How long have you been in the hotel industry? I joined the industry right after my National Service at 21 years old. I’m 55 this year, so it’s been about 34 years.
What inspired you to join the industry?
I’ve loved art ever since I was young. My parents were initially against it, thinking that I wouldn’t be able to make a living. But the more obstacles I came across, the stronger my passion became. I was determined to take on the challenge and prove that I could do something with art.
When I was 16, my parents opened up a food stall but business wasn’t great. I was interested in carving at that time, so I bought a book about vegetable carving and started doing it at my parents’ stall. Even though their stall was in a hawker centre, we were able to present the food at a restaurant-level standard. We came up with special set menus for Chinese New Year, making use of vegetable carvings to create something that was not commonly found in a hawker centre.
After that, my parents saw the potential in my art and encouraged me to pursue training in hospitality, particularly in F&B and food preparation. I wasn’t too keen at first, but during my attachment in my second year at a 5-star hotel, I realised that the job was more interesting and challenging than I thought. So I made it my focus to become an artist in a hotel.
Not many people are familiar with the hotel artist role. Could you explain what a hotel artist does?
I started off as a food artist. That’s a more well-known profession in the hotel industry. In the 1970s, hotels in Singapore realised that when it comes to food, it’s not just about how it tasted but also how it looked. There’s an art to presenting and displaying dishes in an aesthetically pleasing way. So they started hiring food artists, who were usually also chefs or pastry chefs, to come up with creative and different ways to make the food look more presentable.
From there, hotels started incorporating more design and artistic elements into the dining experience and started working with florists as well. As time passed, designing and creating the perfect dining experience became more important, so food artists became F&B decorators and Chief Decorators.
A few, like me, become hotel artists, where we don’t just work with food, but other areas as well. We’re involved in product design and even interior design for exhibitions and events.
What do you do on a daily basis?
First and foremost, I will check the events schedule to get a sense of my workload. From there, I can plan out my time and start thinking up new ideas for the various projects. I usually spend some time searching for inspiration online, or have discussions with my team.
Once we have the idea, we’ll start working on the design. I’ll come up with a 3D model and present it to my bosses and colleagues from other departments. With everyone’s feedback, we’ll make the necessary amendments and then we’ll move into production.
How do you constantly come up with new ideas? I feel that the key is to stay positive. Sometimes, you don’t get to do things the way you want to. You may feel like you’re trying to realise someone else’s vision. And some projects can be pretty difficult to execute. But by staying positive, and giving it your best, you’ll find a way to create something quite beautiful.
What interesting projects have you taken on as a hotel artist? There have been quite a number of interesting projects, and I can’t really pick one as a favourite. Obviously the large-scale projects were exciting to work on, but I’ve enjoyed working on some smaller projects as well. One occasion, we had to design and conceptualise a gift for our guests. I remember everyone was working together to figure out what would make a good gift, and we ended up creating beautiful mugs of different designs to give to our guests.
Is there a reason why you’ve stayed in the industry for so long? When you do what you love for a living, you feel inspired every day to come up with new ideas, new creations, new experiences. This is where I can be the best, most creative version of myself.
How do you think your art contributes to a guest’s happiness? I treat guests the same way a doctor treats his or her patients. I’ll try to understand the guests’ needs, and create something that addresses those needs. With my art, I’ll try to wow and impress them – whether it’s by creating something small or something huge.
Do you have any words of advice for those interested in joining the industry? As an artist, you have to make sure you master the basics first. Feel free to explore and try different things. But try to have the traditional basic techniques in your arsenal. Techniques and tools may change, and you should upgrade your skills accordingly – but the basics should always be there.