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The young guns of local chinese cuisine
IT is an open secret that Singapore is facing a succession crisis among chefs. This comes in the wake of negative connotations associated with the kitchen and the curbing of foreign talents, which add to the woes that have existed for a long time. Chef Francis Chong, executive Chinese chef of Marina Mandarin Singapore, laments that the long hours and hard work in the kitchen are deemed especially daunting by most of the young entrants to the trade. To make matters worse, donning the apron is often seen as dirty and messy, and less "glamorous" compared to other professions.
The growing affluence of Singapore families has also created a new generation that is pampered - unwilling and unable to undergo hardship. Chef Cheah Kok Lai, who is the executive chef of Peony Jade Restaurant as well as one of the committee members of the Society of Chinese Cuisine Chefs (Singapore), adds: "The young Singaporeans do not take harsh words well from the seniors. Right now, most of the trainees come from Malaysia, and they are willing to endure the hard work especially during weekends and public holidays."
Although being a chef has been "in" for the past decade - thanks largely to the dedicated food channels on television as well as food lifestyle publications - many seem to prefer working in the Western kitchen.
Timothy Kao, a culinary lecturer, shares his view: "The Chinese kitchen is always perceived as a harsher environment with faster pace and high heat from the wok stations. Traditionally, work rotation is also slow as Chinese chefs expect skill mastery before promotion to the next station, which takes one to two years in each station. Whereas Western kitchens have a better image in Singapore with more media focus and a better structured training curriculum employed in most culinary schools."
This ties in with the view that when seeking skills certifications, most students opt for Western cuisine training as they feel it enhances their professionalism and employability. Mr Kao goes on to add: "I do see positive changes in the past three years as several restaurants recognise this problem and are identifying talents for succession planning and some restaurant groups have started working closely with culinary schools and exploring SkillsFuture initiatives."
The Society of Chinese Cuisine Chefs (Singapore) has been organising numerous events to raise the visibility of Chinese and local cuisine, including the recent Youth Culinary Competition, which was co-organised by Unilever Food Solutions, where young cooks or chefs were encouraged to showcase their talents. Such gatherings also offer opportunities for the junior members of the craft to socialise and exchange ideas and skills.
Chef Pung Lu Tin, a member of the society, says: "This is a platform to attract more young culinary talents to compete; it is also through such events that they get to communicate with their contemporaries, to learn from their strengths and then better themselves. This way, they can absorb the creativity of others, add in their own interpretations, and create yet another unique dish. This, I believe, is the true purpose of the competition."
This year's tournament saw 26 competitors from 18 restaurants, accompanied by their respective supervising chefs. While these young creators tried to retain the essence of Chinese cooking techniques and flavours, plating was quite obviously slanted to Western styles.
Chef Cheah remarks: "This trend is a natural progression where East and West meet at the dining table. It works especially well during business lunches and small gatherings. However, when it comes to banquets and formal events, most clients prefer the traditional plating style."
THE SOCIETY OF CHINESE CUISINE CHEFS (SINGAPORE) – YOUTH CULINARY COMPETITION 2016 WINNERS
Chef Teoh Yong Hui - Marina Mandarin Singapore
CHEF Teoh Yong Hui may be one of the junior members in the Marina Mandarin Singapore's kitchen, but it did not stop him from winning the gold award of this year's competition. Chef Teoh crossed over from the other end of the Causeway in 2012 to study at Shatec.
Although his initial intention was to learn baking, he started his apprenticeship at Li Bai. For two years, he slogged to learn the basics before moving to his current employment this year.
With the help of Chef Francis Chong, his three-component creation comprised some hard-to-master techniques such as deep-fried yam paste. Working to perfect this element alone required him to fry the yam paste more than 30 times to pin down the correct method.
Chef Chris Ling - Jia Wei Chinese Restaurant
CHEF Chris Ling, who loves to eat, has a retired chef as a father; so it seems a natural progression for him to enter the ranks. Chef Ling joined Jia Wei Chinese Restaurant as soon as he arrived in Singapore five years ago.
Unlike most junior chefs, he proudly declares that the larger part of learning in this restaurant was on how to be a better and disciplined person. This is a crucial trait, he feels, for a good chef requires strict discipline in the kitchen and good morals for his subordinates to follow.
The first years were tough. His scope of work involved mainly low-end tasks such as cutting, marinating and cleaning. It was only recently that chef Ling was promoted to the co-ordinating role between the different sections of the kitchen.
For his competition creation, he was guided by his executive chef and decided to showcase his skills in handling Chinese puff pastry. Using two different types of dough, Chef Ling managed to create a clear, multi-layered vase-shaped pastry. Even the seasoning of the meat filling was spot-on with a heavy slant towards South-east Asian flavours.
Chef Leong Wei Hong - Imperial Feast Restaurant
CHEF Leong is only 22 but has come a long way to being an award-winning chef with his 5-Coloured Dragon Roll.
When he first moved to Singapore from Kluang, he worked in a zhi char restaurant.
He was determined to be taken seriously as a professional chef, and decided to join Imperial Feast Restaurant two years ago.
Under the strict tutelage of Chef Wu Hai Feng, who was himself a trained chef from Guangzhou, chef Leong is now picking up the basics of traditional cooking techniques from scratch.
Chef Leong's Bronze Award-winning dish arose from the suggestion of a Thai colleague. The strong herbal flavours come from various South-east Asian herbs, especially basil. The outer, thin bread skin of the crustacean roll was again coated heavily with chopped herbs to deliver a flavour that complemented the meat well.
Chef Keng Chek Hong - Peony Jade Restaurant
CHEF Keng came to Singapore in 2007 after helping his uncle at a seafood restaurant in Perak. He spent the first few years learning basic food preparation at the back of the kitchen before being promoted to the wok recently. Influenced by his previous and current stints with different chefs, he explores the principle of incorporating Western techniques into Chinese cooking. In his creation, he added a whole flower crab claw to the prawn paste to lend different textures and form as a centrepiece.
The Western touch comprised a very thin slice of bread that acted as a "skin" before deep-frying, while Chef Keng's strong Asian heritage was evoked by his Asian spicy sauce.