My next move was hazy, at best. I spent some time surfing the Philippines – the stoke had set in and it was too late to escape the event horizon of my addiction. I had begun sending out CVs and attending interviews, looking for options in restaurants and hotels here and abroad. I finally got a job offer in an Italian restaurant in Hong Kong – Linguini Fini.
I was super excited and immediately went over to have a chat with the head chef, look for places to stay and fix my papers with the help of my employer-to-be. “The working visa will take a month to process,” said the immigration officer in Hong Kong. Cool. I had a month to enjoy at home before I moved and worked abroad for the first time!
The time came and I received the mail: my visa was rejected, no reason was given. I cried, and it felt good to cry. After months of high hopes and excitement, the door was shut on me. Months earlier, the botched police rescue mission on the massacred Hong Kong nationals in Manila was all over world news. It was easier to attribute my visa denial on politics than on my own inadequacies. I’ll never find out why they didn’t give me that visa, but my life would have taken a whole different spin had I been taken in as a migrant worker in Hong Kong.
My parents, knowing very well of my desire to experience life abroad, offered to support me to take a culinary course in another country, if I wanted to. So I took the opportunity and looked for a school and course I was interested in. I am one of the few fortunate enough to have been born into a family supported by open-minded, hard working, successful and generous parents.
I decided on Le Cordon Bleu – the classic French institution known to many in the culinary world. I wanted to study in Japan: I was fascinated with their history, culture and cuisine. Unfortunately, my plans changed upon discovering I needed to know Japanese before being admitted. I was deliberating between the UK, USA, or Australia – then chose the latter.
It was a no-brainer. The slow-paced lifestyle and surf culture of Australia lured me in like pollen does bees. Instead of redundantly taking Culinary Arts again, I wanted to dip my feet in unfamiliar waters so I chose to study Patisserie, even if I didn’t really have a thing for cakes, chocolates or sweets. It was very interesting and was more like science and chemistry than anything else.
Always coming home with more than I could eat, my neighbors were more than happy to receive all the cakes, desserts and chocolates I made at school: A Lemon Tart here, an layered cake there, dozens of Profiteroles stuffed with Pastry Cream, Meringues, Custards, Chocolate Truffles, and every other classic French pastry item you can think of that I’ve never heard of.
I found a job alongside my schooling in my first few weeks in the country, as was recommended by our school, for experience and to beef up our CVs for the internship at the end of the program. My patisserie classes only took up 3 days of my week, while my job gave me single or double shifts 2 or 3 times a week.
I was hired at the Box Jellyfish Rotisserie – a restaurant at the Rocks near Circular Quay in Sydney – quite a pricey place for regular fare, to cater to local and foreign tourists, no doubt. This was quite fun, as I was shuffled around the busy kitchens to cater to their operational needs. Sometimes I was helping out in the functions kitchen, which catered to mostly business meetings or wedding functions for up to 200 people a day; other times I was in the main service kitchen helping in the pizza section, the seafood section or the cold kitchen and desserts.
Most of the staff were non-residents from Nepal, the Philippines or India, with some from Europe and the Americas. It was my first experience with such a diverse bunch, and suffice it to say, it was very intimidating. Most were more senior than me, grumpy, aggressive and impatient – what else would you expect from such a stressful atmosphere? Even if I asked for help and asked to help, I didn’t receive a warm welcome from most.
There were some very warm and kind people though, and they helped me adjust and work to my full potential. Like in most new jobs, the new guy is always tasked with getting supplies from the store rooms, walk-in chillers and freezers; alongside this is the collection of equipment needed for the tasks at hand: trolleys, food trays, chopping boards, knives and other tools.
It was a very busy restaurant and so the kitchen was always busy as well. The Box Jellyfish Rotisserie was adequately staffed but sorely lacking in kitchen space and storage space. There also was no such thing as personal space here. Everyone was in everyone’s face all the time, perhaps that’s why most were perpetually in a bad mood.
The hardest thing was memorizing where everything was kept: they had several freezers, chillers and dry storage rooms which didn’t seem to follow any systematic ordering. There were kitchens at the far ends of a long hallway and on 2 floors, so sometimes I would be sent on missions to collect equipment that just wasn’t there.
Everyone “borrowed” things without returning, and so things were eventually lost in the fray. Somewhere. In the midst of hurrying to complete one of several missions to find a list of equipment, I remembered my acceptance interview when the head chef told me not to bring my own knife, as things had a habit of disappearing. Ahh, no wonder.
It wasn’t exactly a dirty kitchen or unhygienic, but it was very unorganized and filled to the brim with people, equipment and supplies. An expansion was needed. They were raking it in, clearly, and I suppose the owners just didn’t care about the state of affairs at the back of the house.
The food was average and nothing to write home about. Cold Seafood platters, pizzas, pastas, steaks, confits, roasts – it was contemporary Aussie cuisine – whatever that is. Intercontinental.
Everyone was working to survive and I hardly saw it – except for in perhaps one or two – the love for the job, the passion that I myself lacked as much. So maybe we were all in the same boat after all. But I shouldn’t assume.
In the end, I made good friends in that place, fattened up my CV, made good money and learned some useful tricks of the trade. Win-win-win. Like I said, if I had gone to Hong Kong instead, my life would have taken a whole different turn, and I’m glad things turned out the way they did.