Self-professed kitchen terror Sharon Au is now the CEO of her own cooking school

The former actress reveals what - or rather, who - inspired her to launch e-learning website Ti Yan Academy.

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France-based Sharon Au may be back in Singapore for almost two months, but she clarified that she isn’t actually on leave from her job as an investment director at a private equity firm. Thanks to the wonders of technology, she’s able to work remotely on her laptop wherever she is in the world - but there’s also another more important reason why she says it’s “pointless” for her to return to her European home for now.

“Paris is at a standstill - you can forget about going anywhere!” the former actress exclaimed, referring to transport strikes over pension reforms that have gripped the city for weeks. “Before I came to Singapore, I was stuck at home for 10 days.”

During the time she was cooped up in her cosy apartment with a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower (we certainly wouldn’t complain), the 44-year-old took the opportunity to clean up the website for her new “baby”, a culinary e-learning platform called Ti Yan Academy that offers a variety of online courses in French cooking.

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Sharon in her lovely Paris apartment. (Photos: Instagram/Sharon Au)

The school was officially launched at a long and wine-filled media luncheon at the Dempsey Cookhouse & Bar on December 19, which is where we had the opportunity to catch up with Sharon. She told us that the idea to start Ti Yan was born during her many restaurant-hopping adventures in Paris, where she discovered that the chefs were very friendly and would often be more than happy to share about their food.

“So I gave them this hypothetical situation: if I could create a website teaching people the way you prepare your dishes, would you be willing to do some videos for it? And they were all very open to working with me!” she shared. “In fact, they found it quite strange that nobody had ever approached them with such a good and obvious idea before. Their response gave me the confidence to embark on this journey.”

Two other people who inspired Sharon were singer Tanya Chua and actress Jeanette Aw, both of whom followed their passion for baking and enrolled in pastry-making courses. “This showed me that people are interested and are even willing to go all the way to Paris even though the classes are very expensive! So I thought, I should create something that’s more affordable for everybody,” she explained.

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Tanya Chua and Jeanette Aw are known for their love of baking. (Photos: Instagram/Tanya Chua, Jeanette Aw)

Ironically, however, Sharon admitted that she isn’t exactly a domestic goddess herself. “I’m very talented… but not in this area,” she said sheepishly. “My friends ban me from the kitchen because they say that whenever I enter, it will end up looking like a war zone. I mess everything up! I even burned a pot once, which was very bad because it could have been very dangerous.”

This is why she vowed to be one of the first to sign up for a module at Ti Yan Academy. Then, once she’s no longer at risk of destroying utensils or lighting entire rooms on fire, she would love to attempt to make two of her favourite French dishes, confit de canard (duck confit) and tarte tatin (a caramelised apple pastry). Yum - or should we say, miam!

By now, some of you may be wondering: why give a French cooking school a Chinese name? Well, according to Sharon, she and her team did consider “a lot of other rubbish names” in French at first, but they were all too cliché (like “bonjour” or “c'est la vie”) or easily mispronounced (and having the general public butcher your brand name is a big non-non).

“We eventually ran out of French words, and I said, must it be in French? Since we can’t think of a better name, I suggested the name ‘Ti Yan’, which means ‘experience’ in Mandarin, because experiences are essentially what triggered my idea to launch the website, and experiences are what I hope the website will give people as well,” she said.

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Once Sharon becomes a better cook, she can whip up her own plate of duck confit. (Photos: Instagram/Sharon Au)

Unsurprisingly, her proposal was met with disagreement, but Sharon managed to win everyone over by arguing that as long as a brand and its contents are good, its name does not matter.

“Take successful companies like Facebook and Alibaba for example - these are such horrible names, but when you make so much money, who cares? You could spend an entire year brainstorming up a great name, but it’s no use if the brand itself sucks.” Point taken.

As for how much money she spent on her new venture, Sharon initially declined to divulge a specific figure… until we showed her a Straits Times interview that reveals she poured in S$100,000. “That was supposed to be off the record!” she fumed, before calming down enough to add, “It’s going to be an ongoing investment because I want to expand Ti Yan and introduce people to the other soft powers of France besides food, such as wine tasting and opera appreciation.”

With so much on her plate (pun intended) and no immediate plans to move back to the Lion City, Sharon doesn’t see herself taking on hosting and acting gigs again anytime soon (although she will be appearing in Toy Factory Productions play 7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove on January 31 and February 1 at the Esplanade Theatre, FYI).

“That was another lifetime ago,” she mused. “But that’s why - not that I wanna praise myself - I really like the name I came up with, ‘Ti Yan’, because you experience different things at every stage of life, and you just have to go with the flow and there are some things you can’t go back to.”

Well, who knows? Maybe that “flow” will bring Sharon back to our sunny shores sooner than we think - and perhaps by then, she’ll be a better cook.

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Many of Sharon’s celeb pals came to support her, including DJs Glenn Ong, Jean Danker, and The Flying Dutchman, and her BFF Michelle Chong.

For more information on Ti Yan Academy, visit the official website here.

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