When he joined a nasi lemak stall as an assistant three years ago, Mr Mohamad Zulfadhli was so shy that he would not even dare greet his neighbours when he met them on the street.
But now, the 25-year-old has no problems making small talk with customers as he takes their orders for the coconut milk rice dish. He likes what he is doing so much that he even signed up for the Hawker Master Trainer Pilot Programme in November last year.
The programme was launched by the Workforce Development Agency and National Environment Agency (NEA) last October. It aims to groom new hawkers through Workforce Skills Qualifications training and on-the-job training with veteran hawkers.
Mr Zulfadhli's boss, Mr Sulaiman Abu of D'Authentic Nasi Lemak stall at Block 84, Marine Parade Central, is his trainer for the programme.
The young assistant said the three-month course has transformed him from an introverted helper to a confident hawker-in-training who can build trust with customers.
He added that his biggest takeaway was learning about stall preparations.
"I learnt that it's not enough to know how to cook. You need to know how to adequately prepare your stall for a business day and this includes equipment and ingredient stocks. You also need to deal with customers, which can be stressful."
The course also equipped him with important management and financial skills to handle the business operations of running a hawker stall.
The hawker assistant, who holds a banking diploma from the Selangor International Islamic University College in Malaysia, had some experience in the food and beverage industry as a waiter at an Egyptian restaurant.
After completing the on-the-job training in January, Mr Zulfadhli extended his stint at the nasi lemak stall while waiting for the third stage of the training programme to commence, in which trainees will be given the opportunity to run their own business at incubation stalls managed by NEA.
Details of the stalls are still being finalised.
Mr Sulaiman, 54, recalled his first encounter with his helper before hiring him.
"I asked him if he knew how to cook and take the heat in the kitchen. And more importantly, if he would be able to take instructions from me, like washing plates and preparing ingredients.
"He is a very responsible person who is always keen to learn. I've never been let down by him."
Mr Zulfadhli, who declined to say how much he earns, described working at a hawker stall as a tedious and tiring job and "not suited for everyone".
Every morning, he has to reach at the stall at about 6.30 to prepare the ingredients and may even need to cook the rice himself if Mr Sulaiman is not yet at the stall.
He said: "It's hot and stuffy and you hardly get any rest until the stall is closed (between 3pm and 6pm). Unlike my friends who are working office jobs, I don't get to relax and have fun outside."
Despite that, Mr Zulfadhli said that he is working towards becoming his own boss.
"Then I can choose when I go for a holiday."
Mr Sulaiman added: "Many young people want an easier life, to work in an air-conditioned place. So it's really nice to see people like Zul having a keen interest and showing sincerity in his job."
The stall owner also said that his assistant plans to stay at his stall as long as possible to fully master the recipe before he starts his own nasi lemak business.
He said: "I want Zul to be able to run his own nasi lemak stall. It is heartwarming to know that Zul is serious about the quality of his food and wants to uphold the standards.
"I am now confident that even after I retire, my recipe will be in good hands."
Get The New Paper for more stories.