Nurturing star chefs

When celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant walked into her class, food and beverage business student Sow Min Yee was awestruck.

Belgian-born Stroobant, who runs a chain of restaurants here, was part of Nanyang Polytechnic's (NYP) Celebrity Chef series last year.

He showed the students how to prepare a four-course meal at the school's training restaurant, L'Rez.

"I was scared at first and wondered if he was going to be fierce. But he turned out to be so friendly," the 20-year-old recalled.

Other chefs in the series include Violet Oon, Michael di Placido and Eric Teo.

Mr Teo, who was also the first Singaporean to be appointed president of the Singapore Chef's Association, thinks that cooking shows on television and channels like the Asian Food Channel play a part in inspiring young people to take up the career.

NYP, which will introduce a specialisation in culinary arts for new students pursuing the diploma in food and beverage business this year, is not the only school leveraging on big names to draw students into culinary-related courses.

Celebrity chefs aside, they are collaborating with international culinary schools.

The Institute of Technical Education's diploma in culinary arts, in partnership with prestigious French culinary school Institut Paul Bocuse (IPB), issues its students with a certification from the IPB which is similar to the one given out in France.

Students will also go to Lyon, France, for two weeks of classes.

The Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) collaborates with the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to offer a bachelor of professional studies degree in culinary arts management.

Mr Terence Chuah, 27, who graduated with a diploma in culinary and catering management from Temasek Polytechnic, is now a final-year-student at CIA, Singapore.

He had a strong passion for cooking and was interested in furthering his studies at CIA, but could not afford the fees in the US. The tuition fees at the institute's New York campus are about US$110,000 (S$138,600). At SIT, subsidised tuition fees for Singaporeans would cost about $20,000 for a two-year course.

Mr Chuah said: "I found cooking so fun when I watched TV programmes with chefs like Jamie Oliver. But after pursuing culinary arts, I realised that the process of cooking is a science."

He recently completed a 10-month stint at internationally renowned restaurant Mugaritz in Spain.

Mr Stroobant thinks it is relatively new to see such an interest in culinary arts.

"Someone told me the chef is the new 'rockstar' and this alone could be motivating, but I also see a lot of kids dropping out when they face the hard reality of long hours and low salaries.

"It is still a manual skill and like any skill, it takes time to master. There are no shortcuts. If they have the passion for it, success will come, but it will take time and patience."

Managing director of CIA, Singapore, Ms Eve Felder, hopes her students will be the leaders of change in the culinary industry in Asia.

"In Asia, there is a lot of money to be made... but the industry is not professionalised. We need highly-trained people to take the industry to the next level, and I'm confident our students will make an impact."

Honing her skills

She always loved baking, but never took formal lessons.

Encouraged by her family, Ms Yvette Chua, who was a home economics teacher for more than four years, quit her job and enrolled with Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Singapore in 2011.

The degree programme offered by the institute is a collaboration with the Singapore Institute of Technology. Its campus is at Temasek Polytechnic. She honed her culinary skills and learnt business craft like budgeting there.

Her decision has paid off.

The 30-year-old, who graduated with a bachelor of professional studies degree in culinary arts management last September, is now the owner of a month-old cafe, Hatter Street Bakehouse and Cafe at Hougang. The cafe serves desserts with an Asian twist.

Although she was initially intimidated by some of her classmates who had previous training in culinary-related courses, she eventually caught up.

The outstanding student was selected for an internship with Bo Innovation, a Hong Kong restaurant awarded three Michelin stars.

Ms Chua, who runs the cafe with a sleeping partner, is grateful her degree has provided her with the opportunities and necessary skills to run her business.

"I'm also learning on the job every day," she said.

Student hired

Final-year food and beverage business student Chaw Kian Hui may not have graduated from Nanyang Polytechnic yet, but he has already secured a job with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant.

The Belgian chef, who runs a chain of restaurants here including Saint Pierre, had praised the student for being knowledgeable and hardworking. They first met at Nanyang Polytechnic as part of the school's Celebrity Chef series.

Mr Chaw (above right, with fellow student Sow Min Yee), the youngest child in a family of five, fell in love with cooking after helping his mother in the kitchen when he was 13.

"My interest in cooking started from home-cooked meals. In fact, I cook meals for my family every day if I'm not working. They enjoy my cooking," he said.

The 20-year-old has also been the chef at his family's Chinese New Year feast for the past few years.

His family also encouraged him to pursue his passion.

After graduating from Orchid Park Secondary, he jumped at the chance to enrol in the course.

Describing himself as an average student in the past, Mr Chaw is now one of the top students in his course, with a grade point average of 3.9.

Although he had his taste of hardship during his six-month internship at Violet Oon's Kitchen last year, he was undeterred.

"I had to wake up at 4.30am at times to get to work, which started at 6.30am. It was also a totally different experience working in an industrial kitchen, with all the constraints that we don't face while we are training in school.

"But I learnt so much as I went along."

Following her culinary passion

Instead of pursuing her O levels or a polytechnic diploma, Miss Sherine Lee decided to take up a National Institute of Technical Education Certificate in Western culinary arts after her N levels.

She had a keen interest in cooking after watching programmes like Chef In Black, featuring celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant, who eventually became her mentor.

They met in 2012 during her diploma internship at restaurant Saint Pierre, which Stroobant owns.

The 22-year-old said her family initially questioned her choice of enrolling at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).

"They kept asking me if I was sure. But I'm not interested in studying and I really enjoy cooking," she said.

Miss Lee graduated with a technical diploma in culinary arts from ITE last November.

Last July, she was selected to be attached to Michelin-starred restaurant Villa Florentine in Lyon, France.

She is currently working at the Joel Robuchon Restaurant in Resorts World Sentosa as a chef de partie and her responsibilities include assisting the executive chef.

Miss Lee admitted to harbouring thoughts of quitting during her first internship at an Italian restaurant in Singapore.

"The chef was so fierce and I cried for a week. But I persevered and he treated me better after a while."

Although she is required to keep 12-hour days and misses almost all public holidays, Miss Lee thinks the job has made her a stronger person.

"In life, you have to give up something if you want something else badly. I feel alive when I step into the kitchen," she said.

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