Hi everyone! Firstly, I wanted to say thank you for following my journeys as a travelling Chef.
If you’ve just joined us welcome and you’re more than welcome to catch up on my previous chapters
I’ve titled this blog Earning my stripes as I feel; In life, One has times of turbulence and stillness and if you have the strength to see it through, it will build character and You will have a story to be told.
The day came when I was to start Culinary School.
Reality check, and there I thought it would be easy, just like they portray on TV or MasterChef or on any of those reality tv cooking shows.
Squeaky clean, polished and everyone being so nice, oh boy….
Boy, was I wrong… I lived on campus so I could fully focus and absorb as much as I could, I worked my ass off, I hustled for this in the last 18 months and it was just the beginning. And I soon realized that this was no holiday camp…
You don’t go to school to become the best chef in the world right after you graduate. Culinary School is always a starting point so what people forget is that you go to school to build a foundation, and you want to build a foundation that’s not going to crumble.
I guess my independence and experience from working in the U.K and in a couple of other places, had seasoned me for what lay ahead to a degree at least. It didn’t take long for the men to be sorted from boys. Being a few years older and with previous industry experience did not work in my favour at all. Admittedly it’s probably what put the target on my back. Most of my peers were very green, fresh out of high school. Young guns, rich and arrogant. Eager and ready to be moulded. I can’t speak for all of them, but for me, my outlook was slightly different, I knew what I wanted, I already knew where I was heading.
Looking back, I’ve come to realize after years. That all the hard yards, challenges, late nights researching and early morning farmers market shifts were all part of the foundation and training. The challenges were there to build us into a thoroughbred Chefs. Our executive Chef lecturer; Chef Dixi was ‘Old School’ 100 pleat chef toque type Chef, with a least 3 maybe 4 decades of experience and She was as tough as an old boot. She drove me hard every day. Drilling and instilling pride, standards, and knowledge to the point where we clashed and I thought many a time, this is ridiculous. I was investing to become a Chef, I didn’t need a psychologist. She challenged me at every turn but never once did I think I was going to walk. I had worked too hard for this, I was not about to give someone else the pleasure of breaking my back, I was not going to give anyone an ounce of my passion, so I persisted and pushed back.
The institution was structured and very competitive. We would have group challenges, individual cook-offs. Themed evenings, where our group would have to elect a Head Chef, we would have to plan, cost, organize and execute a menu and this would include front of house, table setting, and décor all within a budget. And this would be sold to the general public. Saturday morning Farmer’s market stalls. Thrown in-between the theory, business management, and other various classes, the course was intensive. Scrub downs were done weekly where every piece of movable equipment would be pulled from the kitchen and scrubbed. Cast iron pans would be descaled and seasoned with rock salt and oil, every single pot and pan would be scrubbed until there was no soot on the underside. Walls, fridges, floors, dry stores even under the sinks – every single inch would be touched.
All students would be checked upon entering the kitchen, whites and aprons had to be pressed, shoes clean and polished, hats hard starched. For some reason I would be looked over twice, the cotton wool would come out and my chin would be rubbed, if any fluff caught I would be sent back to the dorm to shave. God forbid if you were late. I regularly got called out in lessons for how I would use my knife.
Our living quarters were co-ed. I was allocated a room outside of the main building, I was sharing the room with a big bloke and honestly, we didn’t have much in common at all. We were from different worlds and our paths in life would never ordinarily have crossed. The other students all lived upstairs in the main block. There were many budding romances in those confined rooms, but I guess what else would you expect from having a bunch of young not even 20 something-year-olds all in close quarters. Myself included I met a beautiful girl that would follow me around the globe and one day become my wife.
The first time I cooked for her… was like someone dropped teargas. I have always had a close bond with Thai cuisine, being raised in Thailand I had strong ties to the flavour profiles and culture. So I asked her, ‘do you like chilli, spicy?’ And she said not really, she admitted that she had never really eaten it. So I made a Thai stir-fry but let me tell you, those chillies were weapons of mass destruction. Soon as they hit the wok they vaporized, my eyes were going I could barely see, and as the fumes travelled upstairs like heat-seeking missiles, everyone who was upstairs in the common room was coughing like some airborne zombie apocalypse virus had been released. After the vapour had cleared we sat and ate together. I could see she was uncomfortable, there was a thin film of sweat forming over her brow. But I think she thought I would take offence if she didn’t eat it, let me tell you I roasted her tastebuds off.
Weeks turned into months and we all developing into chefs. At one point I was banned from going into the common room.
Feeling quite ostracized at this point I did my best to fly under the radar, kept to myself not out of choice but I guess I was surrounded by so much heat, no one really wanted to get in the mix with me, so I immersed myself deeper into the craft. I would stay up to the early hours of the morning, partly because my roomie was a heavy snorer, many nights I would hurl a wet dishcloth across the room in his direction, to try and get him to turn over. It was like sitting next to a band saw. I find I have more clarity in the depth of the darkest night. I would put my headphones on and delve into my research I was particularly interested in the Science behind the Cooking, the Processes. What effect heat has on ingredients; what actually happens inside the pot. I would challenge our lecturers with my new-found knowledge, not to test them, but actually to get the rest of the students thinking.
It just occurred to me. My troubles may have started the on the morning I was walking back to my dormitory, when I saw a white VW golf, under the assumption it was my classmate Noel. I dropped my chequered pants and ‘mooned’ the car! To my surprise and the shock of the other, it most definitely wasn’t Noel, it happened to be our junior lecturer and to top it off – it was her birthday. Which doesn’t surprise me at all, because when I screw up, I do it in style. No half measures at all. She nearly ran me over. I laugh about it today but back then I was in for a world of pain.
It was a rough time, all I wanted to do was qualify so I could get on my horse and ride off into the next chapter. I had to be patient I wasn’t even halfway through yet. There was much to learn.
As the months passed, I was beginning to feel like a well-honed knife, sharpened with an incredible edge.
I stumbled across a Young Chefs’ competition and decided to enter. I shared it with my peers and Chef Dixi as I needed her approval to go out of State and challenge myself against other young chefs from other top schools. My luck was turning; I was selected along with 2 others from the College. I think she was incredibly proud of us. She began coaching us and this is where I got my back up. I truly believed that this was all me. I wanted to size myself up, I didn’t need her input. I wanted to challenge myself. Risky call I know, so I ran with it.
To my surprise, she respected my choice and allowed me to practice my dishes. I wrote my menus worked on my timelines, worked on my garnishes and timing. I practised those dishes over and over, found what worked and what didn’t. All of a sudden I went from the bottom of the barrel to one of her golden boys. I wasn’t fooled for a moment. But I stayed humble. Quietly working in the background while Chef was coaching the others with recipes and plating ideas.
The day came and we marched into battle; My knives were sharp and I was as prepared as I could be.
It was a head to head cook-off with 15 other chefs, 2 ½ hours – 12 plates. Entrees, Mains, and Dessert 4 plates apiece. The competition was stiff. I could feel the tension in the air. Competing against chefs from around the county from top Culinary schools. After a quick 15-minute setup it was lights out and Go! Sabotage was rife within the kitchen. I had to keep one eye on the task at hand and the other on my oven, as I found some dirty rat would keep turning my oven up when my back was turned. I had to keep my cool, the judges were observing everything. I wasn’t going to be pushed up against the ropes. I was surprisingly calm, but at the same time absolutely focussed in the heat of the kitchen. There was no deviation from the plan, stay calm, work smart, stay clean – minimize waste and don’t be late. Time flew by and the next thing I knew the judges were calling, “15-minutes chefs, Starting thinking about plating”
With a last push to the end, I managed to get everything on the plate with a few minutes to spare, all the elements were beautifully cooked, the colours bright and vibrant. My canvas was a splash of colour, flavour, and texture. I was happy, I was proud of the dishes I put up. As the judges deliberated it felt like an eternity, we had gone as far as we could go. The judges came back in and thanked us all for the efforts we put in… and that was it. We all had to wait until the prize giving the following day.
My comrades from Chef school had a ripper of a day too. We came together over dinner along with Chef Dixi and discussed our day in the bullpen. Chef was gleaming in pride that her Young Chefs stepped up and gave it their all, regardless of our history. I don’t think any of us got any sleep that night. Doubt, elation followed by exhaustion and then the morning sunrise.
A short drive from the hotel we arrived at the convention centre. All the competitors were back everyone looking in the same state I was feeling. Shattered! As the judges flossed over the speeches and we had lunch we got to the point, the reason we came. Prize giving and results. Straight out the gate, they called third place, with a rush of adrenaline, I waited anxiously …. Runner up was called, it was my colleague from School, we stood up and hugged, I congratulated her. At that moment I thought I had lost it. They moved on to the next announcement. And this year’s Goldcrest young chef of the year is….. Chef Tim Lee. I was floored, I couldn’t believe it. I looked over at Chef Dixi and I could see the tears of joy streaming down her face, she nodded at me like what the hell are you waiting for, go get ‘em son! I think at that moment I had confirmation, a small piece of self-worth, that I could do this. I was finally being recognized as a force to be reckoned with.
With all the highs and lows of going through Culinary school. It was a tremendous experience. It was only until years later, did I realize. What Chef Dixi’s intentions were. She must have seen something in me, so she pushed hard, she drove me until almost breaking point then reeled me back in. She was instilling standards, a sense of pride and above all attention to detail.
So the year unwound and I graduated with distinctions in all my levels, I received a tasting spoon from the Chef lecturers with the name ‘Moon’ inscribed on it. I was set I achieved much higher than I ever anticipated.
Once you decide on your occupation… you must immerse yourself in your work. You have to fall in love with your work. You will fail, you will make a lot of mistakes but never complain about your job. Learn from the experience. You must dedicate your life to mastering your craft. That’s the secret of success… and is the key to being regarded honourably.
After about 10 years I reached out to Chef Dixi and during that conversation, she admitted to me, it’s always the difficult ones that make it. I have had a few stand out mentors in my time. I truly appreciate their patience with me and their willingness to share the collective knowledge of our craft with me.
Stay tuned, we’ll be back with the next instalment soon…Spreading my wings