Lessons from the Kitchen

I took up a student job for fun, not realizing how much impact it would have on my life.

In April last year, I took up a part-time job at a Vietnamese restaurant. I was a medical student with no experience in F&B, and simply wanted an opportunity to experience something other than the four walls of a hospital all day.

Most of my friends were mildly amused when they first heard that I was working in a restaurant. “Why don’t you tutor instead? You have good academics, and tutoring has good pay” was the main response. “But you can’t even cook” came from the more honest friends (and unfortunately, they are right). For me, it was never about making money or brushing up on my atrocious culinary skills. I wanted to experience the process of learning something entirely different from what I was used to, to force myself outside my tiny comfort zone, to help this new restaurant launch its very first shop in the city. By the time I quit the job in August to focus on my studies, I had gotten much more than I bargained for.

People often think that the careers that bring you farthest in life are those that are well-paid and education-dependent — traditionally, this meant jobs as doctors, lawyers and businessmen. While this belief may not be completely wrong, my short stint at the restaurant taught me much more soft skills than any school or textbook ever will, and the journey — not the endpoint — was where the learning was at (clichéd I know, but it’s so so true).

I learnt how to work the kitchen and make (good) food. Obvious things come first —from bread fermentation machines to rolling meatballs to making mayonnaise from scratch, I learnt it all within those few months. One of the first things I learnt was a special technique of cutting the bread (Vietnamese-style baguettes) at an angle so that the fillings don’t fall out.

I learnt how to appreciate Vietnamese culture. Surprisingly, it wasn’t so much about the taste of the food (which was delicious) as it was about the enticing aroma. What I missed most, the first few weeks after leaving, was the smell of freshly-ground coffee filling the cafe once we’d started the day. The perfume of crisp bread straight out the oven, the sour scent of vinegar when we made pickled vegetables — for me, these had defined the cosy shop. Whenever customers told me that the food was truly authentic and made them miss Vietnam a little more, I’d always have the urge to buy a plane ticket over to this South-East Asian country to immerse myself in its intriguing culture.

I learnt how to make mistakes, and how to rebound from them. With absolutely no experience in F&B, I made plenty of mistakes. Sure, doing things wrong may be embarrassing, but honestly, people will forget about it, and after that you’ll never make the same mistake again. I distinctly remember my first major failure, when I didn’t know how to use the industrial-sized glad-wrap and attempted to pull at the glad-wrap with my hands instead of using the cutter (because my home-sized glad wrap had a visible sharp cutter blade instead of the blue gliding toggle). My boss looked at me as if I were crazy: “what on EARTH are you doing???” At that point I thought, ‘this is what it feels like to be fired’. Fortunately he didn’t fire me, and although he kept shaking his head at me that day, everything went back to normal during the next shift and I never messed up the glad-wrap again.

I learnt how to tough it out. Our shop was small and shifts were long, so I ended up standing for up to 10 hours a day. During non-rush-hours, we’d do deliveries ourselves and I’d totter to nearby offices, carrying a giant box of sandwiches and coffee for a party of 20 (thank goodness we didn’t have to walk too far). When customers complained, I’d apologize and refrain from rolling my eyes even if their complaints were unreasonable. Both physically and mentally, I learnt to put up with whatever came my way and just get on with the work I had to do.

I learnt how to work under pressure. Typically this would be during lunch, when we’d get long queues and make sandwiches non-stop for two hours. When staff was short, I’d man the shop alone and end up having to somehow bake bread, boil water, make coffee, act as cashier and talk to the customer simultaneously whilst looking perfectly at ease and non-flustered. It got pretty fun and interesting at times.

I learnt how to relax and take things less seriously. The environment in medical school had always been relatively stern and we had to be hard-working (most of the time). However, working in a cafe during non-peak-hours allowed me to stop thinking about celiac trunks and multiple myeloma, and instead gifted me the opportunity to wind down and laugh with my colleagues whilst preparing lemongrass sauce. It was a much-needed, refreshing change in environment.

I learnt how to talk to people. Whether it was with colleagues, customers or the media, I spent most of the day interacting with others, and my introverted self ended up mastering the art of listening. People generally enjoy talking about themselves, so it was fascinating to hear their stories. Talking to customers was especially interesting — I’d meet visitors from Guam who were here for a few days during a layover to Italy, or chat with Maria who came every Sunday after her yoga class. It was awesome learning about the background, albeit superficially, of various strangers.

I learnt how to make someone’s day. You could make customers happy by smiling while greeting them or adding extra cucumber to their sandwiches. You could make colleagues happy by washing the greasy char siu tray, a nightmare that no-one ever wanted to take care of. You could make boss happy by getting to work just a little earlier than usual and doing tasks without being asked. It was so simple, and didn’t require extra effort. Plus, it made everyone happy.

There’s so much more I could share, but these are some of the most worthwhile lessons I learnt whilst working at my favourite restaurant. School may not be able to teach us everything, but finding opportunities for yourself and experiencing the real world can take you a long way.