The joys of being a chef

This musing was first published in Flavours Magazine and is not in Chef’s Tales the book.

The profession of a chef is a challenging one but offers opportunities that are beyond your wildest dreams. Recently, over lunch with a friend who’s in the hospitality training line, we were lamenting the difficulties of getting young people to commit themselves to the hospitality industry. With Malaysia hoping to welcome 16 million tourists this year, (which should generate at least RM26 billion in revenue), securing a good reputation for service, safety, food quality and tourist appreciation has to be our top priority. Towards this end, I am thinking that the hotel industry should do more to make itself attractive to prospective employees. It is only by attracting young, energetic and intelligent people who are dedicated to the hospitality business that we can hope to improve the overall tourism industry. Today, there are many other careers which appear to offer more perks – like an easier life and stable hours. The worst pressure one in the hospitality line has to deal with is that of peer pressure, when others try to convince you that the life you have chosen is a difficult one.

Well, I always wanted to be a chef. Just the thought of having the opportunity to make people happy with a great dining experience – one that they would remember forever – made it the easiest career choice for me to make. A few hoteliers have taught me that this business chooses you and when you embrace it, you will banish the thought of considering the other professions you had initially tried. To remain in this demanding industry, the passion for it has to be in your blood but the hospitality line is a challenging one which offers immensely rewarding careers.

When I was 18 years old and fresh out of hotel school, I was really happy and excited to land my first apprentice chef’s job. During the interview, the executive chef was like a used car salesman trying to sell me the job. “If you are lucky to get the job, you will be in good hands as our hotel has the best reputation and has the best trained chefs. They will be imparting to you, skills which have taken many years to acquire and for that, you should be paying us! “However, we are willing to pay you a nominal salary so that you can use this money to give your mum a little and the rest, you can use to buy some knives of your own – one each month.” A very small one, I thought. “We will also give you a locker, a pair of safety shoes, a clean white uniform and a tall, funny-looking hat that will make all your friends laugh at you and eventually, because of the lack of ventilation to your scalp, will make you go bald.” These were, as he led me to believe, the other list of “benefits.” Of course, for these fantastic value-added benefits, there came a price: 12-hour shifts and six-day weeks. I’m sure that’s written in microscopic print somewhere although I have yet to find it. “By the way,” he continued with his sales pitch, “you will never go hungry again, or be cold and lonely. Most importantly, you will never be unemployed because people will always have to eat.” I looked at him for a second and reflected on the one thing he said that actually made sense. The revelation that “people will always have to eat” was a major epiphany for me as a budding chef. That is so true and is something that will never change.

After the interview, I went home and waited for the phone call that would change my life. A week later, immediately after I had accepted the position, my best friend rang. “Mike, we are going out tomorrow night to paint the town red – are you in?” asked Bill. “I cant – I start my new job tomorrow,” I proudly announced. “That’s during the day, twit. I m talking about after 9 o’clock,” he said. “William, I am now a chef in the most prestigious hotel in town and that puts an end to all the nights out, wild life and crazy days. Tomorrow night, I shall be in the kitchen creating some gorgeous delicacies while you are playing darts and talking about the Saturday afternoon football schedule. Football is no longer my main interest and hitting a score of 180 with three darts is no longer my life’s ambition…” Before I could continue, William broke in: “What the heck are you talking about? Are you telling me you are going to be a cook?” “A chef, my dear boy, a chef.” “Yes, whatever. It is still cooking and cooking is a woman’s job. Men work on oil rigs – that’s what men do; they don’t cook,” came the sexist argument that I would encounter for many years to come. “Whatever,” I countered. “This job is going to take me far and teach me more about life more than any other job could ever do,” I said unconvincingly. “Anyway, I have to go now,” said Bill despondently. “By the way, Mike, don’t splash sauce on your pinny (apron), aye!”

As a guy, it is really off-putting, upon graduation from culinary school, to be told that cooking is a woman’s job. However, the reality is that there are actually very few women chefs. Female chefs are extremely underestimated and despite their superb work ethics and refined approach, they usually give up due to being teased mercilessly by their male counterparts. On the other hand, there are many who thrive in professional kitchens.

When I was working in the Bahamas, I was asked to go to another hotel to borrow some equipment from the executive chef. I entered the hotel’s kitchen through the back door and saw one of the biggest women I have ever seen. She looked totally annoyed with my untimely arrival and stood there with her hands on her hips. She stared at me and thundered: “And what can I do for you, young man?” “Actually madam, I just wanted to speak to the executive chef. Is he around?” I asked. “Are you trying to be funny, my little friend? If you are, I would strongly advise you to be careful. Otherwise, I may have to introduce your face to the kitchen floor,” she responded. Feeling a little exasperated, I replied somewhat gruffly: “Listen here, I’m very busy. Is the chef here or not? Can you call him for me? I need to borrow some equipment.” The ebony hulk raised her arms in the air and roared like a lioness at the top of her voice: “I am the executive chef! What the heck do you want?!” The sheer force of her voice stunned me momentarily. I stood there bolted to the ground and after my pathetic attempts to apologize for my thoughtless assumptions, I explained what kind of equipment I needed. Once I got hold of what I needed, I prepared to scram. “By the way, have you ever been given the Bahamian welcome hug?” asked the hefty executive chef. “Welcome hug?” I repeated puzzledly. I looked around at her giggling staff and before I knew what was happening, it was too late. She grabbed me and gave me a suffocating, bone-crushing squeeze which seemed to last forever. When she finally let go of me, I gasped for air like a dying fish out of water.

That episode sure taught me never to underestimate female chefs again! It also goes to show that women are equally capable in professional kitchens – many female chefs can hold their own in a male-dominated domain and can rise to the peak of the profession. Male or female, chefs today are highly educated, articulate people who offer a lot to the community.

The job of a chef is full of surprises – you never know who you’ll be serving. During my career as a chef, I have cooked for and have had conversations with Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Steven Seagal, Glenda Jackson, Mr T, John McEnroe, Suharto, Goh Chok Tong, the Agha Khan, Prince Philip of England, Margaret Thatcher, Charles Bronson, Stevie Wonder and Duran Duran, just to name a few.

What other profession gives you this kind of opportunity to meet so many luminaries? Chefs, as all hoteliers are, what I term as “world people” – a very small percentage of the world’s population who are able to live anywhere, mix with anyone and appreciate every culture and religion.

These are people who have much better interpersonal and problem-solving skills because of their exposure to people from different backgrounds, from around the world. The hotel industry will give you a sense of being that no other profession could; it will help you travel the world, mature in every way humanly possible and send your self-confidence soaring to rare heights. The hotel business will offer you opportunities that are beyond even your wildest dreams. When your chance to join it comes, grab it by the horns and never look back as you will be on the path to fulfillment. Very few professions will ever afford you the sense of fulfillment that you will get from the hotel business.