Restaurant Internship

 June - July 2011

A Brand New Start With A Brand New Heart

I visited one of my favourite restaurants recently and enjoyed as always their good food and chic ambience.  The service staff however seemed somewhat 'zombied' and I was desperately looking for some passion in the place. Two days later, it still bothered me and I decided to post on the restaurant's facebook page. After 3 wall postings, I was invited to meet with them for an opportunity to learn in the kitchen! They are prepared to take in someone with zero kitchen experience but high on passion. Wow.

I am super excited to be an intern at age 46 in a cool restaurant. At less than US$5 an hour, I am also officially lower paid than my domestic helper at home. Even my teenage daughter makes more in a weekend job distributing pamphlets to passers-by on the road. That's something like a 95% pay cut, I think. How awesome is that. My mom will think I've gone bonkers and a shrink may diagnose this as a midlife crisis syndrome. Or it could be plain "lao-hiao" (old and vain).

So I have just turned my own world upside down. I have killed all sacred cows in my mind about work and how to be 'productive'. My appetite for change is bigger than I had previously thought, and it's making me nervous and excited all at once.

Armed with my new pair of "Shoes for Crew" and a bandana to my head, I am reminded of Ephesians 6 as I march into the unchartered territory of a commercial, hot, greasy kitchen. This is my brand new start with a brand new heart.

First Day At Work

Punctuality and dependability I thought are important traits to exhibit as an intern, so despite my apprehension and nervousness, I made sure I turned up today and that I was there on time. One by one, the crew strolled in. No one spoke but everyone looked busy immediately. I was provided with the smallest chef jacket available and it suited me just fine. A chef's jacket is double breasted which serves to conceal stains on the jacket as one side can be rebuttoned over the other. How clever. I put on my brand new chef shoes and my $4 bandana, a good investment for a virgin chef until I remember my pay again. I stole a quick minute in the ladies to snap this for my blog. Do I look "cheffy"? Or maybe more like a  Jewish woman from the labour camp.

I spent the next 5 hours cutting bags of all sorts of mushrooms - shitake, portobello, white buttons - peeling onions, sorting the mixed salads, baby spinach and wild rockets. I could decide to dump an onion if I didn't think it was fresh. Such empowerment for an intern! There was no Gordon Ramsay to humiliate with his vulgarities, no Jamie Oliver food ambassador and certainly no Catherine Zeta-Jones glam. Everyone knew their jobs and the kitchen functioned to the precision of a Swiss clock work. The sous chef clearly directed the activities of the 5-member crew and knew exactly which tables had already been served and which ones were next. Office crowd, they have only an hour, so his team needs to be efficient, he tells me later. No shouting or yelling needed, just quiet, confident, assured instructions given at the right moments to steer the crew. No prima donnas, the goal is more important than the role.

It's nothing I've ever done in my life, using so much of my hands and so little of my brains. It would have gotten monotonous very quickly if I did not enjoy it so much. Exactly what is there to enjoy about menial work I don't know but it's such a refreshing change. And I have a ferocious appetite for change. No problems to solve, no one to impress, no strategy to develop, just try to make the pieces equal in size.

I have so much more thoughts to share but I am dog-tired - my neck aches from looking down so much. Should have developed those core muscles as the husband has been saying. I need to maintain a good posture the next time round, which will be very soon.

It's been anything but another Monday, and I'm loving it.

The Evil Onion Has Many Liars

I'm spending so much time with the onions I now have conversations with them to get to know them better.  I also dumped a few onions today on my own accord after watching on Youtube last night that a fresh onion should feel heavy. Intern power!

Hand-cut onion rings are a big-time favourite in this restaurant and I can see why - so much love goes into this dish here! The outer rings are soaked in milk and water overnight before they are tenderly powdered with sieved flour flavored with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Each ring is carefully inspected at various stages of the process and the sous chef is particular about the final product before it makes it to the dining table. He showed me some poor quality ones today and junked them without the least hesitation. He has also encouraged me to taste whatever comes my way - how's that for a job? Part of being a chef is always tasting your food every step of the way.

The garlic complained to the onion, "You stink!"

Chef Fight Night
There is nothing I love as much as a good fight. - Franklin D Roosevelt

It started with some silly teasings and quickly evolved into a heated argument. Raised voices interrupted my thoughts as I snipped away at a pile of fried bacon streaks, another menial task to enjoy. Kitchen work is unbelievably labour-intensive. In a matter of seconds, I found myself in the line of fire between 2 young men with raging hormones. The last time I encountered fights was when my brother was a teenager some 30 years back! I grabbed my tray of streaky bacons and got myself out of harms way.

Don't want no flying daggers coming at me. Can you imagine the headline, 46-year-old intern dies on third day of work. Wah piang!

Lashing out in the corporate world is more... how shall I say... civilised? We scar people with hurtful words and hostile looks, we backstab and kiss ass when we should be kicking ass. I've never come close to seeing a physical scuffle in a boardroom so sadistic as it sounds, I was kinda enjoying this little drama in the kitchen today. This is the new world I've chosen to step into and it's an eye-opener to work alongside mainly men half my age. And they're not exactly your PhD holders.  (Yes, the commercial kitchen is male-dominated and there are pots too heavy for me and items too high to reach.) It amuses me to see tattooed men cutting chiffonades with such finesse.

There's clearly a conflict to be resolved and the sous chef will have to deal with this in preparation for an upcoming big event. Build the team. This on top of his 20 other worries and to-dos. As an intern, no one comes to you with any problems, only assistance. Everyone is more than ready to help a handicap. How liberating it is to be the most stupid person in the room. Maybe it's for the same reason I embarked on my virgin plank LOL.

And so ends another hard labour day for this career switcher walking home with a spring to my step and a song in my heart.


Remember Chef Fighters? Well, I found out that Fighter No. 1 and all 80 kilogrammes of him got chopped. Yes, he has been fired (funny how these management terms have culinary roots). I was impressed with the decisive leadership and management style of the Sous Chef who made the call. I've seen enough uninspiring cases of low performing co-workers still lingering in the corporate office because it is easier for their managers to avoid having to make the tough decisions. It boils down (pun totally intended) to good management skills. I saw the effect on the team - morale seemed considerably higher. The crew cheerfully jumped in to take on the extra load. How's that for some decisive and inspiring leadership in the kitchen.

Home-made Rustic Focaccia Bread

My chef taught me this quick 40-minute rustic focaccia bread and I tried it today at home. Hope you enjoy my photos and write me if you are interested in getting this simple and practical recipe.

Man shall not eat by bread alone. Or shall we say, man does not eat bread on its own. My husband piled my mom's "hay-be-hiam" (dried prawn paste with chilli) on it and said it was yummy.  If HBH sounds disgusting to you, then use premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil or a bread dip as in the photo below.

Store the bread in an air-tight container. It can keep for several days.
We had some for breakfast this morning and it tasted fresh.

Chef's Jacket
My son fooling around with the chef's jacket

Sarah's Birthday

I have no idea who Sarah is but I saw her super luxurious birthday cake and wishing her "Happy Birthday" is the last thing on my mind.

The cake, brought in by a customer, looks similar to this one I found on the web - colourful, pretty and oozing of sweetness in every sense. The thick sugar coating cracks as the chef tries to cut it. He decides he needs to remove the 50 tiny ladybirds, bees, butterflies and pink dainty flowers to do a clean cut. It's now taking a while and the waitress adds some pressure on him. He gestures to me to help. I lay out the serving plates on the work surface which is actually a open-top fridge with packets of fries stored underneath. The family has requested to be served 12 cake pieces but the piece for Sarah is on a special Barbie-pink plate. The plate returns back to the kitchen: more butterflies for the birthday girl, please. I rush to pass the other plates out through the window to the service crew.

I keep wondering how much this cake must cost and how many intern hours I will need to put in to afford this luxury. I look around and wonder if others feel the same. I myself have gotten such an extravagant cake for my son but back then I did not have this perspective. I've never been on this side of the world, and it's good to see the world differently, even if uncomfortably.

Mise En What??

Mise En Place

From Wikipedia. Mise en place (pronounced [miz ɑ̃ plas], literally "putting in place") is a French phrase defined by the Culinary Institute of America as "everything in place", as in set up. It is used in professional kitchens to refer to organizing and arranging the ingredients (e.g., cuts of meat, relishes, sauces, par-cooked items, spices, freshly chopped vegetables, and other components) that a cook will require for the menu items that he or she expects to prepare during his/her shift.[1]

I was put through a "stress-test" today at the restaurant, having to man one station on my own. My job was to garnish the burger bun with the right type of vegetables and sauce as the sous chef transferred the meat patties straight from the grill. I would then pass it to the cold station where salad or fries are added before the final plate goes out the kitchen. I think there's a culinary term for this. It's called Mise en place. I have to say, it was stressful! Good stress, if I may say. 

For Burger A, it's wild rockets, pepper cream, one full tablespoon relish (sundried tomatoes and onions mixed into a paste). For Burger B, it's iceberg (lettuce), one slice of tomato, bacon and cheese on meat patty, half tablespoon relish. Burger C is walnut butter, poached pears lined like a fan, meat patty, rockets. Burger D is iceberg, 2 slices tomatoes, jalapeno or was that anchovy sauce. Burger E is lemon mayo and something and something and something...

This is what my doctor friend said she had to cope with in Medical School. Disease A is symptoms 1, 2 and 4, disease B is symptoms 2, 3, 4 and 5, and so on. I just could not remember these things and at the same time, manage the order chits such that I know which table order I'm preparing. The job requires the skill of a juggler with a photographic memory. 

By the end of the shift, I could not tell any more my left hand from my right and with a sheepish grin, I called it another intern day and left the kitchen with sore feet and a happy heart.

Onion Rings

I learned to do this during my restaurant internship days. Onion rings were a big favourite at that particular restaurant because it was prepared with so much effort, time and love. I have not found this method anywhere else on the internet so I thought it's worth giving it a shot. An American chef started this when the restaurant first opened and to this date, it remains one of the more successful dishes.

A fair bit of work so do this only if you have time, or if you have onions and milk to get rid of.
Peel onions. The onions here are actually not big enough for onion rings but I'm only experimenting so I go ahead to use them.
Cut into one-inch rings and separate them 
Soak them in milk and water overnight. Ensure all rings are separated and submerged.
Cling-wrap and store in fridge overnight.
A small kitchen joy: pulling the Cling-wrap so straight there is no crease.
Next day, scoop plain flour into your biggest mixing bowl at home. Add sea salt and black pepper. Black pepper should be visible when you mix them up 
I used this bowl and found it was still not big enough but it's all I've got
Remove rings from milk and dip into flour mixing bowl
Toss and turn them with open palms ensuring they don't stick and are fully but not heavily coated
Dip them back into the milk bowl, then back again for a second round of flour coating. What did I say about having time for this?
Repeat for all rings. If flour gets lumpy, sieve it and remove lumps.
Spread them out in one layer before frying ensuring they don't stick.
Sprinkle some flour on tray before laying them out.
Uh-oh, open and deep frying is always not my thing. Thankfully,
mom is always there for me
Many are fried but few are chosen. OK, these are the better ones handpicked for photoshoot.
Sprinkle with some sea salt flakes, very tasty!
You won't see this in any other food blog- the bad and ugly ones!
Cracked, torn, broken. The downtrodden in society!

I'm not afraid to post them (cos I'm EXTRA VIRGIN CHEF!)  'cos this really is one message I like to send to you - it is ok to get it wrong. It's about doing it! In fact, I can tell you this - these ones here, they taste better than those
you get in Burger King. Anytime. At least all my ingredients are fresh, and I know what I'm eating.
Nothing beats food from your own kitchen.
My mom, a veteran cook, actually says these taste better to her!
See, God prospers my mistakes!

My Top 7 List 

There is a chain going on in the bloggersphere through an initiative called "The 7 Links Project". Basically, a blogger invites another blogger to put up his/her top 7 blog posts and the invite continues to the next blogger. The project was started by TripBase blog who say the project is designed "to unite bloggers from all sectors in a joint endeavour to share lessons learnt and create a bank of long but not forgotten blog posts that deserve to see the light of day again."

I don't know enough bloggers to be nominated by anyone but I don't plan to sit around, waiting to be invited. So here's my top 7:

1. My Most Beautiful Post

As I started to blog and post pictures of my experience and my food, I realised the increasing importance of good photography, and so began my plate-to-pixel learning journey. And with great reluctance, I might add. Aperture and depth-of-field and all those incomprehensible abbreviations on the camera were and still are too much for my little brain to understand and absorb, much less apply. This oxtail stew post marked the start of some more decent photography compared to the old ones and I'm amazed I crossed that hurdle at a time I was learning to blog and learning to cook all in one go!

2. My Most Popular Post

An intern at 46.
"My first day at work" continues to be the most popular post amongst my readers, old and new, friends and strangers. It happened in June this year when I ditched my corporate job of 20 years and went to work in a commercial kitchen as an intern with zero kitchen experience but high on passion and at a 95% pay cut. I am pleased to see this as the most viewed post since it was the trigger for starting my blog in the first place.

The spirit of this blog space is to capture the journey of moving my own cheese when I abandoned the corporate cage to become a free-range human and replaced the keyboard with the chopping board. Closely related to this popular post was how I got the kitchen job and how different kitchen politics was from corporate politics, which were the 2 most frequently-asked questions I received.

3. My Most Controversial Post

I don't have any controversial posts but this one on Sarah's birthday did upset one person. He asked why I was condemning the rich when they had a right to celebrate and enjoy their wealth. I was of course not condemning anyone or anything. I only wanted to blog that I now had a perspective of the world of extravagance like I never did before. The Prince of Wales spent a night sleeping in the cold together with the homeless. I had a less extreme experience working side by side with low income earners. And it's made me all the more richer with this experience.

4. My Most Helpful Post

Barding, a culinary term introduced in Word of the Week to mean cooking meat
using wrapped animal fats to retain moisture
I started a category called Word of the Week in which I introduce a new culinary term every Wednesday. I have received encouraging feedback that people find this helpful especially with some illustrations, and the ever inquisitive learner always finds something new there to learn. In addition to French culinary terms, I also introduce Asian and Middle Eastern ones which you cannot find in one place on the web.

5. A Post Whose Success Surprised Me

My post on Home-made peanut butter took me 5 minutes to write but it attracted much attention and hit high pageviews. It seemed to strike a chord with people who are increasingly more conscious about the type of food they eat. Trans fat and processed food are evil and home-made or hand-made or natural are embraced with a passion. Even non-regular followers of my blog wrote to ask me more about the process. For this, I have a fellow blogger May to thank for inspiring me to try it on my own.

6. A post I feel didn't get the attention it deserved

My posting on Lucy, a 9-year-old kidney patient, received little traction.
My blenders ended up with food bloggers rather than underprivileged families.
After my restaurant internship, I signed up for a certificate course with a reputable culinary school called At-Sunrice Global Chef Academy. As part of its social responsibility, the school invited children kidney patients to experience what it is like to be Chef for a day. I posted about my experience with Lucy but was disappointed with the page view hits I got and the number of likes and comments it garnered. 

In the same vein, my blender posting did not get enough attention either. I was hoping someone would pass me a lead or 2 on any underprivileged families who may have a need for this kitchen tool but no one came forward. Instead, it attracted food bloggers who find this useful and I pray they can use it to bless others with their good food. Thankfully, the 2 winners turned out to be very sweet people. We are all blessed to be a blessing to others.

7. The post I am most proud of

Home-cured salmon, my most daring culinary adventure to date for an extra virgin chef
It has to be my 3 posts on Salmon curing, a culinary adventure I took on after hearing about it from a friend and doing my own research on the internet. In the first post, I was just thinking about doing it and shared some research findings. In the second post, I documented a step-by-step photo capture of the curing process I undertook at home. And in the final post, I showed how I served it when it was ready a few days later.

Did I tell you my next culinary adventure will be home-made duck confit (wink, wink)?

So there you have my top 7 and in the tradition of the 7 Links Project, I nominate my 2 blogger friends The Experimental Cook and Hankerie to post their own top 7.


  1. where have you been all my food blog reading life??

    1. Hello Denise! I'm following you, the veteran! I'm new to cooking and blogging and it's been a fun ride so far! Thanks for popping over.


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