It Changed My Life

Chris de Silva - from busboy to running high-end hotels

Mr de Silva (right) with two deejays from Australia. Mentored by popular deejay Suresh Menon, he started spinning at nightspots like Copacabana when he was 18. Mr de Silva (above, right) had considered but decided not to play football professionally.
Although Mr de Silva started out in the hospitality industry as a commis waiter, the lowest-ranked waiter in a restaurant, he was determined to be a maitre d' or restaurant manager. He studied French at the Alliance Francaise for nearly four years and read up about food and wines during his breaks.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mr de Silva (right) with two deejays from Australia. Mentored by popular deejay Suresh Menon, he started spinning at nightspots like Copacabana when he was 18. Mr de Silva (above, right) had considered but decided not to play football professionally.
Mr de Silva (right) with two deejays from Australia. Mentored by popular deejay Suresh Menon, he started spinning at nightspots like Copacabana when he was 18.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHRIS DE SILVA
Mr de Silva (right) with two deejays from Australia. Mentored by popular deejay Suresh Menon, he started spinning at nightspots like Copacabana when he was 18. Mr de Silva (above, right) had considered but decided not to play football professionally.
Mr de Silva (right) had considered but decided not to play football professionally. He is seen here with former soccer stars (second from left) Abbas Saad, Alistair Edwards and Geylang International top scorer Zlatko Vidan.PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHRIS DE SILVA

An abusive dad, a broken home and a childhood of poverty - Chris de Silva overcomes all that

Cynics snort and dismiss them as platitudes.

Mr Chris de Silva, however, loves inspirational proverbs and has quite a repository of pithy sayings.

He reels off a couple that he likes: "I complained that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet" and "Ask a question and be a fool for two minutes, do not ask and be a fool for life".

How about one of his favourites?

"Good, better, best. Never let it rest. Until your good is better and your better, best," he recites, not unlike an eager Boy Scout.

The impeccably suited 55-year- old makes no apologies about liking maxims. "They motivate me," he says simply.

He is big on motivation.

He has to be. How else could he have made it from busboy to hotel general manager otherwise? Well-groomed with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, Mr de Silva had a shaky start in life.

The oldest of three children of a draughtsman and a secretary, he spent his childhood in a kampung in Paya Lebar.

"I have a younger sister.

"My youngest brother is hearing impaired. He was also a blue baby who needed to have three transfusions," he says, referring to blue baby syndrome which affects an infant's ability to carry oxygen in his blood stream.

Life at home was tumultuous. His late father was an abusive man who often beat up his wife and children.

"Once he caned my back until the skin split, all because he thought I lied to him about the change a taxi driver gave me," he recalls.

When he was six, his folks divorced. His mother took the children to live with her in a one-room rental flat in Pasir Panjang. A couple of years later, they moved into a two-room flat in Redhill.

"She juggled two jobs and slogged and slogged.

"Luckily, she had good friends and bosses from whom she could borrow the occasional $100 or $200 so that she could put food on the table and send us to school," says the former student of St Stephen's School and Queenstown Secondary School.

He saw his father, who worked at The American Club just once a month at his office or home to collect their monthly maintenance.

"I remember crying in his office once, pleading with him to give us money for our school books.

"I said, 'Are we your kids? If we don't come and ask you, what do we eat? Do you care?'"

To lighten his mother's burden, he started washing dishes every night at the now-defunct Cockpit Hotel in his teens.

"I worked from 7pm to 11pm, and earned $16 each night," he says.

He never took a shine to books - he took his O levels three times before he passed - but was a gifted football player.

"I was spotted by Uncle Choo when I was 14," he says, referring to the late Choo Seng Quee, widely recognised as one of Singapore's finest football coaches.

A product of the Milo Soccer School which produced stars like Fandi Ahmad, David Lee and Malek Awab, Mr de Silva was also a midfielder for Farrer Park United's Under-16 and Under-18 teams.

During his national service, he was a football player for the Republic of Singapore Air Force team.

"I was also in the Brickworks Constituency team where I played with all the Chinese guys.

"That's why my Hokkien is so good," he says, adding that his prowess on the pitch even earned him the protection of gangsters in the Redhill area.

Music was his other passion.

Mentored by then popular deejay Suresh Menon, he started spinning at nightspots such as Copacabana on weekends when he was 18.

"I also danced for money," says Mr de Silva, who took part in several disco-dancing competitions.

"I'd dance in shows which sometimes paid $200 or $300 a night."

He considered but decided against football as a professional career. His dream was to become an air steward with Singapore Airlines instead.

"I thought the pay and the allowances were pretty good. I went for several interviews and made it all the way to the swimming test but didn't get it.

"Maybe they didn't want guys like us lah, we're too macho," he jokes.

He turns serious. "Maybe I was lucky I didn't get into SQ. They say that if God closes one door, he opens another one for you."

That door led him to the hospitality industry. He got a job as a busboy or commis waiter - the lowest-ranked waiter in a restaurant - at Hilton Hotel after completing his national service in 1981.

"My starting salary was $308 a month," recalls Mr de Silva, adding that he worked split shifts to earn more money and help the family.

His diligence saw him getting two promotions in three years, and he was soon working in the Harbour Grill, the hotel's fine dining restaurant. The restaurant's French maitre d' changed his life.

"He was my mentor and he inspired me. He was so elegant when he worked, like when he carved salmon in front of diners," he says.

"I told myself that I would one day be the maitre d' or manager of a restaurant too, and I worked towards that."

So determined was he that he studied French at the Alliance Francaise for nearly four years, and read up all he could about food and wines during his breaks.

"My colleagues were going to movies or seeing their girlfriends during breaks. I was at the restaurant learning my French or reading up about sauces."

The hard work paid off.

His next stop was at Hotel Le Meridien's Restaurant de France, which had three-Michelin star chef Louis Outhier at its helm.

Mr de Silva started out as captain and was soon its assistant restaurant manager, drawing a monthly salary of $1,400.

"Until I was 27, I gave all of my salary to my mother. I lived on my tips and fees from part-time work like deejaying," he says.

By then, he knew he had talent in the industry.

He just needed to hone his skills and work hard.

In 1985, he moved to Westin Stamford and Westin Plaza as restaurant manager of the Palm Grill.

He considers this to be one of the highlights of his career.

Besides overseeing the day-to-day operations at the Palm Grill, he also helped to prepare operations and training manuals and also conducted a wine education programme for the hotel's 17 food and beverage outlets.

Down Under beckoned next. One of his former bosses offered him a job as maitre d' of Denison's Restaurant at the Sheraton in Brisbane.

Mr de Silva recalls: "One of the first things he told me when I went there was, 'Every time people interact with you, I want them to learn from you.'

"From then, I made sure I imparted my knowledge in my interactions." He did well in Brisbane.

"I was the star," he says with a laugh. Apparently, the management liked him so much that they used him as the face of the restaurant in their daily newspaper advertisements.

After the Sheraton, there was also a stint with the Conrad Hotel and Jupiters Casino.

After about four years, he came home when his father fell sick and died shortly after.

He continued to make strides in the industry, although he was strategic about climbing the corporate ladder. "Sometimes to get forward, you have to take a couple of steps backwards," he says.

In 1991, he agreed to a demotion after leaving his F&B manager position at Le Meridien Changi to become a restaurant manager at the Grand Hyatt.

But his five years at the Hyatt proved invaluable. Not only was he given opportunities to help in pre-openings of various outlets in Hyatt hotels around the region, but he also became the first Singaporean to complete the hotel chain's corporate development programme in 1994.

The next two decades were spent as F&B director at some of the country's finest hotels, including Mandarin Oriental, The Fullerton Hotel Singapore and The St Regis Singapore, as well as in hotels and resorts in Taiwan, Beijing, Thailand and the Maldives.

He is now serving out his notice at the Goodway Hotel in Batam, where he has been its general manager for the last three years. Next month, he will assume the position of general manager at a high-end boutique hotel in Bangkok.

There have been, he says, many proud moments in his career.

"In 2007, I planned, organised and executed the first Starwood Asia-Pacific F&B Conference in Bangkok for chefs and F&B directors from 168 hotels," he says proudly. And in 2012, when he was with The St Regis Singapore, he won the F&B Manager of The Year at the World Gourmet Summit.

Psychometric tests pin him down as a change agent, he says.

"What other people do, I won't do. What other people won't do, I do," says Mr de Silva, who is married to a former office manager with whom he has two children, aged 10 and 15.

"And I don't rest on my laurels. I'm never satisfied with satisfactory results," he declares.

This perfectionist streak has not always gone down well with all his bosses.

"I've had bosses who nurtured me, but I've also worked with superiors who felt threatened that I would upstage them," he says.

One of his biggest dreams is to develop and nurture local talent.

"I'm proof that you can go far in this industry if you work hard.

"I want to challenge myself.

"If I'm good, I want to make others, especially Singaporeans, even better than I am."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'ItChangedMyLife He slogs his way up to run high-end hotels'. Print Edition | Subscribe