Zen Soo and Alice Fung
HONG KONG (AP) — Located smack in the middle of Hong Kong’s bustling Mong Kok neighbourhood, Dignity Kitchen offers an array of mouthwatering Singaporean fare — from piping-hot laksa (noodles in a spicy coconut milk broth) to fragrant slices of chiffon cake flavoured with the essence of pandan leaves.
But what sets Dignity Kitchen apart from other restaurants in the city is that it is a social enterprise, almost entirely staffed by employees with physical or mental disabilities. The restaurant trains disabled employees to prep food and cook, as well as serve customers.
“It’s important to help the disabled or the disadvantaged people, because they are at society’s bottom of the pyramid,” said the restaurant’s founder Koh Seng Choon, a sprightly 61-year-old Singaporean entrepreneur who launched the restaurant in January.
“They are the people who need help. If we can get them a job, they will be out of the poverty cycle.”
Ultimately, Dignity Kitchen aims to place its employees in other jobs in the food and beverage sector so it can then welcome and train new groups of differently abled people.
Koh first came up with the concept in his hometown of Singapore, but later decided to do the same in Hong Kong after the city’s government invited him to open a branch.
The kitchen is expansive, modelled after a food court in Singapore. The drink stall is operated by a deaf employee, and printed diagrams at the stall encourage customers to learn simple sign language when it comes to drink requests, or even to sign “thank you”.
At the claypot rice stall, an employee with autism — who, according to Koh could barely communicate with strangers before his training — enthusiastically introduces the dish to customers who ask about it.
“We used to prepare a script for him,” said Koh, smiling proudly. “But now, eight months, nine months later, he can’t stop talking.”
The training they get at Dignity Kitchen not only equips them with useful skills but also aids them in getting the self-respect and dignity that they may have lacked, Koh said.
Ming Chung, who has visual disabilities, found employment at Dignity Kitchen as an administrative assistant. Using voice-to-text technology, Chung coordinates with other organisations and handles email as well as phone inquiries.
“Director (Koh) told me that he doesn’t care about our disabilities, he only focusses on our abilities,” Chung said. “This really inspired me and touched my heart.”
Others, like Carol Wong, who is mildly intellectually disabled, has picked up knife skills at the restaurant that could eventually be transferable to food preparation roles in the industry.
“At first I was afraid, but since I started working in this restaurant, I’ve become unafraid of chopping food,” she said.
The kitchen has drawn customers in with its social mission and offers them the option of buying meals for the less unfortunate in the city.
“I think this is very meaningful, so we’ve come to try,” said Lisa Gu, a customer who visited Dignity Kitchen for a bowl of laksa. “The food is also delicious.”