What's your background in hospitality?
I was a late starter in the hospitality industry. Before I became a chef, I was working in documentary production. I had a self-diagnosed quarter life crisis when I was 25 and wondered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life!
Growing up in a Peranakan household, I have always had a close relationship with food; it has always been the only consistent joy in my life. And I strongly believe that if you choose a job that you love, you will never work a day in your life! I enrolled myself in culinary school, and, as they say, the rest is history.
It has been over a decade since then, and I have never looked back.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
Before coronavirus, on a double day (a day I work two full shifts from 10am to closing), I start at 10am and start my day doing mise en place, depending on which section I have been rostered on.
Pastry section preparation always starts with frying and rolling our signature dessert in Tonka, our Gulab jamun, before starting on smaller bits of mise en place, and then setting up for lunch service that runs between 12 noon to 3pm.
I usually have a short break between 4pm and 5pm, which I spend sorting out kitchen paperwork such as rosters, stocktakes and replying to emails. Staff meal is up at 4:45pm. Then we're setting up for dinner service that starts at 6pm, and ends whenever the last customer is out of the restaurant. On other days, I will be assisting the larder section, and running the pass.
Now with the current lockdown, my typical day consists of organizing take-out orders and packaging our food for delivery and pick up. It has definitely been a very big change from the norm, but I am proud to see how we have so quickly evolved as a restaurant to cater to the current situation. We have also managed to retain nearly all of our kitchen team, a lot of whom are visa holders who do not qualify for any help from the government.
What's your favorite part of the job?
There are so many aspects of my job that I love, but if I had to pick, I would say that my favourite parts of my job are creating new desserts for our menu, running the pass during a busy service, and the banter shared daily with members of my team.
Are there many differences in the day-to-day for a pastry chef working in fine dining versus a hotel or bakery? If so, what are the biggest?
The preparations are slightly different, but fundamentally, they are all the same. We all still use the same basic recipes to create desserts that cater to the different areas and types of clientele.
I would say that the biggest differences would be the size of the preparation that we do. A fine dining pastry chef has the luxury of preparing desserts that are a lot more refined and detailed, whereas a pastry chef working in a hotel or event location has to churn out desserts for large numbers, sometimes in the thousands!
What advice would you have for someone looking to become a pastry chef?
One would be desserts that look one way, but turn out to be something completely different. Desserts that hide a secret or conceal what they really are. Another would be the uprising of baked goods like breads, crumpets, and simple cakes like banana bread. Everyone has been getting their hands on baking at home, and posting their videos and photos on social media. I absolutely love seeing everyone’s creations.
Not following recipes and thinking that they can “wing it”. Pastry is a skill that requires a lot of precision. Savory food is like art or music, you can always change it as you go. But pastry is like science or chemistry, everything is a formula, and the moment you change the proportions of anything, it changes the recipe completely.
Leave your eggs and butter out of the fridge overnight if you’re planning to bake! It will save you so much time! Also, be patient, and just have fun. Nothing beats the joy of baking at home.
Kay-Lene Tan is an award-winning pastry chef. She is the Head Pastry Chef at Tonka and Coda restaurants in Melbourne, Australia. Kay-Lene is passionate about old and new recipes, flavors from her childhood, and old-school cooking techniques that require precision and delicacy.
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