Top of the toques
Becoming a chef is a rigorous process requiring long training, but the rewards are delicious
Hong Kong's food and beverage industry is not a particularly popular one among the younger generations. Some people have the impression that working in the kitchen is a harsh job best left to those who underachieved at school. But according to those at the top of the profession, this view is inaccurate. Being a chef is a solid career that is just as engaging and rewarding as other professions.
The story of Shino Lai Chi-shing, group chef at Akita Crab Shabu Shabu Specialist in Wan Chai's dining and shopping hub The East, is that of a relentlessly hardworking learner, willing to do whatever it takes to get better at his craft.
The story starts with him working for a couple of years at a Japanese restaurant in Causeway Bay, before finding a grand master who he believed would take his cooking skills to new heights.
"The master was Japanese. When I first saw him slicing radish, I knew I had met a true professional and I told myself I would suffer any hardship to learn from him," Lai says.
It is typical for a Japanese master to initially hold back his teachings from newcomers. "I spent my first five years cleaning and doing chores other than cooking. During the afternoon break, the master would close the door of the kitchen, not allowing me to watch him cook. But I was not discouraged. I knew I had to gain his trust before he would teach me," Lai says.
His persistence finally paid off. After five years outside the kitchen, the master took him in and taught him everything he knew. "I spent five years learning from him before he chose to relocate to Singapore. He asked me to go with him, but I preferred to stay in Hong Kong, so we parted ways," he says.
With much improved culinary skills, Lai had no problem finding jobs, and nine years ago, he joined Akita. "As group chef, I no longer think only about getting dishes ready. Managing staff, purchasing ingredients and designing menus are among the many things I had to learn in my new role. There was no training - I learned from my mistakes," he says.
Having been through a tough apprenticeship, Lai realises the importance of training to the development of the industry.
"Nowadays, I see many 'chefs' in their early 20s who have worked for several years at Japanese chain restaurants coming to me thinking they are ready to be a chef. I am disappointed by their attitude. The division of labour in chains has left them with limited skill sets, yet they think of themselves as grand masters. Now I am in a leadership role, I have come up with my own training programme to produce adequate chefs," he says.
Kwong Wai-keung, executive chef at the Chinese restaurant T'ang Court at The Langham, Hong Kong, started working in the kitchen at the age of 13. A 40-year industry veteran, he says he did not fall in love with the craft until he was in his 40s.
"I started working in the kitchen because I did not want to go to school," he says. "To me, cooking was a job that supported me. It was not until I became the executive chef and was given the responsibility to develop dishes that my passion for cooking was ignited."
Kwong says it was the sense of satisfaction from creating unique dishes that inspired him to be a great chef. "I love to make new dishes. The way cooks learn their craft has changed a lot over the years. In my day, all I could do was observe - the chef wouldn't answer any questions. Today, I demonstrate my dishes to my staff step-by-step, along with detailed explanations for them to record on their phones," he says.
Kwong considers today's kitchen newcomers very lucky. "When I started, I only took three and a half days off a year - three days during Lunar New Year, and a half-day on September 1 for the Chinese Restaurant Festival. I had to go to work even if I was sick, because nobody would cover for me. Now staff get sick leave, annual leave, medical insurance and various other benefits," he says.
Still, he adds, the industry is finding it hard to attract young talent. "Every year, many students from cooking schools come to my kitchen for placements. They tell me how they love to cook, but they quit after the first day because they think the working environment is too harsh. The long hours are a major turn-off, but if you are passionate about cooking, this will not be a problem," he says.
At View 62, a Spanish fine-dining restaurant also in The East, head chef Ray Tam is only in his early 30s. Since starting work in the industry at the age of 18, he has had spells at several different restaurants.
"I got my basic training at the Hong Kong Jockey Club. That experience inspired my interest in cooking. Everything I learned, I was able to apply immediately. It was really encouraging and I started to develop my passion for the industry," he says.
After the Jockey Club, Tam joined a small bar and restaurant, where he got his first taste of Spanish cuisine. "The chef left after six months and the boss put me in charge. I was 22 at the time. I didn't even know how to write a menu, so I asked my Jockey Club friends to help. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed after two years, so I joined King Parrot Group," he says.
At King Parrot, Tam got the chance to learn about German cuisine and went to Shanghai to open a restaurant serving northern European fare. Eighteen months ago, the group opened View 62 and to prepare for his head role, Tam went to Spain for a month to learn from renowned chef Paco Roncero.
In Spain, Tam was humbled by the dedication of the locals to cooking. "There are people willing to work for free because they want to learn. I am not talking about an internship for a couple of months. People work for up to two years. Their passion for cooking is incredible," he says.
Many local chefs have built their reputations by presenting signature dishes in cooking contests, but Tam thinks competing and running a kitchen are two different things.
"Cooking in a competition is a personal effort; running a kitchen is a team effort," he says. "Working with a team to get them to achieve what you want is more satisfying than winning awards. The challenge for every chef is to bring out the best from the team consistently. I feel great when I can keep the quality of the products high, night after night."