20 November 2015

Why I Became A Culinary Arts Lecturer

  1. I finished a degree in culinary arts from London in 2009.
  2. During my study there, I often felt under-equipped, knowledge and skills-wise. Seeing my other classmates clearly doing stuff I was never taught during my diploma days, I felt sorely lacking.
  3. For a while my confidence dropped - I felt I wasn't good enough. But I quickly shoved that aside, and with the help of a really good chef-lecturer and very supportive classmates, I managed to re-build up that confidence and drive.
  4. Towards the end of my kitchen classes (and part time job as a chef in a restaurant), I had managed to regain that confidence. I no longer felt I was lagging behind. Well, I wasn't on top of the class, but now I wasn't shit either.
  5. The part time job I took helped a lot too. It wasn't a flashy starred restaurant I worked at; most of the stuff came in ready-made. But if I gained my chops in cooking from my university classes, I learned a lot about hands-on management at the restaurant.
  6. I eventually made it to sous-chef: I was given the responsibility of maintaining the kitchen duties and food prep. I handled orders and deliveries. I delegated tasks. I made sure things ran smoothly. And yes, I still cooked on the line in addition to expediting.
  7. I lost that restaurant job in early 2009 due to the recession. So I took the down-time to finish up my dissertation.
  8. A few months before coming back to Malaysia, I thought long and hard about what I was going to do back home.
  9. The restaurant and hotel industry can be cruel in Malaysia: I didn't and never expected a cosy chef job upon coming back.
  10. Besides, even with a bachelor's degree, if I applied for a kitchen job in a hotel or restaurant in KL, I'd still have to start from the bottom. Nothing wrong with that, per se, but it wasn't what I imagined to be doing.
  11. Then I remembered how I felt ill-equipped going from my diploma in KL to the degree in London. I remembered how lacking I felt in certain aspects of the hospitality industry when I first began in London.
  12. My diploma days were good. But I also felt they didn't prepare me enough about the realities of being a chef and a hospitality industry worker.
  13. It was then that I decided I was going to go back to the college where I took my diploma at and become a teacher - a chef-lecturer.
  14. The incident that galvanized my decision to become a chef-lecturer was this: I did not know how to uncork a bottle of wine during service class. My lecturer at the time, a tall, gaunt Brit, took me aside and said in the most annoyed tone I have ever heard: "What did they teach you back in Malaysia?"
  15. Anyways.
  16. In May 2009 I came back to Malaysia and the first thing I did was apply for the job. To cut the story short, I got it.
  17. In July 2009, I started my first job as a chef-lecturer.
  18. During my first class, I forced all my students to carry an egg around for the entire day - it was egg cookery that day. Then during the actual kitchen class, I proceeded to teach them the various methods on how to cook eggs. I had fun, and I like to believe the students did too.
  19. I'm not saying I'm an original on this - I just thought and tried about how to make learning fun. I also encouraged them to speak out, that learning is a two way street.
  20. In teaching, I often use humor and absurd analogies. I think it makes for better knowledge retention, and it doesn't make learning tedious.
  21. At the same time, I also tried (how successfully, I don't know) to paint them a more realistic picture of what it actually means to be a chef.
  22. That first semester I taught ended well. The students were happy, as was I.
  23. Over time my teaching responsibilities expanded. I begin teaching more management related subjects such as cost control, while also supervising the student-run college restaurant.
  24. During the same time, my interest in culinary competitions grew. I helped train a number of students for competitions. Some of them were less successful, but I am happy to say that some of them did, indeed, become winners. I like to believe I contributed to their success, no matter how small.
  25. I also encouraged them to think outside the box, to not be constrained by a curriculum or by terminology or culinary dogma (oh yes that's a thing).
  26. I initiated 'Signature Days' and hosted the first one. These 'Signature Days' was a way for students to be in total control of the college restaurant for one day: they designed the menus, they handled staffing, purchasing, decor etc.
  27. I am happy to report that these 'Signature Days' were a roaring success, and became a unique feature of the college.
  28. "Thank you, Chef Eddie, for giving me this opportunity," said a number of students who ran the signature days. I even cooked for one of them as a line cook on one occasion. I was happy to do so.
  29. Then I moved on to another culinary school.
  30. This new establishment beset me with a new set of challenges. They were pretty harrowing too.
  31. At this new establishment, I taught a class - cost control - of more than 100+ students! It wasn't my decision, but I had to make do.
  32. This was also when I learned that there are people that you cannot teach. I won't elaborate more, but it is quite sad, in a way. But learning must also be sincere.
  33. As a teacher I always say that I am a means to an end, but you have to want to learn to make it count. I cannot force someone to learn. That has to come from them selves.
  34. Anyways, back to the challenges:
  35. English was a major problem for the majority-Malay students. I soldiered on, translating as I went. I even translated jokes so they 'get' it.
  36. I was at one point seen as 'poyo' by some of the culinary students there. Perhaps it was my very different approach to food (they were more used to the 'masak sampai kering and tuang kuah segelen' approach). I, on the other hand, was constantly experimenting about the new things I learn from material I gathered from books and from the media.
  37. This was because I wanted a more real world, current-affairs feel to my teaching and my cooking. 
  38. But somehow, I managed to attract a group of students who were aware I was trying to be more progressive. Let me call these students the A Team. You know who you are.
  39. Rather than intake, ingest and digest the usual, the A Team was more passionate, more creative and had a stronger drive to be chefs. They finally approached me and asked me to mentor them.
  40. I was deeply flattered and yet a little scared. I did not want to do wrong by these guys.
  41. To me, what was the biggest difference between the A Team and the other students was that they were up for the challenge. Most importantly, they challenged themselves to be different, to be harder, better, faster and stronger than the other students. This, I admired very much.
  42. Of course this also caused other students to accuse me (and some of my colleagues) of favouritism. But I was very fair. Despite their close standing to me, the A Team were also the recipients of my harshest criticisms.
  43. But they took it as critical advice rather than bitch about it on Facebook. 
  44. In 2012, the then Youth Chefs Club of Malaysia decided to hold a multi-course fine dining banquet to showcase the abilities of the culinary schools.
  45. Being part of the club, my college was invited as well. All the schools were to come up with a  signature dish, one that showcases the abilities and qualities of the lecturers AND the students.
  46. I had a trusted colleague and my A Team with me (with new members!). I was apprehensive about putting our dish 'out there' with the likes of the other, bigger schools: Taylors, Sunway, etc.
  47. But, together, my students and I planned and trained and worked hard to come up with a superb dish. When we presented it to the chairman of the dinner (the executive chef of KLCC Convention Centre), we waited with our hearts pounding.
  48. After tasting our dish, he said: "Beautiful, beautiful."
  49. We were incredibly overjoyed. We had managed to bring up our college name - previously almost unheard of in the culinary arts circles - to be on par with the more established ones.
  50. What I also discovered was that not only had we managed to prepare a worthy dish - I realized we had also formed a worthy, strong team.
  51. The A Team and I were always discussing the culinary arts, sharing experiences and knowledge. I learned as much from them as they did from me. We even banded together to help train a candidate for the 2012 Nestle Culinary Arts Awards (that awards the best student chef from amongst the culinary schools).
  52. We didn't win that, but we came close. Closer than the college has ever gone before.
  53. But alas my time at this college soon came to an end. I moved on to one of the big universities.
  54. I spent a wonderful one-year and a bit at this big college - if you must know, it was Sunway University. I had a great boss(es), a great team and a great working environment. I was even part of their team that won many medals during the 2013 Penang Chef Challenge. I myself, did not (it was close though!) but the sense of pride I felt for my colleagues and the students was the same.
  55. At the same time, the A Team was still in contact with me. One of them managed to score 2nd place - unprecedented for her college - during the 2013 Nestle Culinary Arts Awards. This student - I will not name him/her - also went on to win various gold medals and awards in other culinary competitions.
  56. Others were already embarking on careers in the kitchen of their own. Some went overseas for internship experiences, whilst others were climbing ladders in their own work places.
  57. In 2014 I left my teaching position to pursue another line of work, of which I shall not discuss here.
  58. But throughout these close two years that I left teaching, several of my students (especially the A Team) from all of the colleges I've worked at have been in touch with me on many occasions.
  59. One student from the first class I ever taught followed in my footsteps and went to London. When he came back, he became a chef-lecturer too.
  60. A few other students are in regular contact with me too - sometimes they ask for advice, sometimes they just want to say hello.
  61. Some students tell me that they miss me teaching in the kitchen or classroom.
  62. Some students have come up to me and said: "Thank you. For all that you've helped me become." The student I mentioned above in point #55 always sends a message saying 'thank you' whenever she wins an award. Even when I did nothing.
  63. I always reiterate that if they were successful, it was mostly because of their hard work. All I helped with was to open a door, and maybe give them a little push. But then one day I was given this answer:
  64. "Thank you, Chef Eddie, for believing in me."
  65. It sounds melodramatic. But it is the truth.
  66. And after 65 points telling a story of my teaching days, I guess I want to say this:
  67. I became a lecturer of culinary arts at first because I felt I wanted to give back, give more to the students, than what I had received when I was one. I wanted students - and people - to love food, to appreciate the industry, to be better than what they can be.
  68. I didn't do it for the money (athough it helps!). Being a teacher, I was in a more sincere position to do this. After all, there's no glitz or glamour to being a teacher. Your stakes are your students: not a TV deal, or a corporate sponsorship. That was important to me. Cooking requires sincerity. Teaching cooking, even more so. As a culinary arts lecturer, I was in a great position to teach cooking and things related to it on a very sincere level. No bullshit, no acting. Just pure guiding, coaching and letting students learn.
  69. Because, in all honesty, the biggest, best, most amazing reward I have received as a culinary arts teacher is when a student comes up to me and says: Thank you.
  70. Their eventual success is icing on the cake.
  71. And when I look back to when I was in a college kitchen, surrounded by students who are eager to learn, showing them how to make mayonnaise or how to clarify a stock, and remember those who were sad to see me leave, I realize that I miss teaching the culinary arts.
  72. It was an amazing time of my life.

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