Considering a Chef Consultant Job in SE Asia?
by Chef Nick Medhurst
Is South East Asia beckoning to you? Are you considering a chef consultant job in Asia…days off on palm-lined beaches, sipping cold drinks in the evening at a friendly bar? Beautiful Asian women, intoxicating spices and foods, stunningly beautiful landscapes, jungles, islands and mountains. Or perhaps the rush of some of the busiest cities in the world.
The following cautionary points come from over 20 years working through Vietnam, Cambodia, Phillipines,Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia as a consultant chef/ executive chef. Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong offer a different work ethic. I have a few words of advice for your potential expedition.
- Do you want to hold a senior position or work as a consultant? Go to the job boards to look through ads for the type of job that will suit you. Don’t just go on spec.
- Make sure you have excellent medical insurance before leaving. Not having it is one of my major mistakes, for which I am still paying.
- Research your prospective place of work. Read all the guides, Tripadvisor, etc, with the comments by the visitors to the establishments.
- Contact the employer and make sure you get all your questions answered. It’s better to go for the large international groups if your CV and experience is acceptable to them. They are more likely to be what you are used to, especially if your predecessor was a Western chef.
- Make sure your contract contains the following. Return flight, accommodation, salary, hour’s to be worked, overtime payments, laundry of work clothes, meals, time off each week, medical insurance [on top of your own]. Itemized responsibilities. This is your responsibility to ensure you get what you want. No good bitching about things after you arrive!
- Ask for a contract copy to be sent to you. In fact, print one out and keep it and never delete the contract from your laptop.
- Get it translated if necessary.
- Get the contract signed ASAP.
- When signed get it recorded by a Notary Public Recorder in the country.
- Register your presence with your embassy.
- Now you’re ready to start work. Make sure that the employer/GM introduces you to the kitchen and especially to the existing head chef. Also to introduce you to all the heads of the other departments. Ensure that he emphasizes your position and duties. It is preferable to do this in a departmental meeting.
- Don’t start like a bull in a china shop. Take a week or so to see how everything runs. Look at how people work, storage, hygiene [very, very important], security, etc.
- If you want to change anything always, always go through the existing chef. Ask his opinion. If it’s a menu improvement show priced recipes with a presentation picture. Remember etiquette and even though you have a superior position you need him on your side. Ask his opinion.
- Be prepared to view some unusual ways of cooking dishes you know well. Also be ready to encounter the use of large amounts of MSG. In some SE Asian countries it is placed on the table as a condiment. In one place I worked the head chef used to sprinkle it on green salads for the buffet. I had great difficulties cutting out MSG, even with the support of the management. There was even a representation from the kitchen. “How to we make anything taste good?”. Quite often the staff think you are trying to screw them over by cutting it. One large hotel in Cambodia used a pallet and a half per month. You know what hit the fan when I eventually cancelled it. I then encountered large orders of chicken powder.
- Remember there is always jealousy and resentment. You are a foreigner who could supplant any of the existing team. They will always think this, even though it is incorrect.
- Also, remember there are often family bonds in the kitchen. Brothers, uncles, sisters, cousins, etc they will all feel threatened. In fact, throughout the establishment, there will be family ties. This may sound like an overreaction but in my experience, it is very true.
- You are holding a position with others under you. NEVER have a face-to-face public argument. It breeds long lasting resent if carried out before other staff. LOSS OF FACE. Any problems, discuss quietly in your office and if necessary with the manager present. If you ignore this you may have to face the consequences outside the workplace.
- If you are the top dog ALWAYS keep a close eye on your stock, also watch purchasing prices. Keep an eye on the purchasing department, goods inwards, stock controller, warehouse staff and security detail.
- Visit the storeroom regularly, also a quick unexpected checkup can be very revealing.
- Unfortunately, prices do vary daily, vastly at times, especially for national holidays, if you are purchasing items from a fresh market. Always try to get your fresh item suppliers to give you a year’s pre-quote, to keep your bills regular. It also gives your supplier a general record of what you use so he can make sure your supplies are regular, with good prices, even during the special days.
- I know it’s difficult, but always try to be at the delivery of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. I have many stories about the daily fresh goods delivery.
- Stock takes, be present if possible. In larger operations use an independent stocktaking company. I have one experience of $2,400 worth of Parma hams missing after a large buffet along with imported Fine de Claire oysters that were replaced by the vastly cheaper Vietnamese oysters. A total loss of about $3000.
- Choose 1 or 2 items and watch the consumption through a couple of months use.
- Make sure the financial department can do your P&Ls accurately. Always check thoroughly. One experience was the purchase price of Cheddar cheese, priced at $1.27 per kg actual price $12.70. You must check all purchase prices, thoroughly. The office staff often have no concept of many of the items you wish to use. Especially cheese and superior processed meats.
- Change delivery door guards regularly.
- Visit the markets yourself. You can keep an eye on prices and discover any new seasonal items that you can utilize.
- Good medical insurance if you decide to go on spec.
- Mind the floors! There are very few non slip floors in SE Asian kitchens.
During your work remember: local etiquette, security of the product, hygiene, be careful with liaisons made outside of work. Ease into everything gently and carefully. All these pointers are directly linked to personal experiences.
Now your real chef consultant job begins. I would like to think that you have read the kitchen code here. It covers all that should be expected in your kitchen. Well, I have news for you! This code is what you will have to instill TOTALLY. I have carefully read this list of what to do/expect in a kitchen and I have to tell you I have NEVER encountered it’s ethics and standards during my time in SE Asia.
Chef Consultant Job Requirements
Having pointed out the difficulties, now check the following list to see if you have the attributes to excel as a chef consultant:
- Business plans; cash flow analysis, budgeting, startup planning.
- Restaurant and kitchen design; proper layout and equipment selection. Maintenance schedules; protect the investment, take care of the equipment.
- Efficiency; all phases of not wasting time and money.
- Wine List and Menu Specialists; selection, design, proper pricing and implementation.
- Menu implementation: Standardize recipes, training of dining room and kitchen staff.
- Systems layout and training; every aspect from cleaning to guest services.
- Vendor selection; finding the products you need at prices that make sense.
- Receiving and inventory implementation; how to accept products and account for them.
- Marketing/Sales/Advertising; The how and why of successful promotion, press and TV, with regular follow ups.
- Customer awareness; instill pride of customer service in all staff. Community Acceptance; help you work to achieve harmony with the community. Offer learning places, support temples and orphanages, etc.
- Sanitation and Hygiene; clean facilities and safe food preparation, storage, labelling and service.
- Computer systems and software planning; determining the business needs and conducting training.
- Cost Controls; know how to control your costs through purchasing, pricing and waste prevention.
- Layout and design of the restaurant web site.
- Planning for the future.
- Job descriptions, employee manuals and operation procedures; you write them.
- Loss and fire prevention, safety procedures and emergency planning.
- Quality assurance; only the best service and employee cooperation will do.
- Staff training, front and back of house; training your staff to be efficient and professional.
- Inventory utilization; get the most out of your stock.
Lastly remember that while working a chef consultant job you are a guest in their country so you must make certain allowances. This piece may deter you but I have stayed 25 years and made a good living in SE Asia. And I have enjoyed the company of my lovely Vietnamese wife for 23 years.
about Nick Medhurst
I originally trained as a chef in France gaining French qualifications. In 1983, whilst I was Head Chef for the British National Water Council, I gained a Winston Churchill Fellowship that gave me my first taste of Asia. It allowed me to research the comparative use of seafood between Japan and Europe. Shortly after returning to the UK I landed a position as head chef in a new French restaurant in Hong Kong. So started my career in SE Asia. I have worked for large chains, sports clubs and with the setup of small individual restaurants.
Check out my Facebook page where I put recipes to help young and upcoming SE Asian chefs with some recipes:
Great British Chefs Asia