“…I realized that despite whatever difficulties I faced, life has still been very good to me. That’s when I knew that I had to find a way to give back; blessings just aren’t as nice when you keep them for yourself. I’ve always been a big believer in education; I was a school teacher before I became a chef. I also love reading books, so it was natural for me to want to build libraries in public schools that need them. If any of the libraries I help build gets even one kid to start reading, then all of this will have been worth it.” – SHARWIN TEE, Chef and TV Host
Just before 2017 came to an end, we asked Chef Sharwin Tee about his year’s highlight. He told us briefly about his pledge to raise funds to build public libraries, and how he had recently raised enough money for the project. Naturally, this piqued our curiosity. Partly because, well, the Curiosity Got the Chef TV Host spoke about it with such enthusiasm in a little snippet he sent to us for LN Achievement Unlocked, and partly because it was such an inspiring act of paying things forward. And you know us–we always love a good dose of positivity and inspiration:
After talking to Chef Sharwin more about the project, we learned how it’s actually a no-frills, straightforward commitment on his part to raise money for libraries. “This whole library project is mostly a personal thing, so there’s no formal name or plan. It is basically me using popups to raise enough money to build a public school library,” Chef Sharwin shares. He then hands over the funds to AHON (Acts of Hope for the Nation) Foundation, a non-profit NGO which focuses on building libraries in public schools that need the help.
One of AHON’s previous Facebook posts, inviting people to attend Chef Sharwin’s pop-up event in Quezon City, Philippines.
It turns out that for the past two years, the chef has been cooking in different pop-ups around the world, and has been saving money from his public appearance earnings as well to gather enough to donate to the cause.
To date, Chef Sharwin’s project has already helped build a public library in Camarines Sur, and another one is in progress in Davao.
We asked Chef Sharwin a few more questions and learned a lot along the way. In the interview below, you’ll find out about some of the challenges he faced while he was doing the pop-ups, and also catch a glimpse of his heart for education and empowering the youth.
What inspired you to make the pledge, and why did you choose to build public libraries in particular?
2015 was not a particularly good year for me personally, so I was a bit down on myself, but early in 2016 as I took my previous year in stock, I realized that despite whatever difficulties I faced, life has still been very good to me. That’s when I knew that I had to find a way to give back; blessings just aren’t as nice when you keep them for yourself. I’ve always been a big believer in education; I was a school teacher before I became a chef. I also love reading books, so it was natural for me to want to build libraries in public schools that need them. If any of the libraries I help build gets even one kid to start reading, then all of this will have been worth it.
Can you tell us about your journey, cooking in different pop-ups around the world? What challenges did you encounter and how did you keep going?
I initially thought of doing several popups in Manila, but early in 2016, I met the ladies at Filipino Kitchen,and they expressed interest in collaborating to do popups in the US, particularly in San Francisco and Chicago. So in that year, I did three popups around Manila plus one each in San Francisco and Chicago.
In the end, I augmented the funds I raised with money I earned in public appearances, and it was enough to build a library! In May of 2017, we officially opened the library in Manuel Garza Elementary School in Camarines Sur.
With that success, I was inspired to do more in 2017. I did five popups in the Philippines, including one in BGC, two in QC and 2 in Davao. Then I did three popups in the US–Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit. Now, I’m looking forward to opening a library in Davao.
As with any undertaking involving the kitchen, there were a lot of challenges. I would say the toughest would be getting the word out to get people to come to the events. Traffic’s bad, and there are so many events and new restaurants that sometimes, my events would be lost in the hubbub and convince them to come.
Another challenge is money. Since my popups are all about raising funds, I had to price the food in such a way as to cover all costs (venue, ingredients and servers and cooks) and make a profit without making it too expensive. In a crowded Manila food scene, it’s hard to get people’s attention and hard to convince them to part with their hard-earned cash for a meal. I just try to make a menu that would make it worth your while to try.
Fortunately, the events were somehow blessed, and each one of them was sold out!
What are your key takeaways and learnings from this project?
One of the biggest things I learned since starting all of this is to never underestimate the importance of a good thing. Throughout my first year of doing this, I was always besieged with questions about the perceived dwindling of a library’s significance in the modern world. People kept telling me that maybe libraries were not as important since this is the age of tablets, smartphones, and laptops but when I saw the teachers’, parents’, and children’s faces when we opened that first library, I knew those fears are unfounded. Maybe if you have access to tablets and smartphones, libraries are no big deals, but back in May when we opened the library, they were so excited to see and use that library, and that pretty much made me even more sure of continuing this yearly project of mine.
The other takeaway is the value of talking about it. When I started this project of mine, I wanted to keep it quiet; after all, I was only after the libraries and not the publicity. A conversation with a friend changed my mind. He mentioned the possibility of maybe inspiring others if I mentioned what I was doing. I was still iffy about it, but talking about this project has indeed helped. By talking about it, I have found people like Filipino Kitchen, Guerilla Street Food of St Louis and Sarap Detroit, just to name a few who have stepped up and helped me.
Who knows, maybe there are others we don’t know about who were inspired? I hope there are.
“One of the biggest things I learned since starting all of this is to never underestimate the importance of a good thing.” -Chef Sharwin