cooking should be taken light-heartedly," Guinebault says.

Her "Cuisine Mei Wenti" classes also train ayis how to prepare Western and French food for their expat employers. There's a six-week course for ayis.

Many families give their ayis cooking classes as a gift to further their training, Guinebault says, hoping they will be able to help design menus.

"I love to work with the ayis because you are with them from the beginning to the end and they improve a lot," she says. "At the beginning they are very hesitant but what I love about the Chinese is they love to learn. The ayis know it is a great opportunity to learn new skills, so they work hard."

Classes end with the ayis eating a lunch they have prepared. They include cooking homework and the ayis take in dishes they have prepared on their own for Guinebault to taste.

At the end of their six-week course, ayis can prepare a variety of full three-course meals.

"Some of our ayis like the food so much that they start preparing French and Western food for their own families," Guinebault says.

Food and multicultural cuisine were always a part of family life for Guinebault, whose grandparents lived in Morocco. She was born in the tropical climes of Reunion Island off Madagascar.

Her parents spent 10 years living in the French territory and its mixture of African, Chinese and Indian cultures made for a heady mix of herbs and spices when the Guinebault sat at the dinner table.

"My mother cooked every day, and eating healthy home-cooked food was a big part of our lives," she says. "She cooked a lot of Chinese food and used Indian spices. We always used cumin, coriander and ginger at home, even though cumin has only been used more widely in France in the past 10 years."

But it wasn't a career in food or hospitality that first attracted Guinebault, instead she pursued business, completing a marketing degree in France.

But after graduating in 2005, food was never far from her focus, as she did marketing work for companies selling spices and biscuits.

She later worked for well-known French soap brand Cadum, which was attempting to reposition the brand.

When her boyfriend was posted to Shanghai, the couple fulfilled a long-held dream to live in Asia, moving to China in mid-2006.

Guinebault studied Mandarin Chinese at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The cooking classes began as a once-a-month venture, partly to develop her Chinese language skills, but they quickly became a viable career.

She now also teaches evening classes for young professionals; some students have been regulars since she began her classes in mid-2007.

"I get to meet some fantastic people and they get to learn something new. Through these classes, hopefully, I am giving something back to China."

Olivia Guinebault

Nationality: French

Age: 28

Profession: Cooking teacher and author


Description of self:

Enthusiastic, natural, passionate.

Favorite place: The lanes around the Old Town area.

Worse experience: When my bike was stolen.

Motto for life: Enjoy a healthy life.

Advice to newcomers:

Learn Chinese as soon as possible and create opportunities to get to know Chinese people.


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