My first week as a cook
I will never ever forget the first week of my life as a cook.
The Snack Culture Company, which later evolved to become the current The Bento People , opened for business on the 24th of November 2014. And for its first weeks of operations, I was the only cook manning the kitchen. Without any prior experience in this, I had neither the knowledge of the processes nor the relationships with suppliers that makes a commercial kitchen ticks. I had to rely on sheer common sense and determination.
My day would start at about 3am - getting ingredients and other supplies for the day from the 24hr NTUC at Nex or the wet market at Toa Payoh lorong 6 near my home. With the operations still so new and without any clear visibility on the amount needed of each ingredient for each day of business, I was not able to get my supplies delivered by any trade suppliers yet (of course then, I also didn't know who the major trade suppliers were since I was so new to this)
And by about 4am I would be in the kitchen doing 'mise en place' ( a nice sounding french phrase for preparation of ingredients necessary for cooking during meal service ), i.e. washing, cutting and part cooking of ingredients.
And by 12 noon, the hungry office lunch crowd would come and it would be a frentic 2 hours of multi-tasking, handling multiple frying pans and many other kitchen equipment all at the same time.
This would be followed by stewarding (another nice sounding word for something a lot more mundane - washing of dishes and cleaning of kitchen) and other necessary work to keep the place running and ready for the next day.
And it would be about 10pm before we would be able to roll down the shutters to call it a day. My wife, my 17 year old son (sacrificing his end of JC1 year end holidays to help us) and I would head to some coffeeshop for some food (usually our first meal of the night or even the day) before heading home. We would usually reach home no earlier than 11pm and get to bed no earlier than 12 midnight.
Then at 2am I would crawl out of bed again to head to the supermarkets or wet markets to get the ingredients needed for the day so as to reach the outlet by 3am to do the necessary mise en place.
That was my daily routine for the first weeks of our operations. I of course knew this was not sustainable and I needed to get help and also to get things in the kitchen better organised but until then, I really had no other choice and just had to soldier on.
Buay Chye, God and I
Soon, concerned friends were telling me to hire a cook fast before I collapse out of exhaustion. It was easier said than done, F&B manpower was notoriously scarce and in any case, I really didn't have any time nor the energy left after managing the day's work, to put up job ads, call up or interview candidates.
One morning at about 4 am, I was doing the usual mise en place in the kitchen, this time soaking and cutting 'buay chye' , the chinese preserved mustard green used in the popular chinese preserved vegetable pork belly dish (梅菜扣肉). I had on the menu then a 'Hakka Hitsumabushi' that I created that consisted of 'buay chye' (梅菜), a minced pork and a Japanese style dashi tofu soup. Both my son and I loved this dish that I created, homey, hearty and yet interesting because it was meant to be eaten the same special way that people would enjoy the grilled eel dish in Nagoya with rice and soup - hence the name 'Hakka Hitsumabushi'.
But what I didn't know when I started serving this dish on the menu was how painstaking it was to prepare the buay chye. Preparing a portion big enough for the family was a 'bit' different from preparing a portion size big enough for the hungry lunch crowd. It was very very tedious and time consuming - soaking, washing and cutting the buay chye.
So there I was that day in the kitchen, 4am and alone, cutting buay chye, struggling with a knife not sharp enough for the task and getting painful blisters on my hand. I was exhausted, I was demoralised and I was desperate, I then started speaking to and 'grumbling' to God as I cut the buay chye. I told God I was not sure how much longer I could take this before I collapse, I told God I didn't want to spend the next few months cutting buay chye at 4am in the morning, I told God I really needed help and I didn't have the time or energy to put up job ads to look for cooks and in any case I didn't have any confidence that anyone would apply given how small and unknown we were then and nor would I have any time or energy to shortlist and interview candidates even if they did apply. So there I was, cutting buay chye, doing mise en place, grumpling and talking to God, asking for help.
The day I fell off my chair
The next few days went by like before. Woke at 2-3am to go to the supermarkets/wet markets, mise en place, including washing and cutting buay chye, in the kitchen from 4-5am and reaching home at about midnight before repeating the same cycle again.
Then a few days later, it happened.
It was about 5-6 pm that day, my wife Janice and I were seated at a table somewhere near the entrance of the outlet, resting, exhausted from the day's work, as usual. Then out of nowhere, this lady appeared at the entrance and she seemed to be looking for someone. Hair a bit dishevelled, I reckon her to be in her 50s, she certainly wasn't looking like she had planned for or dressed up for a day out with friends.
'Hi, errr, you looking for someone?' I asked.
'这里有没有一个 Mr Chia ? (Is there a Mr Chia here?)' she replied.
Perplexed, I responded, '这里没有Mr Chia, 我是 Mr Chan, 里面有一个 Mr Chiu'
(Translation: 'There is no Mr Chia, I am Mr Chan and there is a Mr Chiu inside')
'Eh? .......' it was her turn to be perplexed.
Then at this point, one of our staff happened to walk past and suddenly she pointed at him and said '就是他，我来找他' ('That's him, he is whom I am looking for')
They then sat down and started to chat, I thought they were old friends but as it turned out, I realised they were mere acquaintances who hardly knew each other, had never really spoken to each other before and who didn't even get each other's names correctly.
I left them alone and went about doing my own stuff. They spoke for like what seemed like more than an hour. Then I received a whatsapp message from my staff who was speaking to her saying, 'Boss, I think you should join us, she wants to ask you something'
When I joined them at the table, my staff told me, 'Boss, she is a cook and she is interested in working here.'
Although excited that a cook had just walked in and asked for a job at a time when I was so desperately in need of help in the kitchen, I was nonetheless wary, given the 'unusual' circumstances and manner that this was happening. So I began to ask her many questions.
Then I asked her, '你说你会煮，那你的拿手菜是什么'
(Then I asked her. 'You say you can cook, tell me what is the your signature dish')
'梅菜扣肉' she replied.
('Buay Chye.' she replied)
I fell off my chair.
She was hired on the spot and started work with us the very next day.
NOTES: Some things I found out only later -
She had actually been working as a cook for more than 20 years, and in the past many months been working on a permanent part-time basis with a big F&B group. And on that day that she appeared at our door, she was actually on the way to her work place to settle some admin work but for some reasons unknown to her, she sat down at the MRT station for quite a while instead of heading to her work place. Whilst at the MRT station, she suddenly recalled this acquaintance (She thought his name was Mr Chia, which it was not) and remembered him saying he was working with us and she, for some reason unknown even to her, decided to make a detour to come visit this acquaintance whom she remembered out of the blue, at our outlet instead of heading to her work place. She was not looking for a job at all but somehow ended up asking for a job even though she already had a permanent part-time position with a big F&B group with which she was very happy with.
(Photo taken at home, when we created it for the first time)
It was created by my son Ryan and I.
Ryan loves Nagoya's Hitsumabushi ( grilled eel on rice with soup that can be eaten 3 ways)
I love buay chye. So we put both our favourite dishes together and made this Hakka Hitsumabushi - buay chye, minced pork basil onigiri and tofu soup as seen in picture above.
It was available on the lunch menu of The Snack Culture Company for a few months, before The Snack Culture Company became The Bento People.
To read my blog post on how my current restaurant, The Bento People was born, visit >>> Why and How The Bento People was birthed.
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