How long have you been in the industry? More than 30 years.
So what inspired you to become a chef?
I’ve liked to cook since I was young and I enjoyed watching cooking shows. I would follow my mother to the market and help out in the kitchen. I’d say it has always been my passion.
After my ‘O’ Levels, I had to choose between pursuing a diploma in a polytechnic, or go to SHATEC. I decided to pursue culinary studies at SHATEC and was part of SHATEC’s second batch of students, in 1988.
As an Executive Chef, do you now play more of a supervisory role? Yes, but I still like to be as hands-on as possible. I enjoy working with the team so I can lead by example and share my knowledge or recipes.
What is the culture like in your kitchen? Are you more of a team or a family? In the kitchen, we treat each other like family. We treasure our relationships because we know none of us can succeed on our own. When we have disagreements, we have to put our personal differences aside and work together as a team to accomplish our goal.
What do you enjoy most about cooking? To make dishes that people love. I enjoy coming up with new ideas and recipes to surprise my guests.
Working in the kitchen is difficult – with the high heat and fast pace. How do you manage that?
I started my career in a fine dining restaurant, where everything had to be done perfectly. I learned how to focus on the task at hand and keep my cool when things don’t go my way.
I’ve had three mentors – two French chefs and a Swiss chef. They were extremely strict with me. If there was even a small stain on the plate, they’d throw it away and ask me to do it again. So I’ve learnt that if you don’t have patience, or if you can’t control your temper, you won’t be able to make it as a cook. The temperature in the kitchen is already quite high, so you need to know how to keep calm.
Where do you find inspiration to come up with new dishes? As I work with suppliers, I’ll ask them about any special ingredients they might have. Then from there, I’ll do some research to find out what I can do with those ingredients. I’ll test it out to see if my colleagues and bosses like it. If they do, I’ll consider serving it to my guests.
What’s your favourite dish that you’ve created? I wouldn’t say I have a particular favourite. Almost every dish is my favourite – as long as the guests like it. To me, a chef can create as many dishes as he or she wants, but the most important thing is that your guests must enjoy the food.
What kind of cuisine do you specialise in? I can cook International cuisine, but my strength is Asian or local cuisine. I used to represent Singapore, going to different countries to promote Singaporean food. One of my favourite local dishes is Laksa. In fact, I’m still looking for a place that has the best Laksa, but I haven’t found that place yet.
Apart from cooking and coming up with new dishes, do you spend time training your young cooks? Yes, I help them to understand ingredients, and why they must be cooked a certain way – a certain time, a certain technique. For example, local dishes like Laksa and Rendang need to be cooked on low heat for a longer period of time. You’ll have to wait for it to cook, and you’ll have to keep stirring. It can get quite monotonous, but if you rush the process you will end up burning the ingredients. So I train my young cooks to have the patience to do things the right way.
What else do you teach your cooks?
I always tell them that mistakes are unavoidable. To me, there’s no such thing as perfection. I only ask for one thing: concentration. You need to concentrate on what you’re doing. When you’re working in the kitchen and have other things on your mind, you might hurt yourself or you might get the orders wrong.
In the kitchen, everybody has a role to play. The Executive Chef will call out the orders, and everyone else is in charge of their own stations. Everyone has to do their job in order to keep the system running well. If you’re not concentrating, you can affect the flow in the kitchen – and the person who suffers the most will be the guest.
Do you have any words of advice for people who are interested in joining the industry? I’d say that becoming a chef is not just about having the right skills but also about having passion. If you don’t have the passion, skills alone won’t get you very far.