Students get a taste of hawker life

ITE student Sebastian Chua, 17, cooking sum lo hor fun at Hong Kong Street Old Chun Kee in Makansutra Gluttons Bay as his course mate Ilyzyana Kamis looks on. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
ITE student Sebastian Chua, 17, cooking sum lo hor fun at Hong Kong Street Old Chun Kee in Makansutra Gluttons Bay as his course mate Ilyzyana Kamis looks on. -- ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

ITE students learn the ropes from veterans during a two-week internship at Makansutra Gluttons Bay

A group of eight students from ITE College West's Asian Culinary Arts course have been learning from veteran hawkers during a two-week internship which ends today.

The students were thrown into the deep end at Makansutra Gluttons Bay food centre, learning how to prepare, cook and serve hawker fare.

They had lessons in chopping chicken for chicken rice, stir-frying hor fun with wok hei, grilling satay and pulling frothy teh tarik.

This crash course in street food is a tie-up between the Institute of Technical Education and Makansutra founder K.F. Seetoh, who runs the open-air Gluttons Bay next to the Esplanade.

It gives a glimpse of his upcoming Street Food Pro 360 course, which will train the next generation of hawker entrepreneurs. He is now interviewing candidates for the 30-hour programme, which will give an overview of street food business operations, skills training and an understanding of the culture of Singapore's food heritage.

Last Friday, the students were tested on their skills, with Mr Seetoh and Mr Alvin Goh, deputy director of culinary arts at ITE College West, tasting their dishes.

On the students' performance,

Mr Seetoh says: "I rate them five to 7.5 upon 10. What seemed the easiest - chicken rice - was the most difficult to master. The best were roti kaya and teh tarik. The satay was good, as was the prawn-paste chicken.

"I hope more students and schools will come forward to get an exposure to this field. It would be great if our public education monies can be spent on training students on local food culture and business."

Mr Goh says: "We are very pleased with the students' keen interest in wanting to learn more about Singapore's heritage food. They have sacrificed their vacation to be attached to the hawkers. They have grown - both in terms of learning to cook and exposure to customers - and are gaining confidence."

He adds that the school will roll out an elective for its Asian Culinary Arts students to research on Singapore heritage food and work with a hawker master of their choice.

So far, the future of a new generation of hawkers looks bright, if the outcome of the internship is anything to go by.

The eight students told SundayLife! that they would have worked in hotels instead of learning how to cook hawker fare during their month-long school holiday.

Ilyzyana Kamis, 17, who is attached to zi char stall Hong Kong Street Old Chun Kee, says: "When I first heard about this hawker programme, I was like, 'Hawker, what? I want to be a hotel chef.' Now I've completely changed my mind.

"You don't always get this opportunity, and I would like to open my own halalcertified zi char stall one day. Learning how to get the hor fun gravy with the correct consistency was the toughest. I will also need to improve my business skills."

The internship went beyond honing culinary skills. The students also had to take orders, serve diners and work the cash register.

Jennifer Lee, 17, who is working at The Sweet Spot drinks stall, says: "I believe I can be a hawker, even though I'm still learning. Although I made the mistake of keying in 33 drink orders instead of three, I learnt how to correct it immediately and will make sure it doesn't happen again."

On training them in service, Mr Seetoh, 50, says: "They need to have an all-round understanding of the back- and front-of- house operations. They are there not only to learn about cooking, but also to gain an all-round exposure to the business."

Mr Wee Liang Lian of Wee Nam Kee Chicken Rice, who has been a firm disciplinarian with the students attached to his stall, says: "The students are still very new to cooking, but they have a good attitude and take criticism in their stride. I want to frighten them and give them pressure so they will be fine on their own.

"Once, the rice was not fully cooked because someone poured in too much rice. But if they don't make mistakes, they won't understand. They need to depend on themselves."

Besides Street Food Pro 360, other hawker training programmes include Dignity Kitchen, a hawker training and food court management school; and the Hawker Master Trainer pilot programme, which started last October, a collaboration between the Workforce Development Agency, National Environment Agency, property firm Knight Frank and The Business Times.

They all aim to train a new generation of hawkers to carry on Singapore's vibrant street food legacy.

Following their internship, the ITE students need to come up with ideas to improvise traditional recipes and develop their own hawker dishes.

Muhammad Nor Jasmi, 17, who is attached to Alhambra Padang Satay, already has plans for his dream stall.

He says: "I would like to set up my own stall selling modern interpretations of traditional food. For example, one of the dishes I cook at home is assam salmon.

"With this experience, I've learnt what goes on in and out of the kitchen and how to operate a hawker business."

euniceq@sph.com.sg