Meet our That Mama, Helen Scott, founder of Mango Menus!
This week, we sit down with Hong Kong foodie, Helen Scott of Mango Menus. Helen is a former banker who left the hectic, long working hours away from her children to spend more time with them at home. And in doing so, she was able to embrace her life long love of food and cooking and launch her website, Mango Menus, which she’s been running since 2013. We sit down with Helen and chat about her popular website, what she loves most about Hong Kong, her tricks on how to deal with picky eaters and her secret to managing two business (yes, two! Read on.) while raising two children with another on the way!
Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you end up in Hong Kong?
I was born and raised in London where I met my Scottish husband in 2005. We were friends for a year before we started dating which all began after too much toffee vodka on a ski trip! We married in 2009 and were both working in Banking at the time. A couple of months later, he was offered a new job in HK while I was aware they were hiring in my Asian office. He took the new job, and I was offered a transfer, so a move to Hong Kong just seemed like fate.
What inspired you to create Mango Menus?
I had my first child in 2011 and went back to work after maternity leave. I struggled with the long hours away from home. After falling pregnant with my second in 2012, I decided to take a break from the industry. I had long harboured a passion for food, so was looking for ways to embrace this in a potentially profitable way, as well as maintain a flexible work and home life. I had the idea for a foodie website in HK, mainly for expats since that was the angle I was coming from, although I believe my audience is broader now. I started writing Mango Menus in the summer of 2013 and went live with the site in October that year. It now comprises a food shopping guide for HK, a collection of my recipes, menu planning aids, HK restaurant reviews and a blog.
I wrote the retail guide because I found the food shopping experience here to be very different from that in the UK, and I wanted to share my findings with fellow expats. You often have to visit several stores to find the ingredients for a single recipe, and imports can be (understandably) expensive. So I try to help my readers find the best deals on the finest ingredients as well as educating them on local substitutes. Did you know for example that the hairy gourd in the wet market can be used in place of courgette in most recipes?!
I am also a big planner. I like to map out my week in terms of work, kids, and social activities fairly early on, and meal planning comes with that. Many of my friends would ask me for help. Once, one friend invited me to lunch one day purely to quiz me over what to feed her sons for the week ahead. I realized then there was a market for my crazy menu planning ability, so I created the lunchbox ideas for public access on the site as well as a bespoke planning service. The recipe section reflects my love of cooking, writing and food photography. And I am also able to monetize that aspect by working with the local suppliers that I love, to help market their produce.
When and how did your passion for food develop?
I have been cooking since I was a small child, from helping my grandmother make mince pies, to experimenting by myself. I remember mixing a pint of milk with a jar of marmalade aged 8, hoping to produce a marmalade ice-cream – clearly a disaster. As I got older, I had improved enough to cook for my father’s clients in return for pocket money, and when I hit my 20s, barely a week passed without my holding some form of dinner party. Sadly for my neighbours, this continues to be the case in my (late) 30s!
Can you tell us about MMFresh Food?
In the recipe section of Mango Menus, I always point out where to source the ingredients in Hong Kong. And a few years ago, I bought some delicious little necked clams from a small supplier, MM Fresh. I included these in a linguini vongole with my best photograph to date. Lily, the founder, liked my post and started sending me more samples. She then asked me to help develop her website and other parts of the business, and it soon became apparent that our skill sets and personalities, while very different, were mutually compatible to drive MM Fresh forward. We went into partnership in 2014. As mothers, we were increasingly anxious about the provenance of the food we were feeding our children. The only way to ensure they were eating the highest quality ingredients was to be in control of its supply chain! At MM Fresh, we source only wild and sustainable fish, grass-fed meat and other products free of nasties, mostly from New Zealand. We offer a home delivery service for retail customers and also sell wholesale to many of HK’s top tier hotels & restaurants.
How has your family’s lifestyle changed since you’ve started MM? Do you eat healthier?
For Mango Menus, I work with a lot of local suppliers to help market their produce either in my own recipes or product reviews. And for MM Fresh, I invariably bring home a few pieces of top quality meat and fish each week to cook and photograph for marketing purposes. This means that my kitchen is usually full of high class ingredients which my family gets to sample. The only issue is that I prefer to photograph in natural light which means lunchtimes are far more decadent than supper time. This has my poor husband often coming home to beans on toast or the kids’ leftovers at best, as I am exhausted from a full day of (more elaborate) cooking! He swears he will set up his own food blog one day with images of the slop and meals he has to endure – “The Truth Behind the Lies”.
What do you love most about what you do (your job)?
I love that food is the main focus of my job now. I am either cooking it, writing about it, selling it, photographing it or possibly the best bit, eating it. I also feel privileged to have met some of HK’s top chefs either from selling our MM Fresh produce to them, or writing restaurant reviews for Mango Menus. It’s fascinating to learn what makes them tick, hear the inspiration behind their dishes and taste their cooking.
What about your job could you do without?
It’s takes some time to adjust to leaving the corporate world and working as a one man show or in a small business. I really miss the IT support I used to have on hand in Banking and frequently have to watch Youtube videos on how to change the toner in my printer!
How do you balance running two businesses and being a mother?
Frankly I would be lost without my iPhone. It means I can do a spot of work while lying in bed, stirring a sauce with one hand, waiting at the school gate or sitting in a taxi. As soon as I wake up, I go through emails and social media, responding to whatever I can while in bed and whilst everyone else is asleep. I then eat breakfast with my kids, dress them and drive them to school, and have 4 hours before my son needs picking up from kindergarten. I go full throttle at work during this time, barely taking a moment to breathe. My afternoons are a mixture of work and kids’ activities, then once they are asleep, I tend to work for a few more hours. I can’t say I am not exhausted, and sometimes I question my lifestyle choice, but at the end of the day, I am fulfilling my desire to be at home with the kids, while embracing my passion for food, and I can’t think of how I would prefer to live.
Any tips for aspiring “mamapreneurs” and other working mamas in Hong Kong?
Do what you love and you will tend to do it well. And depending on the product, Hong Kong is definitely the place to try out a new business given the entrepreneurial spirit, lack of red tape and affordable childcare. This means that as a woman you can at least have a go at “having it all”.
Any advice on how to handle picky eaters?
Expose them to as many different foods and flavours as early as possible, and try to refrain from cooking repetitive and separate meals for them. If you give them chicken nuggets every day, of course that is all they will demand. They like routine! That said, I try not to scare them off with too many new flavours, so try to balance things out with some familiar and unfamiliar in each meal. Also, for your own time management and economies, try to cook one meal and eat together as often as possible. If they see you eating it, they are more likely to themselves. Imitation is strong at their age. Plus, it gives you the opportunity to harness their table manners at a young age.
Your favorite healthy snack to give your kids?
I make healthy smoothies often and freeze the leftovers as lollies. It’s amazing how they might turn their nose up at a particular smoothie, yet when presented as an ice lolly a few hours later it gets a resounding thumbs up! I have also just made a batch of probiotic ice lollies, freezing a berry infused kefir water into moulds. This is in an attempt to build their immunities and stave off any illnesses that seem to be more prevalent as the winter comes. I try to give them nuts at home as often as possible since they are not allowed to have them at school. If I am being super mom, these will be soaked overnight and therefore activated for improved protein levels and digestibility. Sometimes I flavour almonds with salt and vinegar or sunflower seeds with tamari. We are just getting into seaweed too. The nori snacks from FoodCraft HK are pretty delicious. I buy the Seasnax Brand from iherb too. It’s not all healthy though. I have a stash of chupa chups and digestives biscuits for emergencies.
How do you save time? Any organisational tips and tricks?
Batch cooking is helpful. Make twice as much as chilli as you need and freeze the rest for another day. I also try and make enough supper so that the kids can take leftovers for school lunch the next day.
What do you do when you need to have some “me time”.
Most days I try to do some exercise, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. I’ll swim, do yoga or go to the gym. Luckily, we have great facilities in our building which has always been one of my prerequisites in finding an apartment in Hong Kong. I just don’t have the time to travel to do sport these days. I am also quite partial to the odd facial or massage as well as drinking a bottle of wine with my friends!
Your favorite thing to do with your kids in Hong Kong?
We like taking them to Jumbo floating restaurant. While Top Deck is no longer open, the Chinese restaurants below are pretty good if a little priced with the tourist in mind. The kids love catching the sampan over and looking at the aquariums, plus there is the opportunity to dress up in traditional Chinese clothing for a family photo at the end of the meal!
What do you love most about Hong Kong?
The list is fairly long.
- The safety factor is a massive plus. The low crime rate makes me sleep far more soundly than I used to do in London, and I am relieved to be bringing up my children in such an environment especially as they get older and more independent.
- The domestic help situation is a life saver. I certainly wouldn’t be able to manage my lifestyle without out it and am eternally grateful for it every day.
- I love the restaurant scene. It’s so diverse with such high standards.
- It’s a village. Forget seven degrees of separation. It’s more like two in HK. After just a few years you seem to know pretty much everyone, and I adore that about the place, especially since I am away from family and old friends.
- Entrepreneurial spirit – I once tried to sell a piece of furniture on the Facebook page of my building. A new neighbor came to view it. After a 5 minute chat, I told him about MM Fresh and sold him a wild snapper. He later subscribed to Mango Menus. My husband came home while he was still there and they discussed their business. They had lunch the next day and ended up working on a deal together. Only in HK…
The most challenging part of parenting, so far?
Sleep deprivation and reining it in on a Saturday night in order to get up with the kids on a Sunday morning!
Where do you like to eat in Hong Kong with your kids?
We like Jumbo as mentioned above. We also go for Japanese pork cutlet fairly often. My husband used to live in Japan so has a penchant for this dish plus the kids seem to love it. The Saboten chain also has a handy booth layout to prevent them from escaping.
Favorite family holiday spot?
We’ve had a couple of successful family holidays in Vietnam this year. The short flight and minimal time difference means it’s a no brainer for traveling there with kids. Plus we adore the local food.
What are your tips for keeping romance alive when you have such a busy life?
Making time for each other without the kids e.g. date night.
What’s your idea of a perfect date night?
Dinner somewhere extraordinary! However, seeing as I am 8 months pregnant, it’s pretty difficult right now to get me off the sofa after 7pm. Hopefully life will resume normality in 2016. Or is that wishful thinking with 3 kids?!
Can you tell us about what being a working mom was like pre-babies, and how it’s different post babies?
Before my real babies, work was my baby, but priorities changed after I had my daughter. I thought at that point that I would never want to work again, but now realize how important that intellectual stimulation is to me. So I will probably always work and continue to juggle the two, however knackering it might be!
What’s the best and worst piece of advice you’ve received as a parent?
Best advice – “pick your battles”. Does it really matter if they bring that dinosaur to the restaurant for dinner? No. The other one is “always be there when they need you” which is one of the reasons I love to and feel most privileged to be able to work at home.
Something that no one ever tells you about motherhood?
The worrying at whatever age they are. When my children were newborns, I worried about cot death. Then as they got older, I worried about choking, pulling the kettle cord, being in a traffic accident, getting kidnapped etc. You name it! There’s a great book title (which I haven’t read) called “Stop worrying, Start Living” so I try to remind myself of that! Another thing I once heard was “little people little problems, big people, bigger problems”, so I guess the worrying will never end!
As a mama, I wish I were better at…
Playing with my children. I try to always be there for them for the key moments of a day e.g. mealtimes, bathtime, taking them to school and activities and reading. And I do initiate baking and craft activities from time to time. But I am not very good at actually getting down on my knees and playing dinosaur families or other make believe type games. I wish I were better at that.
What has been your most humbling mama moment?
We send our children to a bilingual school, and it both amazes and humbles me to hear them now speaking to each other in Mandarin. This will obviously be quite dangerous as they get older and are able to communicate with each other behind our backs! It’s never too late I know, but it makes me regret not continuing with our own Mandarin classes. I might add that to my 2016 “to do” list.
I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about…
Aside from the odd worry about something (see above!), I am a planner. I plan the family’s meals constantly because I love to! And I also hate waste, so am forever thinking of ways to maximize the last leaf of kale in the fridge!
Bedtime is always smoother when…
I have had a glass of wine!
My favourite moment of the day is…
When the children come into our bed for a cuddle, even it’s not exactly morning yet. Mealtimes come a very close second.
One thing I won’t sacrifice as a mama is…
I always feel saner after a swim, workout, siesta or glass of wine!
I wish I had more time for…
Interior design. I would love to be more resourceful in seeking out the perfect door knobs or having the eye to design or decorate my home better.
Even when my children are grown and have families of their own…
I’ll still, worry and want to feed them.
All photos taken in the above article were taken by talented photographer Sakshi Verma of Sakshi Verma Photography. .