Jeff Chan is the head chef of fine-dining restaurant St. George at Hullett House. He tells The Loop about working 12-plus hours a day, and why it’s so tough to hire new blood in the industry.
A little background
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Jeff Chan enrolled in a local cooking school to learn western culinary techniques before stepping foot in the industry at 20 years old. He has worked for the likes of HKCEC, Landmark Mandarin Oriental and Aqua restaurant group in Hong Kong, and has also done stints in Thailand and southern France. Today, he heads up French establishment St. George at the Hullett House.
When you were at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, you got to work at (Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant) Amber with chef Richard Ekkebus. How was that like?
Richard influenced me the most with his professional chef’s attitude. He was very serious about his work, and could make other people become serious about their work.
You’ve worked in French restaurants in Hong Kong as well as in southern France. Are there any differences?
In Hong Kong, I was working 12 hours a day. But when I was in France, it was even more. The hours were like 8am to 1am, and in between we only had a 45-minute break. Every day. Every day you sleep two to three hours, you’re emotionally weak, then you get shouted at by people, you cook, clean, you do everything. You really need a lot of stamina.
Sounds tough. Do you think you made the right choice in careers?
Early on in my career, I had actually thought about switching to something completely unrelated. I thought about being a police officer.
But then the Landmark Mandarin opened and I I was chosen as part of the opening team. I thought there was nothing to lose by trying. I did that for five years, and then an opportunity at a French restaurant in Bangkok came up, and then a Michelin-starred restaurant (Le Jardin des Sens) in Montpellier offered me something. So in the end, I decided it was fate: French cuisine had chosen me.
We keep hearing that it’s tough to get young blood into the business. Is that true?
The most difficult aspect of this industry is that there aren’t enough people. Why? Compared to say 10-plus years ago, fewer young people are entering the industry today. Maybe they have too many choices. Working 13-14 hours in this industry is a given. It’s hot in the kitchen, you need to stand all day. A lot of people can’t handle it.
Also, a lot of people today want to keep their work and personal lives separate, they need work-life balance. But I want to say that’s the wrong way of looking at it: work is life. If your attitude is that work is a part of your life, then you wouldn’t treat it as work. You’ll treasure the time you spend in the kitchen. Why do we need to separate life and work?
Are you friendly with other chefs?
We’re very friendly. We’ll call each other and ask, what are you doing now? What will you do next month? What did you do last month? Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day? How was business? We need to gauge the scene all the time. Things change so quickly in Hong Kong: next month will be a different thing.
You have a dish called slow-cooked 52 degrees salmon on your menu. Why is it so precise?
It’s all trial and error. There’s not much difference between 51 and 53 degrees. It’s a matter of the time it takes to cook something — 45 degrees can also cook the fish, but then it takes a very long time.
Read more from our Dishin’ the Dirt series.