Don't keep talented chefs in the kitchen

It wasn't hard to find good restaurants that deserved the Best Asian Restaurants Awards. But we couldn't find a Rising Chef of the Year.

The plush interiors of a Chinese restaurant, with its thick pile carpeting, fine porcelain and intricately carved wooden doors are a world away from a cramped and hot hawker stall.

Yet, these two segments of Singapore's food scene share one common challenge: attracting young people into the trade.

Ironically, the hawker one has it better. Millennials are seizing the chance to be their own bosses, open hipster stalls that will appeal to their peers and use their social media savvy to draw crowds.

There are also the recently announced initiatives by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee to ensure that hawker culture in Singapore survives and thrives.

Its recommendations include courses to train wannabe hawkers and a one-stop centre to help them set up a stall.

More importantly, the committee recognised the need to raise the profile of hawkers to spur them on and make the tough life worthwhile.

Things are different in Chinese restaurants.

Chefs toil in hot kitchens too but rarely make it into dining rooms to interact with guests. There are a handful of chefs who do, and they are usually veterans who are at the top of their game.

Everyone else just stays in the background - the teams of chefs who make intricate dumplings, the one who is an expert on roast meats. You just never see them.

It was a breeze to award Chef of the Year honours to Martin Foo but no one could be identified as Rising Chef of the Year. The hope is that the veterans in the trade will not hold back on imparting their skills. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

If you were a young person contemplating a career in food, where would you choose to work?

In an edgy restaurant with an open kitchen, where you might serve diners a dish you prepared, learn from visiting chefs and maybe help earn the establishment a Michelin star? Or work in a restaurant headed by a lauded Western or Japanese celebrity chef?

Or be your own boss in a hawker stall where you can talk to customers and make the leap a few years later to open your own restaurant?

Or be a cog in the wheel, slaving away anonymously in a Chinese restaurant?

These choices were thrown into sharp relief when, together with my colleagues Wong Ah Yoke, The Straits Times' deputy Life editor, Lianhe Zaobao food correspondent Marcus Yeo and Ng Yimin, a correspondent at the Chinese paper, we worked on the inaugural Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao Best Asian Restaurants Awards.

The idea behind the programme is to celebrate the best of Asian cooking in Singapore, and give recognition to establishments that have been turning out good food, but which never make it to "best of" lists.

Aside from giving restaurants Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, we also wanted to recognise individuals who have made an impact on the Asian dining scene.

The choice was clear for the Chef of the Year award, which went to Martin Foo, 50, of VLV in Clarke Quay. His solid grounding in Cantonese cuisine anchors the restaurant, which cannot quite decide if it wants to be a chic bar or a restaurant. Forget these distractions and focus on the food, which is excellent.

We gave VLV a Gold award.

We also had no problem with the Lifetime Achievement award, which went to Alfred Leung, 63, founder of the Imperial Treasure restaurant group. His restaurants are consistently good, which is saying something in Singapore, where the food in a restaurant can be excellent on one visit and mediocre the next. His Imperial Treasure Shanghai Cuisine also garnered a Gold award.

The original plan had been to give out a third award, for Rising Chef of the Year.

Although the four of us dine out often (it is part of our job after all), we could not, even after too many meetings to count, come up with the name of one chef under the age of 30 who stood out in an Asian restaurant, whether it was Chinese, Indian, Malay or Thai.

That is a shame and it needs to change. Chefs themselves acknowledge there is a problem.

Hong Konger Cheung Siu Kong, 48, executive chef of one-Michelin-starred Summer Pavilion at The Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore, cites the long working hours for the dearth of young talent wanting to work in Chinese restaurants. Most Chinese restaurants, he says, work on a split shift. This adds up to a very long day with just a three-hour break between lunch and dinner.

Then, there is the fact that the food is complicated to make,and more often than not, things are done the old-fashioned way without sous vide machines, Pacojets and the like.

Chinese restaurant menus tend to be epic too, with dozens of dishes to master.

Hong Kong-born Kwang Wai Hung, 66, chief chef of Spring Court Restaurant in Upper Cross Street, who is now a Singaporean, says: "I think young chefs are not likely to choose to specialise in Chinese food. First, Chinese food can be very complicated.

"Some dishes can have up to 100 ingredients, have specific preparation methods, and can take many hours to make.

"I think most Western dishes are simpler to prepare.

"Second, the working environment can be uncomfortable. Most of the time, it involves frying, roasting, steaming, and it is warm and there is no air-con.

"It is not like you are preparing a Western salad or pasta dish."

And then there is the way cooking techniques are taught.

Instead of going to culinary school and having a structured curriculum, in Chinese cooking, says Leong Chee Yeng, 50, executive chef of Jade at The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, young chefs learn by being apprentices to a mentor.

He adds: "This can mean the period where the apprentice learns how to cook can be longer than his counterparts'. The 'master' might not impart all his skills to the apprentice immediately.

"He might hold back, or test the apprentice until he is confident he is ready to learn certain dishes.

"To be honest, I think it takes around 10 years for an apprentice to call himself a 'chef'.

"It takes that long to know everything there is to know about controlling a fire and using a wok."

Given all these challenges, it is perhaps not surprising that we could not think of a young chef to give our award to.

What can be done about it?

First, restaurant owners - especially those who run Asian restaurants - have to identify promising young talents and raise their profile. The oft-repeated reason for not doing so - they will be lured to join other restaurants - might be true but the smart ones will want to learn everything before leaving.

In any case, they might leave anyway, if they are not given a chance to shine or learn.

Second, chefs need to think of the skills they learn as being important.

Perfecting har kow (prawn dumpling) skin, roasting duck and pork to the right degree of crispness and juiciness, steaming fish expertly and mastering fire and wok, are skills that are as important as the techniques they might learn in a French, Italian or modernist kitchen.

I would argue that they are more important because this sort of cooking speaks to the soul of many diners here, and the loss is immeasurable if these cooking arts are lost.

Third, chef-mentors need to impart their knowledge to their proteges and not hold back.

Sure, testing the loyalty of a young chef is perhaps the smart thing to do but secrets cannot die out with this generation of top chefs. The consequences are too scary to contemplate.

Will things change in time for the second Best Asian Restaurants Awards? I doubt it. It might take years but what's crucial is to take those baby steps now.

One day, we will give out that award to a Rising Chef of the Year, and how sweet a victory that would be, and not only for him or her.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 31, 2017, with the headline 'Don't keep talented chefs in the kitchen'. Print Edition | Subscribe