Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Chef's choice

The Sunday Times on 29 June 2008 had a cover article on its life section on “Chef’s Choice”. It basically talked about how the popularization of the celebrity chef has given the profession more cachet, and how more people in Singapore are taking up the profession of chef, whether as mid-career professionals or as young people just starting out.

As admirable as pursuing one’s dreams may be, everyone who aspires to be a celebrity chef should really take note of what the local celebrity chefs in the article did say at the end:

Chefs may earn more respect today, but their long working hours haven’t changed. It is a tiring job and many cooks come to me full of dreams, hoping to be Singapore’s next star chef without knowing what they are getting into. (Sam Leong, corporate chef and director of kitchens of the Tung Lok group of restaurants)

As a chef, you’ll always be holding pots and pans on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve while everyone else is holding hands with his loved ones. So to be a chef, you need to have a passion and dedication to the craft that is so strong, it will see you through these tough moments. (Justin Quek, who runs three famous restaurants in Shanghai – Le Platane, Fountain and Villa du Lac)

It's been said that three careers that rank low in lifetime earnings relative to the large outlay in time, effort and expense are the chef, the PhD scientist and the architect (debatable). For the chef, this article may be relevant.

But some would say that if being a chef is a dream, money shouldn’t figure in the person’s choice of profession.

I would add that the chef, like many professions that allow for creative self expression (authors, actors, musicians etc.) is subject to what are called superstar, winner-take-all or black swan effects. The chapter of Freakonomics that deals with drug runners and kingpins is relevant. So is the phenomenon of real estate agents, insurance agents or high-level multilevel marketers who pull in vast amounts of income compared to the median pay of their profession. Like these other professions, it just so happens that the most visible chefs also happen to be most successful Michelin-starred ones. The ‘silent graveyard’ contains the legions of chefs slaving over a hot stove for low pay, just as it contains the legions of waiters in Los Angeles who call themselves ‘actors’.

I wonder how many celebrity chefs would actually be happy to see their kids follow in their footsteps. This was one of the supporting themes in Eat Drink Man Woman.

Quite separately, the phenomenon of the burned-out investment banker, lawyer or business executive leaving their soul-sucking job in pursuit of cooking, baking, wine or cheese making is so prevalent that it’s almost become a cliché. Cedele’s founder is another good example.

What is less talked about is that it might be precisely because these ex-bankers and lawyers have the financial wherewithal that they have decided to venture into a new career that is not normally considered lucrative or desirable.

The importance of family money also cannot be overstated. The Sunday Times article cited the example of one Janice Wong, a 25-year old pastry chef who decided to take up baking after graduating with a degree in economics, as one of the new wave of talented chefs. My comment is that having an ex-banker father sponsoring your patisserie course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and bankrolling your new restaurant is NOT the typical way that a chef’s career begins! The restaurant may be a “joint investment”, but I’m guessing that the capital came from only one person. As I understand it, most chefs labor for years before opening their own restaurant.

As far as owning and running your own restaurant goes, I suspect that the situation may be a lot less sanguine than most people think. The restaurant business is a notoriously difficult business to invest in: margins are thin, running and start-up costs are high, and demand is fickle. Indeed, demand for restaurant dining tends to be both price and income elastic. It can be said that the blossoming fine dining scene here in Singapore may be as much a reflection of the state of the economy as the burgeoning demand for a greater and better variety of dining options. When the next economic downturn occurs, we may see a flurry of restaurant closures.

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