Chop your way to the top

Chop your way to the top

Becoming a head chef may take time and a lot of hard work, but it can bring big rewards

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Ku Tin-fung is working his way up the kitchen ladder.
Ku Tin-fung is working his way up the kitchen ladder.
Photo: Edmond So/SCMP
Interviewee: Ku Tin-fung works as a da ho, which roughly translates as a dish-up, in the Michelin-starred Hoi King Heen restaurant at the InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong.

Get started

The Chinese Cuisine Training Institute offers courses that provide structured training for becoming a Chinese chef. Some smaller restaurants may take on apprentices without training.

Moving up

Most people start off working as an apprentice. They will not be allowed to cook for a while. They will be assigned chores like washing, chopping and preparing the ingredients for the cooks. The next step up the ladder is the dish-up position. These are the people who help ensure the dishes served are correct and sometimes they add a few final touches to the dish.

Newcomers do not get involved with cooking until they become a cook or a "wok". There are five levels of cooks. The lowest levels - cooks number four and five - look after the deep-fried foods.

It takes about seven years for an apprentice to become a number five cook. Cooks number two, three and four are in charge of frying dishes and preparing soups. The head chef, or head wok, is in charge of quality control and assigns chores to staff. The head chef usually has at least 20 years' experience. The top job in a kitchen is that of executive head chef. This person oversees the operation of the restaurant, creates dishes and interacts with customers.

Race to the top

Chefs need to have a passion for food, both eating it and cooking it. They need to be able to endure long hours and be physically fit, as much of the work is strenuous. They must be willing to learn and keep up with food trends.

Rewards and benefits

Apprentice wages start at about HK$8,000 to HK$9,000. A number five cook makes about HK$15,000.

Where to apply

Hotels, restaurants.

A day in the life

Chefs work on a split-shift system. They come in at around 10am to prepare ingredients, cook soups and plan the lunch service. When lunch finishes at around 3pm, they'll have a break. Work resumes at around 6pm and ends at 11pm. Chefs then clean all the tools, turn off the machines and call it a day.

Jargon

A handsome guy - A bowl of rice.

Shoot the ball - Staff taking an absence of leave on short notice.

Dish-up - Dish-up in Chinese is da ho. Although the "ho" refers to the lily flower in Chinese, its homonym also means river. So da ho means controlling the flow of water in a river, the same way a dish-up controls the pace of the kitchen operation.

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