February 9, 2018 § Leave a comment
Lately, I have been deepening my yoga practice. 11 years of relationship with the mat and somedays, it feels like we just met. It has seen me at my most vulnerable state sometimes when I am weeping or almost on the verge of throwing up after a long night.
“The body is tired, why do you still push it?”, it asked.
Other days, I am as strong as a puma. Zipping from adho mukha svanasana (downward dog) to chaturanga dandasana and head straight to multiple parsvakonasa (side angle poses) for sun-salutation sequences. By the time I step off the mat, I am sweating profusely and feeling vibrant.
Somedays, the mind is so exhausted it can barely allow the limbs to feel connected. Telling my leg to move across from one side to the other is such a chore. How does one part feel so heavy and isolated when everything is so intact? 60 minutes of yin poses later, every part feels united again.
This journey of mine started when I was working as a waitress in a family run cafe. It was small and quaint but the hours were quite brutal yet satisfying. I attended an evening Hatha class that required no pre-experiences with yoga. The breathing techniques and slow movements were the complete opposite to my daily routines. Little did I know then that, it was exactly what I needed. A yin to the yang. I would cancel my social appointments just to attend the classes. My peers could not understand how important it was and I showed no regrets for not meeting up with them. Working in the hospitality industry it was already very hard to keep a social life. Your friends are your customers, the purveyors, the delivery men and perhaps the public transport conductors. Your colleagues become your community.
I left Singapore to England to further my studies, but found myself creeping back into the kitchen. A weekend job at the local fish and chip restaurant to make ends meet. Double shifts during the holidays to juggle out finances but occasional getaway before the term starts. But every evening, I found myself on the mat before dinner time. A half an hour or hour worth of asana by the heater in the winters and with the windows down during the long Indian summer. Reflecting, recuperating, reviving and grounding the soul.
It also was not soon, that I left the academic world and ended up in a culinary school across the North Atlantic Sea. I learnt the fundamentals of chiffonad-ing vegetables and whipping up fresh full cream in a French institution but with American accents. I found a liking for patisserie and most of all, questioned the philosophy of a meal.
What is it to create a meal for others that is so instinctively gratifying?
We all love food, there is no doubt. But why is it that for some of us, we love feeding people? After a whole morning in the kitchen, preparing meals, cleaning counter tops over and over, waiting for orders to come in and receiving a simple gesture of “thumbs up” can be the most fulfilling emotion.
There is unpleasantness in peace. As the only female Asian in a Mexican men filled kitchen, the communication was tough and the jokes were made. The silver lining were staff meals, Mexican cuisine is family oriented. The large amount of fried rice with cumin and tomato sauce, tomatillos salsas, fresh guac and refried beans were often set out in the communal table before service. A reoccurring scene I can narrate and witness in almost every decent restaurant.
There is almost a certain standard of service given when such display of genuine camaraderie is present between staffs. Everyone might get on each others nerves but certainly know how to sit down and share a meal together.
At the end of the day, I would go home and end up on my mat. Recounting the dockets and play out the sequences of putting the dish together; counting my inhales and exhales while following an Ashtanga sequence for 60 minutes. The morning practices are the hardest. They say it is best to practice in the mornings but I just could not deliver my best on the mat. My feet cannot seem to touch the ground. Why are my heels always so distant from earth when 90% of it is always on it?
The discipline and relentless attitudes were brought on my mat. When a chef says 5, you bring out 5, if not 6, just incase one fails on you. When a customer expects a meal within a certain time, you deliver before. The unsympathetic notion I brought upon my work was good, only until.
It was not until years later that I realised, you do not have to deliver your best on the mat. Being on the mat is enough.
Well, did it not just take me a decade to pen that down?
Since last September, I have immersed myself into a different academy. But, as always, it did not take me long to find myself working in an eatery again. Even then, I needed a different challenge. One that is always changing their menu depending on the farmers or fishermen, then handed to the kitchen where the cooks play with ingredients and then to the front.
The front, I have yet to learn how much influence can a dish make with its first impression. How to keep them coming back for more and refining the service. The gratitude is still the same, but it is not from a place where you wait to receive. It is from within yourself that you find recognition and thus, giving it to others.
My one concern is to improve the quality of your conscious awareness and your ability to exert control over it under worldly conditions. All else is confusion and meaningless gabble. When the system, dogma and language blots out the light, some energy has to be found to let it in again. Dwell in this light and share it with those capable of receiving it. Whether you call it peace love or self-control is immaterial.
There is only one light.
July 18, 2017 § Leave a comment
We don’t talk about it. We avoid it. We are afraid of it because the world we are in build us up to be strong and good.
What is strong and good?
The last week has been an absolute struggle. After taking a few days off to be on the yoga mat, coming back to this island seems like scalding myself with hot water. Ever since then, I have been the nursing the wounds. The time on the mat appears to have taken a thick layer of skin and exposed, vulnerability.
I went to bed last night with a heavy heart. I have done what most insomniacs would tell you not to do: read on your phone. But as I read that one of Sydney’s most acclaimed chef, Jeremy Strode, has taken his own life; I kept the screen open and gave a deep thought about my own.
Early this week, I have been going through an emotional rollercoaster. I have been mostly upset about the work attitudes, society misconceptions, health ignorance and the hustle. As I explored the feelings and thoughts, usually through breaking down on a yoga mat or on the way back home listening to a melancholy tune, I realised it stemmed from rejection.
Much earlier this month, I have been rejected by a group of people that I trusted-wholeheartedly. The betrayal feels painful. I had devoted myself into something hopeful, with time and heart. Corporate, as they say. Chopping off the tree trunk and cutting the chase.
This week felt lonely. I wasn’t alone mind you. I am surrounded by physical beings everyday and have people around. But there is a difference being in a room full of people and feeling lonely at the same time. We, hospitality folks, work long and odd hours. We sacrifice family/friends time to earn a living and feed other peoples’ friends and families. At the end of the day, we are left with our group of kitchen family and our real family, who are often asleep already or too tired to deal with our emotions/tiredness. Our kitchen family changes, because not everyone can deal with the pressure and work culture. The line cooks and servers replace themselves like the next music charts every month. When you finally realised this and turn to your own friends, they have already forgotten about you and booked their own next vacation.
A few days ago, a high school friend felt the need to apologise for asking about my work life. She mentioned that I was apprehensive in my replies. “I have been in this industry for ten years, I am constantly on the dining floor, my replies are short because I am engaging with customers and sometimes holding a hot pan”, well I didn’t text the later part but you get the idea. “You are right I should have known better”, she said politely.
But I knew by then, there was already a misunderstanding and un-returnable damage. Years of not being there (for them) and years of not understanding (for me). So after service is done and dusted, there left the individuals who return to their devices and talk to loneliness. It is no wonder depression is such a taboo and yet, profound culinary issue. It is no wonder that chefs like Benoit Violier, who ended his own life after not achieving another Michelin star and Jeremy Strode, drown themselves passionately into cooking because they don’t know otherwise.
Admittedly, I have changed. I have became tirelessly exhausted, a little more impatient (just a little) and also more aloof with meeting up. I have also felt nonchalant when people don’t have time to reach out, but also have high expectations of closed ones to empathise with my work schedules. How can they meet? Well they do, behind the line, where we stand for hours, the emotions meet. There is a certain drive that we have and love for being in the service industry, which makes us feel whole. When a dish is made perfectly, presented on the table at the right temperature, paired with a right beverage and enjoyed as it should be. There is something magical when the crew is in sync, where everyone knows their roles, follow one another’s movements and no one is sloppy. The evening is played out like an orchestra in its element. The right notes are precisely hit simultaneously and timely. There is nothing like a perfect dinner service. It is a melody.
For us, well perhaps just me, I endeavoured to seek this tune over and over. I could replay it, improve it and play it night after night. For most chefs or restaurateurs, when they find the right people/food/dishes, they yearn to recreate, experience this fine moment and share it with the world.
I woke up today, feeling a little better. There are creases in what I do and have, yet there is joy at taking a step at a time. For this road and push is lonely, but we should talk about it. We should be able to create an environment for one another who share the same sentiments with food & service, and also be able to be open about our happiness and sorrows. If its being strong and good, I strive to be the same with empathy and kindness.
Let’s start talking.
June 1, 2017 § Leave a comment
“If you read stories, you get to see the entire world. And not just the stories you find in books and film, but the stories of strangers sitting next to you on the subway or in an ordinary restaurant. You can find the world in your own story, too – you just have to keep your eyes open.”
― Steve Dublanica, Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip-Confessions of a Cynical Waiter
I remember reading Waiter Rant, right after culinary school. It was the soft cream that finished off a simple butter cake. Something I looked forward to at the end of every shift as a pastry cook in a small French/Californian restaurant of 5th Ave at Santa Monica. He wrote about his observations around the restaurants and his life as a waiter. I admired his audacity to speak out in an invincible voice for the large group of us who went unnoticed behind the line. I adored the way he reflected on society’s perceptions of the service industry. Though they were mostly, rants, they were truths.
They say the truth sets you free. In many ways, they do. But truths are like art pieces, which beauty lies in the perceptions of the beholder. In a place of ranks or solitude, one looks through their own glass to define what is and not. In many ways, the truth doesn’t set you free. The present moment does. I could tell you that the slice of cake is awfully bad for you and you could jolly well believe me because that is the truth to you right at that moment. Does that set you free? No, it holds you down with guilt and displeasure. But if you accept being in the moment, you would have been honest enough to yourself that the slice of cake is bad and the awareness would bring you nothing but peace.
I have kept a resilient heart and soul with the adventures. Something to keep me absolutely grounded at this moment is being with the greater crew. Everyday I learn something new about them and how we can be better for ourselves. No one stands alone and do well for him/herself. You got to find something good out of them and encouraged their strengths. For the sandless ocean bay community, I’ve grown to find some friends which share common grounds.
I have given up defining or stereotyping things/people/events. The world is too big of a place for us to narrow everything into corner stones. The moments we live daily is truly what we have and can only sincerely appreciate them when they are accepted fully.
Sometimes on my off days, I visit one of my favourite parts of this island. In many ways, we grew up eating these little ang ku kuehs during tea time or after school. You can find them in the corner snack stall in our canteens and at a local bakery on the way home. There is a particular kueh-kueh stall at my parents’ hometown in Taiping, Malaysia, which makes the softest and most fragrant traditional ang ku. While I reminisce those little moments, we have moved on to a different culture. Back in the big city where locally roasted coffee is proudly served in little neighbourhoods and traditional bakes are still integrated our daily lives. We are redefining coffee moments. A Colombia El Mirador and Kenya Kagumoini brew with mung bean paste wrapped in glutinous rice pastry at our favourite coffee shop.
Ji Xiang Confectionery
Blk 1 #01-33 Everton Park,
May 10, 2017 § Leave a comment
How are you? What can we do for you today?
I’ve been in the service/hospitality staff for a decade. Every time when we are on the floor these questions are asked again and repeated throughout the day. Being in this island made me realised that people don’t care much when a service staff approach guests with friendliness or courteously. They retort to their own hole of reading menus or being on their devices.
Working in the US/UK is different. The basic human encounter is much simpler. Coming from an individualistic society, they seem to care more. They also seem to deeply cherish food and dining with their companions.
It seems that everyone here has an agenda behind their back or can’t even digest an honest question we were taught in kindergarten. A society which loves food so much but fail to even manage not having devices on the table, a kitchen that trusts chefs or a friendly conversation with servers.
What have we become? What are we doing to ourselves? Years of learning to how to be service staff/trained pastry chef/operational manager washed away in a lawful society.
I have a fair share of customers-becoming-friends. But that is also because I was in an environment that thrived on the idea of a community or being honest. It dwells back to the food we serve. How simple and honest the cooking somehow translate to how we serve our food. The more we try to load it with too many ingredients, the more we try to explain ourselves or complicate the whole experience, the more we deceive others. Giving people options are a great way to show your generosity but too much of it make them feel entitled.
Yes, that is what they deemed us as. Millennials who are too self-entitled to the vast amount of choices we have these days. Go ahead and pick up a menu that doesn’t give you options. A choice to change your pasta or bread or alternating it to this with that. If they didn’t have the option, would you ask for it?
“A little less ginger on the Ginger Chicken”, “More chocolate sauce on the Double Chocolate Caramel Cake”, “No egg in the Chinese Fried Rice”, etc. The crew will joke that we will serve eggless omelettes, non-alcoholic Alcohol beverages and hot ice-lattes. When these sort of orders come through the tickets, and we see you laugh at the server having a hard time keying them in but truly, the jokes are on you.
A meal is a meal and a meal itself. Why make it so difficult when life already is?
Last year at MADFEED (I know I have brought the event up so many times!), we spoke about millennial chefs: the difficulties of bridging us privilege kids, to be able to choose this profession, and our mentors, who find difficulties with staying afloat.
What is missing? Us not respecting you for your hardwork and whining about the daily grind. Us complaining that you are not open to our ideas because you are too old-fashioned. I belong to the modern group because I did have a choice and sold my soul to it. It was clear for me to learn as much as I can from my chefs or mentors, whether or not they came from the hospitality background. There is always something to master.
Patience. Sincerity. Perservance. Resilience. Knife techniques. Assembling kitchens. Dealing with business partners. Building trusting relationships.
The goal is to stay relevant. How does one stay sustainable with society? For the larger part, it really is difficult to catch up or change the system. One habitually practice ways only to realise they have to alter them again. Age catches up, habits don’t. They stay stagnant. Good learning attitudes and open hearts allow growth. A developed city has the most versatile talents because of the type of people they have not the amount. When old people stay hip and young folks grow old souls, there comes innovations. Have you not seen the movie the Intern? There is always something to learn no matter how many times you have done it.
Bauisou indigo dye techniques, Chef Alex Atala and Lyn Slater are great examples of sterling new world meets old world brands/people. If we are both open to listening to one another, and find mutual ground instead of building hierarchies, wouldn’t it be so much easier for both millennials and mentors to come together? The question now isn’t what we do but how do we do so. How do we create a work culture that allows both sides to come together? There is no need to look further than putting all ego aside and be transparent as you can to one another. That’s something we learn from kindergarten too ~ don’t lie, be honest.
“Rather than love, than fame, than fortune, give me truth. “, H.D. Thoreau
The last two months here have been trying. I have been as authentic and trusting as I could, but somehow it has been pushed beyond limits. So you do what every loyal dog would, you stop caring. Truth is, the loyalty is limited when tested.
May 27, 2016 § Leave a comment
also known as fermented soybeans. Before it was labelled as one of the world’s most sought after plant-based protein, this traditional soy product was a trademark in most of my Malay meals. Every Saturday evening, my parents would pay a visit to the local pasar tani (night food market) beside a football stadium. Arriving at 5 pm, we would consider ourselves lucky if we found a good parking spot. Most of the market would be filled with residences walking around, window shopping, buying cincau bandung (grass jelly in rose syrup) or ais limau (iced-lime juice) to keep the body cool or, for the rest of us, wait at the significant empty spot.
This spot is reserved for a very well-known family owned nasi campur (mixed rice) store. They served nasi lemak (coconut rice), nasi kerabu (blue pea flower rice), nasi biryani (turmeric-spiced rice), assorted curries (either lamb, beef, or vegetables), sambal telur (fried egg in samba, my personal favourite and you can find it in our cookbook), archar (nyonya pickle vegetable) and of course, sambal tempeh goreng.
Deep fried cubbed tempehs, fried in hot sambal with long beans and ikan bilis (anchovies) until the dish turns to maroon. Doesn’t it sound heavenly? Well, at least to me (even at 7 years old). Mum and I would squeeze our way through the crowd and wait for our turns. We would pick three types of rice, a few curries, and for me, sambal tempeh with a fat chicken drumstick and some archar. Then we would pick some kueh-kuehs (mostly coconut or tapioca steamed cakes) and iced soy milk.
When I visited a tempeh shop/factory in Gainesville, Florida, there really wasn’t any amusement. Perhaps only for the fact that there were no makciks behind the counter but young white late teenagers. The real eye-opener was at the vegan/vegetarian restaurants that served tempeh in sandwiches, salads, fried rice, stews and so on. My great friend was kind enough to drive us there for an unforgettable day trip before I left the East and headed West.
Now, I eat tempeh in every possible way. Fried, steamed, baked, boiled, and sometimes if it’s really very fresh, raw. The makcik (Malay auntie) at the wet market would sell it at RM0.30 for one lovely piece and proclaimed that it is as fresh as good yeast could get. Big soft warm leaves (hibiscus leaves) still slightly moist from the fermentation, a white fluffy velvety mould holding the beans together, nicely folded with newspaper and tied with a rubber band.
A beautiful nostalgic ingredient and a staple in our refrigerator.
June 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
The cafe is turning a year old soon. These days I find myself looking back at the photographs, recollecting moments building the space, testing recipes, helping to cement the floors, staying late with the crew, meeting new people and finally, to what it is today.
I remember unlocking the door wee hours in the morning and baked the first batch of muffins. The girls setting the coffee bar up and arranging the flowers as we wait for the customers. A few curious ones from the neighbourhood came by, our regulars from Henry dropped in to show support, so did our family and friends. We fed them our usual staples and other new dishes. Every opening day, we did the same thing to keep people happy with our simple ways of getting by.
Away from the hullabaloo of a city, there lies a cafe for individuals of all sorts sharing a meal or two at the table. Doing what they do as they like, spending them with good company, listening to lovely tunes, and indulging in anything honest and fresh. It is much adorn to remind yourself what is needed and return back to the basics.
I bake. That’s all I really do there. Baking sweet treats from dawn till mid afternoon. Then I carry on the day with yoga and writing, spend time with family and the cycle repeats. While it sounds so simple and pure, there are off days. Days when we get so packed, crap hits the ceiling. People demand for more, they want change, and are not use to the way we are. We become vulnerable to their dispositions and lose the bond.
Then there are instances where we connect in every level, spend more time knowing each other and start to nurture the sense of community. My supplier who drops off a bag of fresh apricots, just cause; the little girl who runs around the table before getting on the stool to eat her bowl of granola; the french toast and brew coffee lady who sits there the whole morning with an iPad and two cellphones; the family that brings everyone out to dine in the evenings, and have hot chocolate to beer & fried rice to sandwich. A community of characters.
Somehow, I did not intend to stay this long. I had put school on hold for this to grow and continue with life. Following the rhythm, and be present to being here has been difficult to accept. This island has always made me feel like a fish out of water, I found comfort in other lands and had planned to explore. Yet, things change, well to be honest, I found love. Unrequited, supportive and mad affection. Instead of pushing what I had help build or watched what it is today away, and finding thoughts to leave with every discomfort, I learn to grow and embrace.
James, who now lives in the north-west, call it “grounded perspective”. We were so naive to drive across country through the rush hour. We have slowed down since and are still looking for grounds that appreciate who we are. Afterall, isn’t it all we want in life is to feel appreciate by others? And be comfortable with ourselves?
This sentimental post perhaps will make you feel lost in space, but there is no other way to put how this past year has been for me. Currently, we’re just going to dwell in what we have, appreciate its form and make the most out of them.
June 13, 2013 § 2 Comments
It’s been a great week for the cafe. The crowd has not stopped, regulars came in to congratulate us, families from the neighborhood fed their curiosities and images have been shared/clicked/retweeted furiously. While the hype and pressure is on, there seems to be a sense of steadiness in the air.
Perhaps it is just me, or the effects from waking up before sunrise even on the weekends. I have been finding solace in the quiet dimly lit kitchen. From the minute I unlock the door, the footsteps I take towards the oven and setting the temperature for the first bake. The undivided time dedicated to sifting flour, creaming butter/sugar, clearing last night’s clean dishes and picturing the dinner service. Though the shortage of hands seem to be a pain, there will never be a shortage of kindness or laughter. An unexpected gesture, a note of gratitude, a silly joke to break the ice, or dance in the middle of the kitchen.
Although by the end of the day, we are all physically drained, my heart is light. I look forward to the alarm at 0530, and demanding suppliers for my produce. Who would have known that it is not worth delivering 200 eggs, despite being just around the corner? Or I need 5kg of frozen fish from the Atlantic ocean, just so we can have one scrumptious item on the menu? If there is one thing I learnt from working in kitchens, is that always treat your suppliers nicely (from the dodgy delivery man to the rude but oh-so-desperate marketer).
What time do you open? I’ll let my delivery man know.
10am but I will be there by dawn.
Woah so early!
Here, I retreat into the comforting kitchen made with hard metal, but allows me to bake anything. I tried three new recipes and already have five more lined up. Here, I am not afraid to be vulnerable. In fact, I think we take joy in them. As NBC puts it “characters welcome”. We yell when we need to, we demand when we want to, we laugh when it is most inappropriate and perhaps even cry at some point. But the dark sides of us have seemingly made us into a family. Being selfless sometimes, can be the best thing you do for yourself.
Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity. – Pema Chödrön.
My favourite girl is back!