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Upskilling: An entrepreneur’s silver lining in the pandemic

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

Ruq has taken on many hats in the past 40 years of her career. She was at one point, an engineer, a conference organiser, a techno entrepreneur. Now as a home cooking entrepreneur, she’s facing her latest challenge yet - COVID-19. Get a glimpse of how she found the strength to ride out the pandemic.

Ruqxana Vasanwala and I were seated across one another at her part-workstation part-home situated along Fidelio Street at Simei as she took us a trip down memory lane.

The attempt to recount the peaks and troughs of her life leading up to this moment was almost cathartic. After all, she has already taken on such a diverse portfolio of roles and industries over the course of her career.

At 60 years old, it seems like her journey has only just begun.

Ruq’s gung-ho attitude towards life’s trials and tribulations is a testament to her resilience when push comes to shove. Parts of Ruq’s larger-than-life personality translate into elements that make up the physical space surrounding us.

Sitting in front of her house lies a rustic Volkswagen Beetle, which Ruq has on multiple occasions, switched off its engine and playfully slid downslope before parking nicely outside the home.

A quiet serenity wraps the exterior of her home. Her front porch - generously decorated with oriental pieces, handcrafted wood furniture, and climbing vines - was reminiscent of Balinese villas facing rice terraces that were carved into the hills.

Her seven cats, all quirkily named after kitchen spices, sprawled across all corners of her home at the most unusual of sleeping spots.

Cat of Cookery Magic
Exhibit One: Cat on stove

And finally, the place where all the magic happens: her outdoor kitchen. A gentle juxtaposition exists between modern and tradition. Amidst the trendy bar stools and gasoline stoves surrounding her island countertop, you can find traditional kitchen relics passed down from one generation to another. Just occasionally, the batu giling (grindstone) laying at the corner might just momentarily outshine its charismatic owner.

No stranger to life’s turbulences

There’s a quiet conviction about Ruq, founder of Cookery Magic, a home cooking business established in 2001. While COVID-19 may have been unlike anything she has experienced before, Ruq was never the type to opt for the safer route.

Ruq graduated with a diploma in mechanical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic. True to her nature as a born rebel, she took up engineering at that time because she “wanted to make a statement” in a male-dominated industry.

She spent the first four years of her career as an engineer. Though intrinsically, she never truly aligned with the field.

“I did it because I had to do it, I didn’t have the guts to get out of it.”

When she was retrenched after her last engineering company closed down, she found a silver lining to muster the courage to try for a career switch.

Ruq went on to join the conference management industry as an organiser, and soon after that stint, she also started and ran her own IT startup for a few years.

Reflecting on her techno entrepreneur journey, she recalled challenging moments that pushed her to the edge. Until business gained momentum, Ruq and her co-founders had to go without salary for eight months.

“People invited me for birthdays, I would say no, I’m busy because I couldn’t afford birthday presents,” she said.

“Yes, of course it was scary, but you just try and make the best of what you can.”

The Origins of Cookery Magic

Cliche as it sounds when we marvel at how unexpected life turns out to be, it’s exactly what led to the inception of Cookery Magic.

The inspiration behind starting her longest-lasting, passion-sustained career was a serendipitous moment in the home kitchen of a Japanese woman in Tokyo.

Even decades later, Ruq still sang praises of that profound encounter. The experience of immersing herself in someone’s home in a foreign country spurred her to start something similar of her own.

Ruq’s first class was more of “an informal get-together”, where she was approached by her friends to hold a Thai green curry cooking class. Word spread and soon after, she started to receive emails from people that she did not know.

“It wasn’t planned for, I didn’t have a name for the class,” she said.

The very same narrative of how Cookery Magic also kept business thriving for the next two decades to come. Her business enjoyed a quiet yet consistent success riding on the power of referrals, which had led to both local and foreign press coverage.

Classes are always hands-on and close to nature | Credit: Cookery Magic

“People just started coming - I did not advertise, I had no marketing, no budget, nothing. I just went with the flow,” Ruq added.

Ruq has received a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor as one of the best-rated workshops and classes in Singapore. She was also listed on Lonely Planet, notable travel guide publisher.

The most memorable of it all? Being made Singapore Tourism’s Board Passion Ambassador in 2018. Among many perks that came along with it, Ruq found most fulfilment from being able to represent Singapore abroad.