Cool food by cool girls.
There aren’t many teenagers who are so focused on their dream they’ll launch a business to make it a reality. And there are even fewer who will work long hours, six days a week, to give it the best chance to become a success. But that’s exactly what Elora Chang did, when at the age of 18 she started Madame Lu’s cooking school and catering business with her sister Chelsea. A little more than a year later, the entrepreneurial pair are in hot demand, with their Nelson cooking classes regularly selling out, and people from as far afield as Sydney wanting them to cater weddings, birthdays and anniversaries.
“When we launched we didn’t know if the idea was going to work or not,” says Elora. “But we have been really surprised that people love our food and love what we do.”
Elora had just finished her first year studying communications at Massey University and Chelsea had recently completed a degree in hospitality management when they decided to go into business together. Having both studied in Wellington, the sisters were keen to return to their hometown of Nelson and find work there, but felt the opportunities were limited. “Nelson is a pretty small place, so getting a job here doing what you want to do is pretty hard,” explains Chelsea, 23.
“Our friends and family have always asked us how we cook certain dishes and how we make it look so easy, so we decided we should share our knowledge with everyone. There was no cooking school in Nelson, and while there are a few catering companies, our style is quite different – we have a wholefood approach.”
The whole package
The sisters’ passion for food is not only rooted in the hours they spent cooking with their mum Sharon as children, it is also driven by a conviction that good nutrition can have an immeasurable impact on health.
The diagnosis of their father, Steve, with dementia five years ago led to Elora doing copious research into the effect food has on the body.
“Cooking has always been a big family thing, but seeing Dad deteriorate all those years ago made us think about what he should be eating to help him – and introduced us to the health aspect of food,” says the former Waimea College student. “We became more focused on what we were putting in our bodies.”
The family’s wholefood ethos was cemented when Chelsea realised the eczema that had plagued her since childhood stopped when she avoided gluten and limited refined sugar. The sisters pledged that their business would cater for others who are restricted in what they can eat.
“Usually when you go to events there is a little plate off to the side for gluten-free people,” says Chelsea, who does most of the recipe development for Madame Lu’s. “We wanted to change that and make it the same for everyone. Our cooking classes are gluten-free, and mostly dairy-free as well.
“Our classes during the week are vegetarian, and for the other ones we make our recipes easily adaptable – so you can swap out the meats and the veges.”
What’s in a name?
Chelsea and Elora have travelled extensively with their travel agent mum, and their love of overseas cuisine is reflected both in the food they cook, which is predominantly Asian, and the name of their business.
Madame Lu’s is a reference to the Lu people of Vietnam, whose wholesome, aromatic cooking the family enjoyed while visiting southeast Asia.
“The Lu people are lovers of friendship and neighbourhood, sharing and caring for one another,” explains Elora, adding that this had the perfect synergy with their business, which has a purpose of bringing people together to communicate through food.
The ‘Madame’ part of their name is a nod to the French architecture in Vietnam, much of which is in need of renovation and which is not dissimilar to the original building from which Madame Lu’s now operates. A large 19th century villa on Nelson’s waterfront, it was owned but rented out by Chelsea and Elora’s parents for many years before they decided to give it a facelift and move in. Downstairs is a commercial kitchen – a gorgeous mixture of clean, white lines and rustic wood – while the family’s living area is upstairs.
Keen that the venture would turn a profit from the start, the sisters worked hard on doing everything themselves, from building their website and doing their own photography to working long hours to avoid having to hire any additional help.
“We didn’t actually have to invest much money in the beginning; we were able to use everything we made in the cooking school to fund all the gear – and it’s just grown from there,” reveals Chelsea, who spent time working in a commercial kitchen as part of her degree. “People would come to the cook school and say, ‘Hey, can you cater?’, then people would eat our catering and say, ‘Can I learn to make this?’”
As well as running cooking classes for up to 12 people at a time every weekend, with regular weekday classes too, last June the sisters launched a salad delivery service, making healthy lunches for customers at workplaces across Nelson. “It’s been really well received,” says Chelsea. “Currently we are doing it once a week, but we are looking at expanding and doing dinner deliveries as well.”
Staying on the boil
While their first year hasn’t been without challenges – not least catering a wedding in Lake Tekapo, eight hours from Nelson – Elora and Chelsea take it all in their stride. “There have been sleepless nights, definitely,” says Elora, now 19, adding that both she and her sister now try to compartmentalise their lives so work doesn’t take over; “We just don’t over-think things.”
Working with a sibling would be a mission in itself for many, but the pair seem to enjoy it. “It has its up and downs as any working relationship does, but it has been good,” says Chelsea with a smile. “I’m not a naturally confident person but my sister is, so I think we work well together. She can push me to do things she knows I’m capable of.”
One of their biggest hurdles has been convincing people to take them seriously given their youth. “Sometimes it can be difficult; people don’t expect us to be so young and don’t think we’ll be as good as we are,” Elora explains. “We surprise a lot of people. It can be scary, especially when you’re so young and you’re learning as you go, but I’m happy to be doing it.
“I love the people side of it – constantly meeting new people and building awesome relationships with our clients. Some come back class after class; we have one who has come to about seven classes.”
They put their success down to keeping their feet firmly on the ground and working hard. “We’re just ourselves and I think we’ve made ourselves approachable,” says Chelsea, whose food ethos is all about seasonal cooking which is simple but tasty. “We have pretty high standards as well, which I think helps.”
Hub of activity
Working full-time on the business, six days a week, hasn’t left them with much downtime. “Even when we’re not working, we’re still cooking; it’s never-ending with us,” says Elora with a laugh. And that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.
As marketing director, Elora wants to further develop their website and blog this year, but she will also be commuting to Dunedin each week. Having decided against finishing her communications degree at Massey while she launched Madame Lu’s, she has won a scholarship to do a degree in human nutrition at the University of Otago, and plans to juggle work and study. “I’ll just be flying back every weekend to do the cooking classes – it will be full on but we’ve got it all sorted,” she says.
Chelsea and Elora are also looking into selling packets of homemade snack truffles, which they trialed successfully at the Nelson Market last year, and they have big plans in the long term.
“The dream is to have a foodie hub, all about wholefood, health and wellbeing,” says Chelsea. “So people can come to the one place and get everything they need. While we love the house, it’s getting a bit small – the maximum we can take for a cooking class is 12 and we want to grow that.”
And with attitudes as sunny as the place where they live, coupled with seemingly endless reserves of energy, it’s hard to believe there’s anything Chelsea and Elora Chang can’t do.