Chefs cook up a fresh start
Stopping by most days over the next few months, Chu got to know the staff and learned their stories, in particular that a number of them were finding their way back into the workforce after a period of mental illness. They were there as recovering patients of a programme run by the New Life Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association, which operates several cafes and restaurants around town, providing opportunities for former patients to learn new skills and start earning again.
"I thought it was very worthwhile, using the cafe as a training ground to give experience to people keen to rejoin the mainstream workforce," Chu says. "I also saw that our company could offer some very practical support."
In May last year, Chu arranged an event to make introductions, explain New Life's concept to hotel employees and spark ideas. What followed was a scheme to teach best kitchen practices and new recipes for making the pastries, finger food and desserts in which the cafes specialise.
"F&B [food and beverage] and the six or seven executive chefs jumped right in," Chu says. "They saw it as a good opportunity to do mentoring and share their knowledge with people who can really benefit."
Training takes place in New Life's two production kitchens. Executive chefs detail recommended techniques and the correct process for each recipe. They have found an extremely receptive audience.
"The students are so serious that they use a video recorder to study everything again after the chefs have gone," Chu says. "Most of have experience as cooks but haven't had this kind of expert training."
In choosing recipes, New Life participants have two options. They can pick something they like after visiting one of the hotel's buffets or they can suggest something they think will sell well. The hotel will write up, or help to create, a recipe and teach it at one of the sessions.
"If a suggested item is selling well, they are, of course, very proud of it," says Chu, who oversees co-ordination of the programme. "So far, we have shared 19 recipes, and the workshops will continue to help prepare things that are appropriate. We are not a culinary school, so we don't do an assessment. But we have some fun and make sure everyone gets something practical out of it."
Chu says the InterContinental is now reviewing resumes with a view to hiring four people from the New Life programme in the next few months.
The initial plan is to assign skill-based, less pressurised work, which could be in one of the kitchens or in a back-office or frontline position.
"The clients can be from all walks of life," she says. "Some have very good qualifications and have held very senior roles."
To offer support in other ways, the InterContinental Hong Kong will also:
- Continue to buy produce from the New Life-run organic farm in Tuen Mun
- Conduct a best-practice session on customer service skills for people wanting to work in retail outlets
- Invite the hotel's managing director to give a talk on leadership in order to pass on a different range of skills