This musing was first published in Flavours Magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book:
Hotel employee’s stay at a five-star hotel is a far cry from the pampered treatment that a guest would expect to receive. Given the nature of my work, I have travelled around the world and put up at the hotels I was working at. While I have enjoyed most of my travel experiences, I have often been amazed by the envious looks from those who imagine me being pampered at a five-star hotel. These people never imagine the lack of privacy I have to put up with, when everything I do as a senior manager is scrutinised by the entire staff of the hotel.
When you’re single, tongues will start wagging if the chambermaid picks up on any lingering scents of perfume or if a solitary strand of hair longer than yours, is found on the pillow. Or it may even be a private letter that the staff found or read. You can also count on your private affairs being circulated as gossip, until the details are distorted beyond recognition. Nobody ever truly fathoms the degree of access that hotel staff have to me, and how I’m often at their mercy. Staying near hotel guests can tax my patience too.
Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working on Bintan island, Indonesia? I was at a new resort hotel that was opening over the weekend. The room next to mine was occupied by a young couple who was celebrating their first anniversary in style. Being next to them meant having to put up with the young man playing football in the room, with his wife cheering his every move, especially when he scored a goal. What was particularly annoying was that the connecting door between our rooms was being used as a goal area. After a while, the din from the ball slamming into the door got on my nerves.
I decided to go for a walk, hoping the game would be over by the time I returned. As I stepped out of the room, I saw some hotel guests in the corridor, drawn to the couple’s bedroom door by the commotion inside. I was returning from dinner when I spotted a chap trying to open his room door. He was shouting and kicking it as if it would magically open if he got angry enough and kicked with enough vigour. “Excuse me sir, as this is an inanimate object, it may not react to your frustrations,” I volunteered. “I, on the other hand, may be of some assistance to you if I may offer it.” “Who the heck are you?” he retorted. “I am the executive chef of the hotel, sir,” I said. “If you are the chef, why are you not wearing your uniform?” he asked indignantly. “Contrary to popular belief, chefs do in fact get some time off,” I replied calmly, trying not to get annoyed with him. He took a second and then announced in frustration, with one last kick of defiance at the door: “I can’t get this blooming door open.” “Sir, I’m not a technical person nor do I possess any psychic powers. But I can tell you why the door will not open.” “Okay then clever clogs, why don’t you fill me in with your worldly vision and tell me why it won’t open?” “Because this is my room, sir.” He stared at me for a second and looked at the number on the door, then the key card packet. “Stopped off on the wrong floor, have we?” I said politely. “Goodness, this hotel is absolutely hopeless! No proper signage or anything!” he shouted as he stormed off.
I shrugged it off and entered my room, hoping that it would be the last bit of excitement for the evening. I decided to take a shower and turn in early as I was expecting a challenging day ahead. As I switched off the light and closed my eyes, I heard people outside my room and could hear someone with a key, trying to unlock the door. The porter, using his master key, managed to open the door and calmly walked into my room, turned on the lights and started to detail the amenities in the room.
“Your bathroom is over here, sir,” he started out. “The remote for the television is here and please take note that it will not work anywhere else other than in this hotel.” As he kept on going, I sat up in bed, crossed my arms, anticipating their surprise when they would finally notice my presence. I felt as if I was in a bizarre training video that was going terribly wrong. It seemed like a great scene from Fawlty Towers or something straight from a new reality TV show.
The Japanese guest turned around and when he saw me, the look of shock and horror on his face was side-splitting. When the porter turned around and turned pale as he saw me in bed, I started howling with laughter. The whole scene turned more hilarious, as I watched them retreat – the porter apologizing profusely and the Japanese guest making rapid bows in courtesy and bewilderment. As they left my room and I tried again to settle in, the phone rang. “Hello, is that Chin ah?” came a male voice. “No, I’m sorry you have the wrong room,” I calmly responded. “How about Mrs Chin then?” “No, there’s no Mrs Chin either,” I retorted, as my humorous mood evaporated. “Ah, ok, How about Chin’s girlfriends from you know where?” “No, she’s not here either. No Ms Chin or Master Chin – any more guesses?” I blurted out impatiently. “Uhh, what about his maid, then?”
That was when I lost it completely. “Let me put it in the simplest terms – I can 100% confirm that there is no Mr Chin here nor a Mrs Chin, nor any of Chin’s concubines, relatives, friends, enemies, descendants. Nor even anyone with a name that resembles the Chin clan. The only person in this room right here and right now is me and my name is Michael ‘blue in the face’ Saxon!” My heart was pounding and I was on the verge of hyperventilating when he responded with: “Oh, you are Ang Moh ah?” My fist was clenched so tightly that my knuckles were turning blue. But I gently placed the handset back to its resting place and went into my mediation mode. Just as I managed to calm myself down, the phone rang again. “Look, there is no blooming Chin here, OK? If you call again, I will smash the phone against the wall and you will not be able to disturb me with your ‘Is Chin there ah?’ nonsense, do you understand?!” I yelled down the phone, unable to contain my fury. “Is that you, Mr Saxon?” asked the startled housekeeper. “Would you like me to call a doctor, sir?” “A straightjacket might be needed if I cannot get any peace in this forsaken place which is supposedly a five-star hotel. Anyway, what the heck do you want now?” “I just wanted to know what time you would like the roll-away bed you ordered, to be delivered.”
“It must be a full moon here tonight – it would seem that the moon’s gravitational pull has drawn all the liquid away from your brains, causing it to dry out so go take a shower. Hopefully, that will restore your senses.” “So, you don’t want it then?” “You know that I live here by myself, you twit! What the heck would I want with a roll-away bed?
“However, the way my night is going, I am expecting Mr Chin to knock on my door any second now so please keep that bed on stand-by,” I muttered, drifting off to sleep as I replaced the receiver. Just as I settled into dreamland, the phone rang with the front office assistant enquiring: “What time does breakfast start, chef?” As tears welled up in my eyes, I could only muster: “Check the room compendium! (the comprehensive list detailing the hotel’s operations)” As I replaced the receiver, I heard, to my chagrin, the front office assistant saying: “Oh, I wish I had thought of that.”
Unfortunately, staff often assume that senior managers who stay at the hotel don’t ever sleep so they think nothing of calling at ungodly hours. The unlimited access they have to us is taken for granted.
So the next time you hear a hotel employee say that he’s staying at a five-star hotel, banish the idea that he will be pampered as a guest. The total lack of privacy, freedom and even cooking facilities totally outweighs the comforts of a complimentary room in a five-star hotel. Now I live in my own house, I can honestly tell you that my wife Beatrice and I are, for once, enjoying the cleaning, cooking, ironing and gardening…at least for now!