SINGAPORE - At just 13, Mr Spencer Tay started devouring cooking shows on TV, a pastime which stirred in him a passion for cooking.
By 14, he was whipping up a braised meat dish, with his mother supervising.
Four years later, he was helping out at the pau stall his parents ran at a hawker centre in the West Coast area.
Now a chef de partie at the three Michelin-starred Les Amis in Shaw Centre, the 26-year-old said: "I was always better at hands-on work, rather than studying and reading books. Cooking was interesting, and fun, to me."
Mr Tay, who graduated in 2016 with a Technical Diploma in Culinary Arts from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), said it was a natural choice for him to pick a Nitec course in Western culinary arts in 2012 when he left secondary school.
He eventually ended up at French culinary school Institut Paul Bocuse (IPB) in Lyon, France, where he spent three months on an exchange programme in 2013.
It was that stint which gave him a preview of the technical diploma programme.
Conducted in collaboration with IPB, the programme, which started in 2011, sees only a few accepted every year.
Over 200 have graduated from the 2½-year course, which received its 10th batch of students this year.
ITE first signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with IPB in 2008 to conduct the course, then renewed it in 2015 for another five years. Last Thursday (Nov 12), both institutions renewed it again for another four years.
In a speech at the MOU signing last week, ITE chief executive Low Khah Gek noted that the partnership has given ITE students the opportunity to hone their craft in France.
A number of students completed their final attachment in Michelin-starred restaurants such as La Pyramide and Chateau de Bagnols in France, "exposing them to a diverse working culture and understanding of what it takes to be a top chef", said Ms Low.
Mr Dominique Giraudier, chief executive of IPB, said: "I know that we have learnt a lot from each other and that we have been inspired by each other. In a way, it is already a win-win situation and we have to go even further."
Mr Tay recalled interning in 2015 at French fine dining restaurant Les Amis during the technical diploma programme.
In January 2019, he returned to the restaurant as a full-time employee. This was after graduating in 2016 and fulfilling his two years of national service.
Currently, he plays the role of an "aboyeur" - someone who accepts orders from the dining room, relays them to the appropriate stations of the kitchen, and checks each plate before it leaves the kitchen.
Mr Tay said that working in a top restaurant is not as stressful as one would imagine.
"In our restaurant, we do the same things (in our roles) every day. When we've mastered it, then we may move on to other roles. The techniques I learnt in ITE have really boosted my confidence."
Mr Sebastien Lepinoy, who is director of culinary and operations at Les Amis Restaurant, said he has been very impressed by ITE students from the technical diploma programme who have interned at his restaurant.
"The students who join us are passionate, hardworking, and are more than willing to learn and ask questions to improve their craft... Having a good foundation allows them to adapt very quickly to their role and the pace in my kitchen."