Lee Kuan Yew

We have just had two wonderful days at our beloved hotel, The Eastern & Oriental with Singapore’s Minister Mentor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. As you can imagine, not everyone who walks through our doors on a daily basis qualifies for being outstanding members of the international community, but this man does. Obviously having him in our hotel was an honour to say the least, but more importantly I have to say it was also a pleasure. The man oozes class and behaves impeccably as if he is a walking advertisement to how the human race should conduct them selves. Mr. Lee, (as he likes to be called), I take my hat off to you and declare on a personal note that I wish there were more leaders like you that carry themselves with such dignity. I think that as the world becomes a busier place and everything becomes a matter of time or bottom line, that we are forgetting the importance of standing still for a second, looking at people in the eyes whilst conversing and paying attention to them as if they were, at that moment in time, the only person in the world that you want to talk to. Only when we begin to do this can we hope to start to improve as a species.

Self Confidence is the Key

It is never too late to change if you do not entirely admire what you see in the mirror, every single person is a “works in progress” and we should all help each other develop, feel better about ourselves and become better people……otherwise what is the point of having friends.

Life is Beautiful!

When I was working in the Bahamas, a few friends and I rented a sea plane, the small propeller type that lands on the sea. The pilot flew us to a remote & secluded tiny island and dropped us off so we could enjoy a very private barbecue. It really was a tiny island with a pink tinged, fine sand beach! We spent the whole day there followed with a sunset to midnight barbecue, it was unbelievable. It was so untouched you really did have the feeling that you were the only people who had ever been on this particular island and beach. We sat round a camp fire waiting for the plane to come, it was pitch black and you could see every single star that lit up the sky. The only worry was if the pilot forgot about us and did not come back!!

The Importance of people Skills

When I was a teenager and walked through the back door of the hotel for the first time, I received a very big wake up call and understood extremely quickly that that you learned something every day or you were punished.

A good kick in the back side, pastry cream rubbed all over my face, name calling, intimidation, a hit on the elbow with a hot sauced ladle maybe, a bath in a huge pot of dirty water or even threats of “Saxon, you will never make a chef as long as you have a hole in your arse!” would be the standing order of the day.

How I ever stayed in this business is beyond me, I used to think to myself that it did not deserve me, but what could a teenager do, I just wanted, no dreamed of being a chef.

I have witnessed it all, but I am still here, still plodding on and still ensuring every day that all those idiots are proved wrong.

I am lucky enough to have been taught by my mother & father the difference between right and wrong, so I do not and will not ever make the same mistakes as others and in doing so betray my colleagues trust with humiliation tactics.

Today I walk around the pot washing area, not as a toe rag as I was treat 30 years ago but as  General Manager of one of the best hotels in Asia. In doing so I shake the hands of the people whom wash the pots knowing that If they are not taken care of and they resign and leave their posts I may have to wash the pots myself and I know how hard that is being as I have “been there and done that”

So here we are, its 2010 and we have finally arrived in a modern working environment where people skills have become our most important and prized asset, without such motivational skills, you cannot be any where near as successful as you had earlier dreamt.

It is quite amazing really that there are still people out there whom believe others can be beaten into submission, intimidated & threatened thereby being forced to learn only to then turn around and demand to be thanked for the privilege to have studied under them. 

The plain truth is that we must ensure our junior colleagues want to work for, or even better work with us due to respect and not fear, only then will they deliver their total worth, contribute their entire mind heart & soul and in doing so ensure that as a manager, you look far better than what you actually are.

We must understand that we are only as good as the people around us and with a happy, healthy team built on foundations of mutual respect, physical & mental support and yes a little bit of emotion who knows what may happen.

Although there are still some lunatics out there that still practice the ways of the big stick, they are in fact the remnants of a dieing breed, their days are numbered and the clock is ticking slowly but ever so surely to the big day when we can say goodbye to the intimidation culture.

Ladies and gentleman, right here and right now I put my hand on my heart and solemnly swear that for me, this time can’t come soon enough.

The International Hotelier

Can you imagine the pressure of catering for a young couple about to get married and relying on you to make sure it’s a day they will always remember with pleasure rather than one to forget? Hoteliers, and more especially restaurateurs within the hotel industry, are a breed on their own, living a strange lifestyle that only they can fully understand and appreciate. Of course, hoteliers would not exist without their guests, and they too form part of my rich store of treasured memories as an international chef and hotelier. To all these people I dedicate Chef’s Tales and share my reminiscences, hoping that one day we will all have the opportunity to work and live alongside people from other cultures, and so enjoy the sort of priceless experiences that have been my daily life for the past 30 years.

Gold or Chocolate Medal?

I remember many years ago I worked for a very “old style” hotelier who never cut me any slack, he used to constantly berate me at every possible occasion, belittling me daily. This constant harassment made me think at that moment in time that my life was worthless. I was working my butt off, he never left me alone for a second and in a moment of weakness and or madness, I asked him how harder he thought I could work. He turned around, looked at me with his usual facial expression of discontentment and announced, “Work smart not hard, its no good to get a Gold medal for effort and a chocolate medal for expertise”. Wise words indeed and valid to all hoteliers around the world, this teaches us balance is of the essence if we are to retire happy, healthy and with a soul mate. I have mine….hope you have yours.

The World People

Being a hotelier has provided me with experiences that money could never buy and memories that time can’t erode. I’ve worked with people across the globe and come to understand and appreciate the religions and cultures of the many countries I’ve worked in and visited. As a result I would like to think that this has made me a more tolerant and open minded person who can adapt and fit in just about anywhere. The hotel business is a very transient one; where people become well, plain and simply people. To offer a good international range of food, a hotel has to have a diverse range of staff from different countries. Working in harmony with other different foreign nationals is imperative, understanding different cultures to appreciate each and every customer who walks through the door, no matter where they have come from is do all and end all. Tolerance of any nature, truly is a beautiful trait to have.

Learning how to be a Chef

When somebody wants or dreams to be a chef, they have to remember one simple rule and that is that if they are going to be a successful chef, they have to love to cook from the heart and not just because they want a regular pay check. Being a chef is a way of life, you have to dream about cooking when you are asleep, you have to think about food when you are conducting your daily life’s rituals that have nothing to do with the subject of cooking. You must live to eat and not eat to live. You must live, eat & breathe food, hotels, restaurants, magazines, cook books and listen to anyone who is willing to talk to you about food. You must never think that you know it all, you must stay humble and always believe that others know more than you. You must forget about celebrating with your friends, as they will be celebrating whilst you are working and they working whilst you celebrate. You must forget about the clock and stop watching it. If you can do all this and more, then you are ready to start to learn the art of cooking from the bottom….washing lettuce, peeling potatoes and onions whilst peeping over your chefs shoulders when they are not looking. This after you have been successful and passed your cooking exams. All your dreams are going to come true and your future truly is in your own hands. Happy Cooking!

Cooking Fundamentals

When people want to learn how to cook, following basic recipes from a cook book is not always the best way to go. They need to know the fundamentals first so they can understand the basics and therefore learn to experiment themselves. A very simple example to illustrate my point would be boiled potatoes. If you think simplistically, when boiling potatoes, the way they cook, is the water they are boiling in penetrates the outside of the potatoes working its way to the middle. As the water works its way through the layers, the potato cooks from the outside in. The potato will cook more the longer it boils, until eventually after boiling for long enough, it will be cooked all the way through. Therefore, with this very basic logic you can determine that if you boil the potatoes with plain water, all the potatoes are going to taste like is….yes you have got it, just water! So therefore, whatever you place in the water before boiling the potatoes will absorb into the inside of the potato making the potato taste like that particular added ingredient. When you start to decide what you want the potatoes to taste like and start to experiment with ingredients, is the time you actually start to cook and the moment in time that you are really creating and a simple boiled potato starts to be your own personal creation.

Television Chefs

I love watching many of the chefs on television cooking up a storm and teaching people how to cook themselves at home. I respect most of them and think that they are doing a good service to our industry, I do wish however, that the ones who are always screaming, belitteling and swearing at colleagues would stop and think twice, as they are actually hurting the industry rather than helping it. Many young chefs may want to be them, but they sure as heck would not want to work under them. This puts many young people off joining the industry and portrays chefs as uneducated people that only swear to gain attention to them selves on the screen and increase their ratings.

The need to Change

If you work in an environment with ten people and nine of them think you are a good person whilst one thinks that you are not, the chances are, you are probably a good person. If five think you are a good person and five think you are not, you may or may not be a good person. If only 1 person thinks you are a good person, whilst nine think that you are not, the chances are you have to make some changes

It’s Showtime at the Hotel Buffet

The best & worst food concept that was ever conceived and which has gone on to eventually become the most universally successful ideas of all time has to be…the buffet. Once in a while there comes along some clowns who make you wish that you never had even heard of the concept “buffet”, let alone have one in your hotel.

After cooking up a storm all day to prepare the most extensive spread, we were unfortunately having a very slow night. As I was wondering what I was going to do with all the left over food and at the same time balance my books, up to the entrance strolled a group of 5 what can be mostly described as “Sumo Wrestlers”. “Here comes trouble”, I thought to myself. As soon as they walked through the door (sideways I might add) it was evident that these people were die-hard buffet eaters, who were the worst possible customers imaginable for this concept. They were going to pay $35 and make very sure that they got their money’s worth….and more. They would eventually eat you out of house and home and if they became regulars, would inevitably place you out of business and have you begging in a food line.

The word “bankruptcy” was the first thing that came to mind when I heard one of them say, “Good evening Chef”, “Would you mind if we had a look at your buffet”? Trying to talk them out of the buffet was of course, a waste of time. Trying to convince them to order A la Carte, where the portions were controlled to be fair to both parties was even more a waste of breath. After circling the buffet like a flock of vultures, they stood still for a second while trying to fathom whether it was worth the price. I closed my eyes and chanted “A la Carte, A la Carte, A la Carte” like a mantra of sorts. Then came the depressing and moral gutter-lowering words that would emotionally scar me for years, “I think we will take the buffet tonight”.

After this night, I knew that I was going to need some professional counseling, but I tried to hold it together as long as I could for the sake of my staff. I walked over to my cooks, whose heads were already hanging in total despair after hearing the verdict. In trying to lighten the situation that was ready to blow like a powder keg, I whispered to them: “A herd of grazing Wildebeests just arrived and they love the look of your buffet”. You’d better tell the other chefs to start cooking before those guys start eating otherwise you will never be able to keep up! ” “How many people did you cook for tonight?” I asked fearfully, “Fifty Chef” they sheepishly replied. “And how many customers did we have before these bunch of twits arrived”, “seven Chef”. “Well the food’s not going to be enough”, we are in deep trouble tonight”.

After the big guys wobbled over to the buffet counter, I was absolutely flabbergasted with the way they went through the buffet like a plague of swarming locusts, devouring everything in sight. We had the chefs inside cooking up a storm and service staff running back and forth trying to keep food on the table but to no avail. I wandered over to their table to exchange some pleasantries, as I reached their table they already started to wind it up. One of them rubbed his very round tummy and his trousers really looked stressed holding in his mid-section and the buttons were holding on for dear life. At any time, the buttons was going to give way and go “Twang” shooting across the room like buckshot fired from a gun & maybe take out someone’s eye.

“Chef, the food is not as good tonight as it usually is, I think that some of your guys are off their game,” said the one in distressed pants. “You mean to tell me that you have been here before?” I was totally shocked. “Yes many times, we are regulars”. I stormed away from the table looking for the manager and explained to him that actually he should have banned these people from coming here. “We can’t do that chef, on what grounds can you ban people from a buffet?” “If you go to any casino” I retorted, “And you continuously win, they ban you correct”. I was really trying to make up my own logic to oust these grazing beasts. “What is the difference here?” I asserted. “They beat the establishment every single time they come here by reducing the restaurant to the poverty line and what is worse, we let them do it without a whimper”.

I saw one of the guys motioning for me to go over so I trotted back to their table. I thought the best way to diffuse the situation was to distract him, so before he started out I butted in. “Where are you from sir”? I asked, hoping they were going to announce they were moving somewhere else. “Next Door” replied the WWF wannabe, “I know that you may be surprised but I can assure you that I am from this town”. I thought to myself: “I am not surprised because you are the size of this town!” “Why don’t you try the chicken curry chef, it is not so good”, he said while slurping a small sized oyster. As he tried to swallow it in one go, he shook his head back and forth like a pelican swallowing a wriggling fish. “I would love to, but there is none left as you have finished off the whole lot”, I said matter-of-factly. “I beg your pardon!” said the Penguin, spraying dark brown juice from the oyster all over his new slick white T-shirt. “There was not much there anyway, just enough for…”, “Fifty people sir” I interjected.

“I am a growing young man and need to eat properly”, he said defending himself. I could not help but think to myself that he could not possibly want to grow any more and that his buffet table-sized backside did not need any further encouragement. I rolled my eyes, anticipating a request for a discount.

“Actually” he said sheepishly, “I think that the buffet is not value for money”. I called it right—I saw this coming a mile away. There is always one that will start to complain from the start to build his case to rob you blind like a robber without a gun.

“What is wrong with the food sir?” “The buffet is not that good and definitely not worth what you are charging”. “Can you be a little more precise? is the roast beef over cooked, the seafood not fresh”, I asked trying to retain my composure. “No, the whole buffet is no good” was his only assessment. “Well, as we are only charging you $35 for the buffet and you have eaten” I closed my eyes as if ringing it up on a mental cash register, “around $55 worth of food!”, I then opened my wallet and gave him $5. “What is this for, is it discount?” he asked with a look of surprise. “Actually it isn’t, I figure if I pay you to go and eat somewhere else I can save us some money”. He looked at me astounded for a second and then he started to howl with laughter.

“Chef, you are the funniest guy I have ever met”, Go and eat somewhere else! I have changed my mind the entertainment is fantastic here, you have just made us customers for life”! As I walked away from the table, I looked at the manager who was in tears of laughter after watching me crash and burn. The worst part was that after I left the table I realized the twit had very discreetly pocketed the money I offered him. Three hours later when the buffet was destroyed, they moved on to dessert. The only thing that was not consumed was the water from the ice-cream scoop holder. After three gallons of piping hot Italian coffee, they were ready to go and asked for the bill. I told the waiter that I would like to take the bill over myself, to bid them good riddance. I went over to their table, a broken man, devoid of any energy as the battle had taken its toll and wiped me out.

“There, there chef, you look tired” one of them said emphatically. “Yes, I surrender, its over-you win” was all that I could muster. “I have never, ever seen people eat like that before, you guys are record breakers”. “I will probably lose my job but what they heck”. “Lose your job? what are you talk
ing about?”. This is the best dinner we have ever had, we get this size because we like to eat good food. It is a compliment to you and your chefs that there is nothing left and trust me, the customers tomorrow are going to be happy when all the food that is presented is fresh”.

I looked at him and reflected on the truth of his words. Big people like to eat and it is a compliment that they choose your place do so. When considering food cost, overheads, value-for-money factors and recipes, we sometimes overlook that the most important thing to remember is that eating out should be an overall dining experience with good food and service, filled with entertainment and fun. If the overall ambience combined with the food and service is just right, you will always come out on top in the end. So now, before I go out to face that pain-in-the-neck guest, I always remember to think to myself “It’s Show Time!”

It’s all in the Game

As it was a pre-opening and we had time on our hands, my Executive Sous Chef suggested that since it was now winter in Hong Kong, I might like to go with him to a game restaurant to explore possible menu ideas. Not really knowing what he was talking about, I went along anyway because I was keen to try as many new things as possible. We arrived at the appointed restaurant, which was located down a back street, or more rather some dark alley, such that you would never be able to find it a second time even if you wanted to. The owner and chef came out to greet us, and told us that if we were willing he would like to play a little game with us. He would bring out the food and as we finished each course, we would have to guess what we had just eaten. It sounded a little scary to me given that this was Hong Kong, but as I did want to try things, and was also keen to fit in, I went along with it.

The first dish we ate was a very strong smelling, yet clear soup, which the chef said was, “Good for the body”, which part I wondered.
He asked us what we thought it was. Well I surmised, it was a game restaurant, and it was a soup. “Pheasant” I said.

“What, what the hell is pheasant?” came the reply.

I knew then that I was in trouble, and this was going to be a long, long night.

Our host went into the kitchen and brought out a large cage on a wheeled trolley, covered by a dirt white blanket. He did his trick of pulling away the blanket like a television magician, revealing a huge, slimy, long-tongued, uglier that anything I had seen…lizard. My stomach started to turn over straight away and I thought I was going to throw up on my shoes, and for that matter, on everyone else’s.

Then came the next course, a small bowl of some kind of stronger smelling heavy stew. I nibbled at it since my appetite was already suffering under the enormous strain. “Game Restaurant”, I whispered to myself, “I’ll give him GAME restaurant.”

Out came the dreaded cage once again, and away went the blanket to reveal a beautiful Snowy White Owl, it’s huge eyes looking deep into mine. That, my friends was the last straw.

I didn’t care any more if I was going to fit in or not. Dinner was over for me and, as the next course came out, I announced that I was out of the game. So as not to cause offence, I decided to ask for something safe instead, and with which I was familiar.

“Hey, how about just giving me some chicken chow mein” I asked pleadingly.

The manager looked at me extremely confused, “Chicken chow what?” he said. “Chow mein” I reiterated.

“Are you trying to be funny?”, he responded angrily. “If you don’t like the food, I understand but there is no reason to be rude.”

“What the heck was he talking about?” I asked Tan my assistant, and then he told me that he had been living in Hong Kong all his life and he had never heard of this dish. What was worse, “chow” translated from Cantonese to English is “stink!”

For the full years I was in Hong Kong, I was unable to find a single restaurant that had heard of the famous “Chicken Chow Mein,” much less had it on their menu.

My protestations of being full had still not spared me from the third course. This was another thick stew, which the owner told us, “Is made especially to keep the body warm during winter,” while pulling away the trolley curtain to reveal a somewhat scabby-looking dog.

This time I tried a different track.

“I think I must have eaten something which did not agree with me at lunch earlier today.” I mustered.

This at least seemed to do the trick. Though still trying to extend hospitality and feeling sorry for me being unable to eat the delights of the main meal, he brought out some steamed prawns and fish insisting that it would make me feel better. Guess what, my appetite was indeed encouraged back to life!

The whole experience showed me though that if you have the taste for something and the money to pay for it, you can find it and eat it in Hong Kong.

Hello world!

Chef's Tales by Michael Saxon
Chef's Tales by Michael Saxon
Chef’s Tales follows in the best tradition of Bill Bryson, Frances Mayes, Peter Mayle, Michael Palin and other entertaining writers of life and travels.

It is hoped that Chef’s Tales can help enable young hospitality professionals prepare themselves for their entrance into this exciting industry by giving them much needed examples of the life they are going to lead.  Young hoteliers will learn from the experiences witnessed by reading Chef’s Tales and every experienced hotelier will also enjoy reading Chef’s Tales as they will be able to relate to most if not all of the stories.

Michael is contactable at michael.saxon@e-o-hotel.com