Rahel Stephanie: the chef creating cultural dialogue through food

With her Indonesian supper club Spoons, the food entrepreneur is advocating for authentic East and Southeast Asian flavours in the UK

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With her Indonesian supper club Spoons, the food entrepreneur is advocating for authentic East and Southeast Asian flavours in the UK

By Megan Wallace26 Apr 2023
9 mins read time
9 mins read time

To celebrate our first birthday, woo has curated a list of our ones. The people in our wooniverse who are redefining fashion, music, clubs, culture and much more.

We think of food in terms of consumption: of what it gives us, of how it tastes, of how it looks in our social content. But this one-sided, transactional way of approaching cuisine diminishes the social dimensions which filter – sometimes unperceived but always present – through taste profiles and palates. See, food is a life-force, it’s community and it’s culture.

For Rahel Stephanie, this wider picture approach to food is never out of frame. The chef, food writer and entrepreneur first moved to London from Jakarta as a fashion student 10 years ago. Noting the lack of Indonesian cuisine in the UK capital, she resolved to learn how to make her favourite dishes from her home country on her own, poring over Indonesian cookbooks and turning to YouTube tutorials as part of the process.

As her talent for cooking progressed, her friends would encourage her to open her own restaurant – something which, at the time, felt out of reach. But when she was introduced to the concept of supper clubs, everything fell into place and she launched Spoons; her very own Indonesian, plant-based food pop-up. Beyond sharing her passion for cooking and cuisine, her mission with Spoons was to plug the gap in representation that she encountered when she first moved to London – as well as to showcase authentic Indonesian flavours beyond cultural white-washing for the western palate.

"I'd love to see people becoming more open-minded in educating themselves about the historical and cultural contexts of food from marginalised cultures"

Describe what you do in your own words.

I'm a chef, food writer and entrepreneur. I specialise in and I am so, so passionate about Indonesian cuisine.

How did you get into your chosen career?

I used to post loads of the Indonesian cooking that I'd whip up at home on my Instagram stories. Friends would often reply saying, "Open a restaurant!” I’d just laugh that off because in this economy? As if I had all the money and resources in the world to open a restaurant. Then, one day, a good friend of mine introduced me to the idea of supper clubs, essentially ticketed dinner parties. To me, it sounded like a low commitment, low risk way of sharing my cuisine with larger numbers of people.

So I started my Indonesian supper club Spoons in late 2019 as a means to share delicious and little-known recipes from my country with friends. A big motivation, of course, is putting authentic Indonesian flavours firmly on the western map. Since moving here, I noticed loads of inaccurate and diluted representations of my cuisine. To me, my practice serves as a way of reclaiming and celebrating the foods of my heritage. Spoons has evolved far beyond a tasty menu and has become a cultural dialogue and a way for me to share the rich history and diversity of Indonesian cuisine with a wider audience.

Are there any upcoming projects we should look out for?

I've got loads of exciting events planned for the rest of the year including lots of pop-ups and a fundraiser in aid of trans communities in Indonesia which is in collaboration with Eastern Margins and Baesianz, where I'll be serving up Indonesian lunch boxes. I'm also working on a recipe zine dedicated to Indonesian cuisine due out later this summer.

What’s one thing you’d like to see change in the world?

Growing up in between Jakarta and Singapore, my palate had always been blessed with authentic East and Southeast Asian flavours. However, moving to London over ten years ago for my studies was a bit of a culture shock. I noticed widespread inaccurate representations of Indonesian cuisine and I found almost no Indonesian restaurants. I was compelled to reclaim my culture and correct misconceptions of the cuisine. Looking more broadly at Asian food’s presence in the city, I was also surprised to find the lack of regional restaurants. I would notice how pan-Asian menus tend to be the norm, with satay in Thai restaurants, gyoza in Chinese ones, tempura in Vietnamese places.

This adaptation of menus to meet Western expectations may seem convenient and effective in the short term, but it perpetuates a wider issue of cultural erasure. This is in no way an insult to the hardworking Asian food entrepreneurs of the UK, many of whom were first-generation immigrants using their food culture to establish themselves and their businesses in a new country, where other jobs were hard to come by. But the lack of regional representation and accuracy is a reflection of wider cultural expectations that need to be addressed.

As an industry, we need to strike a balance between providing authenticity and context while also meeting demand. This can only happen through honest conversations and a collective effort to celebrate and preserve the rich diversity of regional Asian cuisine. I'd love to see people becoming more open-minded in educating themselves about the historical and cultural contexts of food from marginalised cultures. It’s about having conversations. Specifically, my hope for the Indonesian food scene in the UK is to celebrate true portrayals of Indonesians, be it in the restaurant sector or in media coverage.

Is there anything you do that you think helps that change along?

I’m a strong believer in the importance of real representation of the food that comes from marginalised communities. I’m passionate about collaborating specifically with other Indonesians in the UK as it not only emboldens the Indonesian reputation here as a whole, but mutually builds individual strength. The more diverse the demographic of Indonesian people involved, the more nuanced and multifaceted the representation of our heritage becomes.

"One lesson that's changed my life is to remove any egos and to not be afraid to ask for help and support"

What’s the one thing in your career you’re most proud of?

In the past two years I've thrown annual day parties in aid of LGBTQIA+ communities in Indonesia – serving up meal boxes, in collaboration with Eastern Margins and Baesianz. Last year, we fed about 200 people and raised around £5,000 for trans communities in Indonesia. I continue to do some smaller fundraisers in between these, like through cake raffles, but doing it at that scale was amazing.

It still brings me to the brink of tears because a lot of people don't realise how much further the pound goes back home in Indonesia. Twenty pounds is enough for a person to live on through a week. Doing what I can to give back to my community in Indonesia is something I'm passionate about and want to continue to do, and making use of my privileged position living here in London is something I'm really grateful to be able to do.

Is there any one thing you do on the regular to take care of your mental health?

Doing something I'm really passionate about, my project becomes an extension of myself. It can be pretty easy to lose hold of your schedule, so I try my best to make sure to schedule in time where I really take my mind off things. This can be something really simple like taking a walk and leaving my phone at home or playing the piano. It's still something I struggle to get myself to stick to but I'm working on it because I know it always helps keep me from feeling overwhelmed.

What’s one lesson that’s changed your life?

To remove any egos and to not be afraid to ask for help and support. At worst, you get ghosted and at best, you're provided a resource from those whose expertise you value and look up to! I've learnt so much from those around me.

What’s one moment in your career that you will cherish forever?

Quitting my day job and taking the leap to do what I do full-time. I never thought I'd be pursuing a career in food, doing what I love and advocating for my culture and heritage as a career.

What’s one thing you want to achieve in the next year?

I'm working on a recipe zine that I'm really excited about. It's coming out later this summer, and I can't wait to share it as a sneak peak into what that hypothetical cookbook could look like. I’ve also been blessed with the opportunities of bringing my cooking to different parts of the world through pop ups.

Recently, I've had the pleasure of showcasing my dishes in Australia and Indonesia, and it's been an amazing opportunity to share my love of food with new audiences. But what I'm really excited about is bringing Indonesian cuisine to even more cities and introducing people to the flavours and traditions of my heritage. It's something that I'm truly passionate about and I'm looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

Who’s your number one fan?

My younger sister, Becky, who lives in Melbourne. She's my best friend and my soulmate, yet we're so far away from each other. She knows me better than anyone in this world and is my biggest believer.

Who’s number one on your speed dial?

My sister Becky!

Name one person who’s killing the game right now?

Angela Dimayuga. Her cookbook Filipinx is one of my favourites published in recent years. A beautiful book honouring the filipinx diaspora, she celebrates the importance of food as a medium to community building in an unapologetic way. It's so of its time and unlike a lot of more traditional cookbooks. I'm a big fan.

What’s one piece of clothing you can’t live without?

My mother gifted me a beautiful Ulos, a piece of textile native to my Indonesian ethnic tribe of Batak. I don't necessarily regularly wear this but it's something I definitely won't ever let go of. I live very far away from my mother who is based in Indonesia and it makes me feel close to her despite the distance.

Get to know all of woo's ones here.