Growing up in Myanmar, chef Toni Robertson remembers going to the market with her grandmother, who would buy her snacks from the stalls.
"That memory of having these little treats in the market has stayed with me. That's the reason I love food and why I became a chef," says the new executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental, Singapore.
But she was not allowed in the kitchen as her parents wanted her to focus on her studies. She would have to sneak into the kitchen and ask the cook to let her peel the garlic or pound chilli.
She finally made her first dish with her sister after the family moved to Chicago when she was in her late teens. Her sister taught her to make Rum Baba, a yeast cake soaked in rum.
"The first time I made that, it intrigued me because it's something exotic and I made it with my hands," says the chef, who is in her early 50s.
While her love for food and cooking started early, she became a chef only years later. She joined the United States Air Force as a medic when she was 18 and was in active duty for eight years, including four years in Germany.
When she returned to the US, she served another four years with the Illinois National Guard. She also enrolled at the Culinary and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and was trained in classical French cooking. "My dream from the time I was a little girl was to be a chef. So it was always my plan to leave the military, it was not my career," she says.
But she believes her time in the air force prepared her for a culinary career. "I learnt discipline, leadership and how to effectively manage people. The chaos of working in an emergency room was perfect training for the chaos of working in a kitchen," she says.
Her career as a chef has taken her around the world to hotels such as the Four Seasons Beverly Hills, South Africa's Palace Hotel of the Lost City, California's Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, and Singapore's Pan Pacific Hotel.
She is not unfamiliar with Mandarin Oriental as she was executive chef of the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco for two years and New York for eight years.
Robertson, whose husband owns a business in New York, will be working in Singapore alone. Her 30-year-old son, who is married, is in the US Navy.
She has been in Singapore for about a month, but she does not feel the distance, thanks to technology such as Skype and Facetime.
"Sometimes my husband bothers me with Facetime and I'll tell him to leave me alone," she says with a laugh. "He still nags at me every morning and I still nag at him about what he's going to have for dinner."