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Despite many popular cooking competition and celebrity chef’s show on TV, “Chef” remains as mysterious occupation to some of my friends and acquaintances.

A friend never dare to invite me to her house for dinner because “cooking for a chef is too stressful”. Another friend freaks out selecting a place to eat out with me, “worrying that it may not be up to your standard”. And yet another wonders, “what cake would a pastry chef have in mind for her birthday?”

I cannot speak for all chefs but many chefs spent hours standing and cooking for others during work, and especially during weekends, holidays, and birthdays (yes, including chef’s own birthday). It would be a blessing to just sit down with family and friends and catch up. During off days, it’s such a great relief enjoying food served to them, without worrying about customer’s special request like “vegetarian but okay with seafood”.

I spent my birthday making cakes for other’s birthday. One of the best birthday presents I received this year is from Pastry Union‘s customer, Kat. She sent an email to me with only four words: “Your cakes are delicious !!!!!!!!”

“We received your application to work in our kitchen. Could you come to the kitchen for a tryout next Monday?” “Yes, sure!” I said confidently without any hesitation. Oh my god, a call from the HR of a Michelin-starred restaurant! Just right after my graduation at Le Cordon Bleu! My first job interview for a kitchen position! But…what exactly do they want to test me?? Should I know the recipes? Would I be requested to make a cake from scratch?

After countless question marks, I arrived at this Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Posh flashy dining area. Pastries on display look promising. “This way please.” I was led to the back stage operation area. Walking through several flights of dimly lit staircases, I got my uniform with an apron full of patches and holes, which was like Cinderella after midnight – plenty of works ahead.

Chef J introduced me to the pastry team. Everyone stopped working, all I could see was young faces waiting with a broad smile to greet me with a warm welcome. “Are you the only female in the kitchen?” I asked Chef J. She nodded. No wonder I felt like entering an army camp. “This is Chef A, our pastry chef, you will be working with him today.”

“Nice to meet you, Chef A

Ganache, you know?”

“Yes, chef.”

Waa.. straight to the point, like a commander.

“Scale 3.6 litres of cream, 300g glucose…”

No recipe folder? The ingredients just shoot out like a machine gun. Aye, aye, sir.

Err…where’s the scale? What about the maryse (French; a soft plastic spatula)? I realized that despite being in London, I was in a French speaking kitchen. With very limited French vocabularies, I felt handicapped navigating through the corners to get all the ingredients and equipment I need.

“Why so many bowls and pots?”

“Set up Bain Marie (French; an indirect heating method) to melt the chocolate, Chef”

“Use microwave”

Ya, why not? Chuck it in. “Ding!” Done. Oops, gone a little wild on the time, centre was a little burned. Quickly scooped out the mess, fingers crossed no one would notice. A colleague, French, passed by, right on time, pointed at the bowl of chocolate. I put a finger between my lips, with a smile, mimicking “Shh..Merci”. He nodded.

“The cream is heating. Anything else I can help, Chef?”

“Make apple compote. Get forty five apples from fridge.”

Damn, these apples are heavy! On the way back to my workstation, the other guy who is peeling a pile of potato gives me a ‘felt sorry for you’ face. I shrugged. Apples, apples, seemingly endless apples.

Around one thirty, Chef J brought me to staff canteen for lunch. Only wilted mix salad leaves and some boiled boneless chicken breast swimming in a pool of diluted tomato sauce were left. The chicken breast was tough and tasteless. I couldn’t believe these food came from the same kitchen that produced Michelin-starred dishes. Oh, please have some mercy, staff’s stomach is not a bin recycling whatever substandard items.

The day didn’t get any better after lunch. Chef A passed me a packet of sago pearls.

“You know how to cook this?”

“Yes, chef.”

Sago pearl is a common ingredient in Southeast Asian dessert. OF COURSE I would know.

When the sago turns translucent, it’s ready.

“Sift it” said Chef A.

“Sift?” Are you really sure about this?

“Yes!”

Chef A handed me a sieve and walked away. Well, well, maybe it’s the ‘Michelin-way’ of treating the sago. So, I pressed the pearls through the sieve. When Chef A came back, he was shocked looking at my bowl of gooey mess.

“Where the balls?”

“I passed them through the sieve, chef.”

“I want the balls!.”

“Sorry, chef. Yes, chef.”

Ok ok. French and English couldn’t understand each other well. I did the same thing again. The second time, I STRAINED out the sago pearls.

“Your job is finished. You can go home now.” said Chef A.

Did he mean I am done with you?

“Really? There isn’t anything else I could do?”

“It’s ok. I will let you know my decision later.”

Huh, what a day! Although my body repeatedly demand ‘I need food, I need shower, I need rest’,  my brain was occupied by ‘I should have done this, I shouldn’t have done that’. Lessons learned. Life goes on. The next day, the HR from this restaurant told me “You’ve got an offer.”

What a surprise?!