SINGAPORE, Sept 7 — From Monday to Friday, Linah Lim works as a field service planner at a manufacturing firm. But come the weekend, she does what she loves — entertaining customers as a private dining chef through popular homegrown app Dine Inn.
The app, which is part of the sharing economy, allows customers to opt to dine privately at the chef's home, or receive the food as take-away, among other options. It's aimed at customers looking for a unique, intimate culinary experience.
Lim, who also goes by the moniker Chef Lina, graduated from noted cooking school Le Cordon Bleu London.
The 40-year-old worked for a year in a restaurant in London, but soon realised that it was not for her given the long hours and lack of freedom to create her own recipes.
“Working in a restaurant is different. You have to cook dishes that someone has invented. You have to follow their way and method. As a private chef, you can create your own dishes, something you can be proud of,” she said.
Founded in Singapore in 2016, the Dine Inn app currently boasts a total of 800 home chefs and 25,000 guests — a big jump from its original user base of 200 home chefs and 6,000 guests. It operates in Singapore and Malaysia.
Speaking to TODAY on August 28, Dine Inn co-founder Luke Lee said that he expects this number to continue to grow as private dining becomes more popular in Singapore.
Budding entrepreneurs and hobbyists told TODAY that they chose to become home chefs over opening their own restaurant due to the flexibility and low start-up costs that Dine Inn offers.
Take Namrata Shah, 42, and Sheeda Sokhaimi, 42, for example. Family and friends had encouraged the pair to turn their love for cooking into a business. However, the high start-up costs in an already saturated market made them hesitant to dive straight in.
“In Singapore, with every few steps you take there is a restaurant. So starting a business can work but it can also fail,” said Shah, who is also a homemaker.
With rising costs such as rent, utilities and overheads, apps like Dine Inn have become an increasingly popular option for both budding chefs seasoned operators.
Indeed, it was for this reason that Lee and co-founder chef Eric Teo — with a combined over 50 years in the food and beverage (F&B) business — set up Dine Inn.
“One day, Eric Teo and I were talking about how at this rate, the Singapore F&B industry will be in a very dire state. Running a business has become unsustainable, with all the rent and overhead costs,” he said.
Dine Inn lowers the cost barriers to entry to F&B.
“The kitchens are already available and the good thing is that it’s island-wide. The sharing economy has really opened up a lot of opportunities for people who are passionate about cooking and want to share their food,” Lee said.
How it works
When customers log into Dine Inn, there are four options: To dine at a host’s place, order takeaway, order a five-day tiered lunchbox “tingkat” delivery service or hire a chef for private dining. For takeaway and tingkat, customers can collect the food or get it delivered for a fee.
The chefs on the app are all required to go through a mandatory food and hygiene course. Lee and Teo also visit their homes to ensure that their kitchens are hygienic.
Lee also told TODAY that the chefs are allowed to operate under the Home-Based Small Scale Business Scheme, which allows residents to conduct small scale home-based activities to supplement their income as long as they follow Housing and Development Board (HDB) rules.
Flexibility a plus for hobbyists
Raynne Ong, 41, said that she was apprehensive the first time she opened her home to guests on the Dine Inn app.
“The first time was a bit stressful because we realised we had to make the house presentable and we were worried it would be awkward. But it turned out quite well and warmed us up a bit,” said Ong, who is a full-time real estate agent.
She enjoys sharing food ideas with guests and getting feedback. Ong — who goes by the username Live2eatlovelaugh — is doing mainly takeaway orders to fit in with her busy schedule.
For stay-at-home mother Berlinda Ezekiel, 43, the option to accept only take-away orders at her own convenience was a key attraction. With an 11-year-old daughter, inviting strangers into her home would be difficult.
Ezekiel specialises in Indian, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. “I don’t advertise my food as being authentic. What I try to do is put my own twist such that the dish is still light and refreshing while maintaining the aromatic flavours from the spices.”
Her toughest critics are her friends and family but their harsh and honest criticism is what challenges her to be innovative with her recipes and motivates her to improve her skills.
“To me, this is the satisfaction (of being a home chef). Of course if there’s a monetary gain, it’s a bonus, but for me it’s more of the self-fulfilment that I can actually help to open people to enjoying new flavours,” she said.
‘A mini hawker centre wherever you live’
As the app grows, Lee said that his ultimate goal is for Dine Inn to have a network of 3,000 to 5,000 home chefs across Singapore.
“We envision a day where you can wake up and order your favourite local food and pick it up from your neighbour. And instead of driving so far to a restaurant downtown, pay expensive parking and exorbitant corkage, you can choose to have an intimate private dining session.”
He said the priority now is for the home chefs to be able to tell their stories through their food and build a relationship with their patrons to keep them coming back for more.
“If there is no connection with the venue or with the chef, you probably won’t go and visit again. So the human angle is very important, because home chefs can really offer a unique culinary experience that restaurants cannot,” he said.
Inventing new ways to dine
Other than offering home cooked meals via private dining or a tingkat service, Dine Inn has also started running private dining pop-up events.
The Private Chef’s Table is a private dining event that brings Dine Inn’s best chefs to guests through a shared open kitchen space. Held in conjunction with The Singapore Food Festival, the first run was held from July 5 to 28.
Initiatives like these provide home chefs on the app, such as Ezekiel, who do not have the means to host customers in their homes the platform to try their hand at serving customers in a restaurant setting without having to sacrifice convenience and cost.
Ezekiel does not have plans to move to private dining nor open her own cafe. But the Private Chef’s Table is a doable next step.
“Home dining is something that I’ll consider if I have a conducive home. Now, with a young kid it’s not ideal. The (Private) Chef’s Table is something I want to do and I’ll probably progress to it first,” she said. — TODAY