A far cry from five star treatment

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!

Moonshine on a moonless night

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

Did I ever tell you about the time when I was working in Kuala Lumpur and went for my very first visit to Sabah to introduce myself to my in-laws? On announcing the master plan to visit the wife’s family’s village, Beatrice jumped out of her chair. “We can organise a Christmas party for all the people in my village.” “Hang on a minute – How many people are there in your village?” I was almost scared to hear the answer. I mean to say, feeding two or three thousand people had to cost a bundle and on my salary at that time, I will tell you, it was a most daunting thought. “Oh, there are lots” – was not the answer that I was looking for, believe me. “How many is ‘lots’?” I whispered out to her. “About 52,” she replied enthusiastically. “How many?!?” I asked in a shocked manner, expecting 5,200. “52,” repeated Beatrice. Well, I thought this was going to be the cheapest Christmas party I could ever have hoped for. “Although we are short of money at this moment in time, I do believe that we can we can offer to hold a party for the entire population of your village. I will even throw in a couple of cases of Carlsberg for good measure,” I announced, trying to conceal my relief.

Beatrice booked and organised the trip as she always does and off we went. Arriving in Papar, we were greeted with the biggest and heaviest tropical downpour that you could ever imagine, which stirred all the toads back to life and unfortunately, all the mosquitoes too. Being eaten alive is not the most pleasant of experiences and not being able to sleep due to the loud croaking coming from the paddy fields did not help either.

The day of the party was a monumental affair to say the least. People came from miles around carrying potluck food items to place on the table for everyone to enjoy. We worked all day to get everything ready and the time had come to enjoy ourselves. On discovering we had no ice, I offered to get it, so off we drove. The first thought I had was how dark it was getting.

It was a moonless night, there was no lights to illuminate the road and the only way to go was to drive slowly down the narrow path so we did not end up in the hitch. Suddenly, we saw something in the middle of the road and slowed down. I thought it was a water buffalo having a nap before continuing on its journey.

As we approached, we found that it was not a buffalo. Instead, it was one of the villagers lying down motionless. He was not moving an inch and I was worried for the poor guy. “Is he dead?” I asked, petrified. “No,” was her monosyllabic reply. “Then what’s wrong with him?” “Tuak,” Beatrice answered. “Tuak? What is that – a tropical disease or something?” I wondered out loud. “No. It’s tropical liquor made from palm or coconut and he has had too much of it.” “Too much of it? He looks like he has had all of it. It’s a wonder that there is any coconut left, by the looks of him!”

I later nicknamed tuak “Gut Rot” once I had tasted this delicate beverage. I will give you another red-hot tip. You do not want to drink this stuff while smoking – you may end up being blown up to kingdom come! As I stared at the drunken villager, out of the blue came the cavalry in the form of two of his mates. They picked him up and carried him off, having a good laugh as they went. “How strong is that stuff?” I asked Beatrice. “It’s quite strong, but alright if you are used to it. Old man Bob is used to it – he’s been drinking it all his life.” If old man Bob was used to it, what would happen if someone was not used to it and drank it for the first time? We would be rushing him to the intensive care unit to have his stomach pumped… Or maybe even replaced! “What is this stuff made from?” I asked Beatrice. “Tuak can be made from the sap of palm trees or coconut trees but it’s usually made from coconut tree sap. There are others as well, you know.” “Oh yes, well, why don’t you give me a heads up so that I can make sure I avoid the stuff at all costs?” “Well,”

Beatrice started out, there is bahar which is also made from the sap of the palm tree, but is made with a different recipe. And then there is tapai which is made from rice.” Different recipe? Maybe there is a recipe book I could buy and place it on the drinks list in the Farquhar Bar menu in our hotel lobby. I could not help but to ask her the golden question: “Do you like a tipple of this refined alcoholic beverage once in a while?” Beatrice pulled her glasses down to the end of her nose and stared at me over the top of them.

Her impression simply implied the articulate response she was expressing. “Idiot” – would have been the best way to explain her thoughts, but as usual, her manners were way too polite to voice it. When we got back from the shop, it was time to get the party started. I decided to take a quick shower before going down to the dinner table.

I emerged about fifteen minutes later and everyone was sitting around chit chatting and looking at me with looks of anticipation on their faces. “What is going on?” I asked Beatrice. “They are waiting for you to eat first before they start.” I could not believe how polite they were and announced that they should all eat and enjoy themselves.

I dipped my hand into a large bucket of ice and grabbed a bottle of beer. As I turned around to speak to Beatrice, I could not believe the sight before me. There in front of me, was old man Bob! Instead of being hung over for four days like I would have been after having my stomach pumped, he looked as if he had never touched a drop. “Here in Sabah,” he started out, “we like to consume this local beverage called tuak. Have you ever tried it?” “Before I answer that question, let me ask you one – do you have an identical twin?” Beatrice came from nowhere and retorted: “Don’t listen to him Bob – he’s a twit!” I tried to defend myself while looking around for help. “To answer your question Bob, not lately, no,” I mustered. “Well, let’s have a shot together. Come, let’s share a glass.” He poured two glasses, walked towards me and handed me the one that was the most full.

Very polite people, I thought… too polite. “Why don’t you have the full glass and I will have the short glass?” We swapped the glasses and I took my first sip. Now I have to tell you something that I shouldn’t but I can’t help it. I have never tasted anything so vile in my entire life. As it passed down my throat and into my stomach, it dissolved every body part in its path like an ice cube in a microwave. “That’s not so bad,” I declared, while wincing badly. As Bob turned around to smile at Beatrice, I quickly poured the balanced of the tuak into the paddy field next to me and pretended as if I had finished it.

I could have sworn that I saw the paddy wilt the instant the tuak touched the water surrounding it. I probably contaminated the whole eco-system of Sabah with that one thoughtless and selfish act. “Wow, look at you,” said Bob. “You have finished it all, but don’t worry, there is plenty more where that came from, I will go and get you a top-up”, “he better not or I will throw up,” I whispered to Beatrice. “Just another drop to make them happy and then you can return to your beer,” she pleaded. “After another drop, I am going to return to my bed. Hopefully, not to a hospital bed!” “Don’t be such a baby!” Beatrice snapped.

This was going to be a long night, I thought to myself. And a much longer day tomorrow, if I kept on drinking this drain cleaner. “Maybe we can place a few bottles in the boot of our car, just in case,” I suggested. “Whatever for?” asked Beatrice. “Just in case we run out of petrol, we can pour it in the tank and keep the car running for a few kilometres until we reach another gas station. “Of course, we would have to keep it in a non-corrosive metal container. You know – the one that does not corrode if it comes in contact with metal-eating acid.” I pointed out that the foul-tasting stuff had indeed been delivered to the village in a screw-top petrol can, which I thought was only appropriate since tuak was also a highly-flammable liquid.

Beatrice rolled her eyes at my latest observation. Bob returned with another couple of glasses and I gingerly sipped on the cloudy substance until it was all but finished, trying to cause as little damage to my insides as possible along the way.

 As I was talking to old man Bob, his eyes glazed over and he started to fall backwards. I had downed two glasses of this rocket fuel myself which resulted in me not being as alert as I should have been and thus, was not able to catch him. Bob just fell backwards right into the paddy field thereby squashing the toads. That was the end of my first, and hopefully my last encounter, with East Malaysia’s version of toddy. Although I am sure that these home-grown Malaysian beverages create an enjoyable pastime, I have to say that they are little bit out of my league in strength and I will stick to the conventional beer or red wine.