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Clara Ming Pi FFCSI: first lady of foodservice

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At the FCSI EAME 2018 Conference in Rotterdam, Clara Ming Pi was inducted into the FCSI Council of Fellows, which recognises extraordinary contributions by Society members. Helen Roxburgh speaks with her about her career

Clara Pi’s career in the food industry spans 40 years, several continents, and an array of record-breaking achievements. During her professional life, Pi has specialised in cook-chill central production kitchens, computerised foodservice management systems, and more recently, reducing the carbon footprint of the foodservice profession.

Her early focus was science, and old habits die hard; as she relates the experiences of her career, she sketches out a precise diagram to document her extraordinary life shifts across the globe.

An international childhood was instrumental in directing her career. Her parents were respected food scientists who produced bio-diesel for the military during the Sino-Japanese war of the 1930s.

They later moved from China to Taiwan after the Communists took power, and it was into these turbulent political times Pi was born. A few years later, the family moved to Malaysia, where her parents worked on a project to create bio-diesel from cassava plants.

“I learned to speak English and Malay, and I came to understand the food from the Malays and the Hindus,” she remembers. “I was 10 when we moved to Malaysia, and my parents were busy. My brother and I had to cook for the whole family, so I started to read recipe books and test new recipes. I loved cooking.”

Science and food

After a few years in Malaysia and a few more back in Taiwan, the family emigrated once again, this time to Quebec, Canada. After studying computer science and biochemistry, she chose Food Science at McGill University, majoring in Dietetics.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the course there because it was so practical. My professors were sent to third world countries to help with malnutrition and identify different problems, and advise local people how best to cook local crops to improve their health. My professor was the first in Canada doing research into genetic engineering,” she says. “The teaching was so practical, and to this day I treasure that association between science and food.”

After graduating from McGill in 1975, Pi had a summer job working in a holiday resort, which also made an impression due to the owners’ eco commitments.

“They were pioneering – growing their own salads without using pesticides and using enzymes to digest food waste,” Pi says. “It was a German resort so I learned all the German recipes. I would cook them then run upstairs and write them all down. I still have the cheesecake recipe memorised in my head. I’m telling you, it is the best cheesecake.”

Pi went on to the University of British Columbia, completing an MSc in Human Nutrition, focusing on the impact of changing food habits on immigrants. Those skills were put to the test in her first job as a kitchen supervisor in a care home in Canada, where she met an East Indian patient who was refusing to eat.

“Her family had put her there and she was totally depressed. Of course, they didn’t have any East Indian food for her. I was the only one there who knew about Indian food from my time in Malaysia so I tried making rotis, curries and daal for her. When I gave her those dishes she started to eat, and gradually gained weight and started to get better. I felt good to be able to use food to help people recover. All these big Canadian cooks were looking down on me, this little Chinese girl, and wondering what I was doing running around with rotis.”

Innovating and volunteering

Her next role as a dietician in Burnaby Hospital, British Columbia, enabled her to use her computer science background. She created the first computerised nutrition and foodservice management hospital system in North America.

When her director at the hospital retired in 1987, she applied for and got the job as director for food and nutrition services. “At that time not many Chinese were at management level and even my mother said I wouldn’t get it,” Pi recalls.

Keen to improve the food systems, she started looking into the emerging area of cook-chill technology.

“I paid my own way to Europe to visit hospitals and sites and see these things being done,” she says. “I didn’t want to just read about it, I wanted to see for myself and taste the food.”

After various research trips, she pioneered another first; the only cook-chill CPU in a Canadian hospital. She went on to share her expertise at the International Congress of Dietetics conference in the Philippines in 1996, after which some delegates asked her to give a similar talk in Hong Kong, and then to work on a pilot programme in the city’s Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital.

“After that, they wanted to expand the pilot programme,” she says. “In Canada, when I converted to cook-chill it took about six years, and I had to calculate every penny I needed and justify the return on investment. It was tough. But in Hong Kong there’s so much money floating around, I named a very rough figure and they just said: ‘You’ve got it’.”

She became the Hong Kong East Cluster Catering Service Manager, serving 14 hospitals with cook-chill foods, obtaining ISO 9001 certification, and implementing a cold-plating, kitchen-less model – the first in Asia.

This expertise in cook-chill was also used when she volunteered with the relief effort in Huaxi hospital in the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 in southwest China, which killed 69,227 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless and injured.

“I had to reactivate the cook-chill centre and I persuaded companies to donate cook-chill bags, parts and time to make sure everything worked. The population that needed to be fed had increased maybe four times – they were not just feeding the patients, but relatives, volunteers, staff and the medical team.

“It was quite an experience. The people there were so positive and so strong. When I was working in the kitchen, all the staff there had family in the countryside the earthquake had devastated. Once in a while someone would hear bad news about their parents or relatives, and we would stop and hug each other, then go back to work. It was really amazing.”

Carbon neutral pioneer

One of the most recent shifts in her career came from a growing concern about the food industry’s environmental impact. After joining the FCSI Worldwide Board in 2005, she helped organise the 2006 Edinburgh conference, which awakened her to the concept of carbon footprints. She decided that when it came to the 2008 FCSI conference in Beijing they should make changes.

“I decided we need to be responsible for our own carbon footprint on this planet. So I went to the FCSI Worldwide board and said: ‘I want to make this conference carbon neutral,’ and they said: ‘Yep, go ahead. How do you do that?’ I told them we need to plant trees.”

Since that first carbon neutral conference in 2008, Pi has been pioneering efforts to make FCSI conferences carbon neutral. Every year, FCSI donates hundreds of trees to be planted in Inner Mongolia to offset the carbon footprint, and over a decade thousands have been planted, most of which Pi has supervised.

“Can you imagine – we actually have a stone plaque in Inner Mongolia, in the middle of where we planted all the trees, with FCSI on it,” she says. Pi is now a committed vegan, author of a bilingual cookbook showing the carbon footprint of every recipe, and she introduced Meatless Mondays across hospitals in Eastern Cluster of Hong Kong.

“I also ran a meat replacement programme, where I took out 30% of meat and replaced it with plant proteins, increased fibre and increased protein at lower cost. Did you know that Hong Kong, per capita, has the highest meat intake in the world? This is why we are seeing little kids with type 2 diabetes.”

Other FCSI achievements include working with Hotelex Shanghai, where FCSI has an annual exhibition and hosts a series of events, as well as co-ordinating local events for FCSI members, and as head judge leading a panel of FCSI professional members at the FHA Singapore SCI Equipment Awards and the Asian Catering Equipment Awards.

Pi is an adjunct professor at Hong Kong University, and works as a consultant in mainland China for Shanghai Jiahui International Hospital and the China Geriatric Nutrition Society. She is a strong advocate for change in the profession.

“The dietician might be focused on treating the patient in the hospital, but how long is the patient in the hospital? What happens once they are out in the community? You need a good support system across the profession to make sure the patient doesn’t get sick again and need to go back into the hospital,” she says.

“We can’t just look at our own little piece of the industry, and not think more about where our food is coming from. I think if we want to grow as foodservice consultants, and add value for our clients, we can help them in a more holistic way. We need to look at the whole picture.”

Helen Roxburgh