Working in the software and services sector not only gives us the chance to talk to restaurant managers, but to hear stories from the chefs. While most people can cook something to fill up a hungry belly, perhaps Remy in Ratatouille put it best when he said: “Anyone can cook, but only the fearless can be great.”
So, what’s the difference between an ordinary chef and a Michelin-rated one?
Stanley Yen, the GM of the Landis hotel, recently wrote an article called “Education Should Be Different” in which he recalled a story from the younger days of Chef Andre Jiang, giving some insight into the secrets of a Michelin-rated chef. Who is Andre Jiang? On paper, he’s not particularly noteworthy: he grew up in Taiwan, and later tested into the F&B program at a technical college. But once he’d graduated, his enthusiasm and dedication took him on an amazing adventure:
In 1996, at the age of 20, he became head chef at the Regent Hotel Brasserie.
In 2006, at the age of 30, he was profiled by the Discovery Channel as one of the “Top Young Asian Chefs of 2006”, and was listed as one of the top 150 chefs in the world by the Relais and Chateux guides.
In 2010, at the age of 34, he took charge of JAAN par Andre in Singapore, listed as the world’s 39th best restaurant.
You’ll often hear me say “focus”, because each person is like a lamp: focusing makes you brighter. You can’t shine when you’re distracted – the lamp light becomes diffused and can’t sufficiently illuminate the subject.
We’ve discovered a serious problem in the modern world. Everyone wants to do everything themselves but thinking about too many things leaves you distracted. This weakens your focus. Practicing something for 30 minutes will have a vastly different result than if you practice for eight hours, but this requires intense focus.
Several months ago, I attended the graduation exhibition at the Singapore Academy of Arts. Some of the work on display were overly complicated and showed signs of the students having invested too much technique. Better results could have been achieved through a simpler approach. I told them, “Piling up technique upon technique shows that you lack confidence.” For example, I really can’t cook red peppers, so you’ll never see them in my restaurant.
Cuisine isn’t just something to fill the belly, it’s an experience – a journey. It’s the journey that makes eating an adventure – not the food.
Lots of people think I’m different from other chefs. I’m passionate about art, not just cuisine. I also love sculpture and painting and pottery. I personally made every plate used in my restaurant. In the process of cooking, I see a larger context. Every dish is a work of art and every decision, every step is important. How shall it be plated? How should it be cut? Each of these choices is a critical artistic decision.
Cuisine is my light, my language. My focus is on the cuisine, my light shines on it – this is how I communicate with others.
My responsibility isn’t just to cook food – it’s to pursue artistic excellence. Cuisine is an artistic form of language. Every day, I buy the ingredients, touch them, smell them, and listen to them tell me how they should be prepared. It creates a chemical change between me and the food, like a kind of ritualized dialogue, inspiring me to create.
I often meet young people who become easily distracted, always worrying about what other people think. Is this fashionable? Is this price too high? Can this be mass produced? Does this have legs? I’ve never thought about these things. I’m not smarter or more talented than other people, I just work hard to do things well. Seven years ago in France, I worked 20 hours every day, starting from peeling potatoes and sweeping floors. I never felt it was too hard. This is just the path toward my goal. There’s something I want to do, and this is the price to be paid, so I accept it. If you want to get from A to B, the road between them may be short or long, but you still have to walk it. It’s really quite simple.
If, during your training, you feel like you’re sacrificing something, it’s a sign of flagging enthusiasm. Excellence isn’t something you let others define for you – you have to define it for yourself.
Maybe these weren’t the “secrets” you were hoping for. But then, were you hoping for a secret or a shortcut? Just maybe, the root of success is in recognizing that there are no shortcuts.
(Photo via Google, CC License)