Wok Tutorials, The Transcripts

February 18, 2017

We had this item on our CNY menu, pork knuckle on a bed of stir fried lettuce, topped with fatt choy and sauce. Fatt choy is this black moss that Chinese people like to eat during CNY; we just refer to it as “hai mo” (pubic hair). Now that CNY’s over, we’re selling the last few knuckles in stock. Today we were about to send out two orders, then the sous chef suddenly stopped me.

Sous: Hai mo
Me: no more hai mo, we’ve used the last of our hai mo
Sous: chuckles okay then, no hai mo
Kor: it’s a bak lo fu
Me: what?
Sous: LOL
Kor: Say with me. Bak.
Me: Bak.
Kor: Lo.
Me: Lo.
Kor: Fu.
Me: Fu.
Kor: Bak lo fu.
Me: Bak lo fu!
Kor: VERY GOOD
Sous: trying to recover from laughing Meimei do you have any idea what bak lo fu is
Me: no
Sous: white tiger. Or in this context, white tiger refers to a woman who has no hair down there. No hai mo.
Me: Oh.
Kor: Now the only question left is -
Sous: Don’t -
Kor: ARE YOU
Me: yeah
Kor: YOU WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO ANSWER

February 16, 2017

Yesterday night I was doing my own thing, closing and cleaning up after a very brutal service. Those who needed to smoke went to smoke. The Laoda watched me from a distance, sipping his beer. Then suddenly he called my name.

Laoda: Li Ching
Me: Hmm?
Laoda: I think it is time for you to learn more. I think all this is becoming repetitive for you. Although it is good that you take your current role seriously, we need to help you move further. Also I would hate to see you resign and leave me, I would literally cry. Therefore it is time you learn to become comfortable with oil and deep frying things. This is the first step to becoming a wok person, mastering control over oil is foundational. I would like you, when you come early, NOT to do what you usually do. Leave them behind for your two korkors to do. I would like you to touch the wok, lift it, fry an egg in it, whatever. You can get J (Wok 4) to show you. Only after you acquire basic wrist strength, can I really begin to teach you more.
J: I heard my name
Laoda: I want to make her something greater than some minion
J: Kay. Come over anytime, Meimei, is cool
Laoda: You start Monday. I am serious. You will no longer obsess over your current role and you will look further.
Me: …okay thank you I would love to

And I continued closing because I thought he would forget what he said, but just now he came over to my side to repeat the exact same thing - “Tomorrow morning, yeah? You can make staff meal together with G. CONSIDER THIS AN ORDER.” So I am half puzzled and half extremely excited, will report any developments

February 28, 2017

J (Wok 4) was between amused and exasperated

“Nope. Nope. No left hand. Left hand is for grasping wok handle. Your Laoda instructed us to forbid you from leading with your left hand”
“Your right hand is weird, like stiff.”
“The way you move with the bamboo brush must be more fluid. And faster.”
“Okay look. It’s like…you know English very well right? Imagine you’re trying to teach someone English, but they don’t even know how to write A, B, C. There are also ABCs of the wok. Grasp the wok, lift the wok, wash the wok, blanch, flash fry, toss, rotate…these are your alphabet you must integrate into your body. We can go again tomorrow.”

March 8, 2017

I know it’s women’s day, but for me it was another work day and it was very eventful. I came early in the morning for a hor fun tutorial with the dim sum Laoda (in exchange I gave him all the prawn stock he needed). “BIG FIRE, BIGGER BIGGER” he bellowed. He likes giving me hor fun tutorials because our end product will feed his people for a morning. “Tomorrow I have a long list of things to do, I’m really sorry, but come find me again the day after okay?”

The sous chef (wok 2) came in at his usual time, sipping his carrot juice. “I see Fat Boy been teaching you how to stir fry hor fun,” he said, “but, later, let me show you how it’s really done.” At only 34 he’s a very stern, quiet, accomplished wok person, and I greatly admire his style. I nodded but expected him to forget.

Closer to the end of lunch shift, Wok 3 was taking me through black pepper sauce and chilli crab sauce (I’d already done all the preliminary prep work). “RIGHT HAND, MEIMEI, GET USED TO IT.” He nagged and nagged and nagged but at least now I know.

“Faster, dude, I need to take her through the hor fun,” Sous chef moaned and rolled his eyes.

“Fuck you lah, fine fine Meimei go join him, we’re about done anyway.”

So I went. Sous chef stood literally inches from me.

“Let’s go. Same procedure, wash and heat the wok. Oil in. Not that much. Oil out. Beef in. This is quality beef so we’re going to gently sear the slices. Done. Beef out, wash and heat the wok. Oil in, oil out. Taugay and onion in. Hor fun. Go on, show me how you stir fry. Hmm. Stop.”

Then he grasped my left hand with his, over the wok handle.

“You must learn to toss in a manner that helps you survive 8 hours of stir frying. Use momentum and technique, not force. Can you feel the way I am moving the wok?” He kept at the motion for a good 2 minutes. I felt many pairs of eyes on me. I remained professional about it but this dude is very cute and really quite hot (NOT THAT I EVER POINTED IT OUT) so I think my face was red.

“Let’s continue. Season your hor fun. No there is no oyster sauce in mine. MSG, chicken powder, a bit of salt, soy sauce. Dark soy sauce only at the end. Add your beef now. Now your yellow chives. Okay we’re done. It could be better, but let’s eat. You should eat. If you don’t eat enough you won’t become strong enough to lift the wok single-handedly. Eventually you must.”

So we ate, I took a short break, came in to make fried rice again, and after that learned how to make wok omelettes with Q. All in all a very productive learning day.

March 14, 2017

This afternoon’s lesson departed from noodles/rice/carrot cake/assorted deep fried things, to a classic stir fried fish and bitter gourd in black bean sauce. Wok 3 was taking me for this class.

“Okay Meimei first we gotta batter the fish. Season it first with chicken powder and MSG, add potato starch and a bit of egg. Then mix in a bit of batter. Then wash and ready your wok for deep frying. No kanchiong, let the oil heat. Okay go. NOT THE FISH FIRST, WE ALWAYS FLASH FRY THE BITTERGOURD FIRST.

Okay bittergourd out, fish in. Turn up the heat, the fish slices are thin so you need to turn up the heat until the oil is very hot. Once all the fish is in, use your oil strainer to move them around, and remove any floating pieces of batter. Fish out. Oil out. Wash the wok. I’m bored. The sous will take you from here. Dude I gotta go pee, show her how to blanch the bittergourd.”

The sous was just beside, eating his mee pok.

“Okay come. Water in. Enough. Two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon of salt. Bittergourd in. Stir a little bit, wait a while. Okay done. Everything out.

Heat and brush the wok. A little bit of oil. Stir fry the scallion slices, mushroom slices, black beans; add a bit of bean sauce, zhuhou sauce, ground flounder, black bean sauce. Add a bit of wine. A bit of water, a bit of stock. Throw in the bittergourd, then add seasoning. Chicken powder, MSG, sugar, oyster sauce. Don’t add salt! Taste. Salty right? You added quite a lot of MSG. Add a bit of water. Throw in the fish.

Okay now we will thicken the sauce. For beginners I recommend pinching your starch water into a saucer. Then with your left hand hand trickle the water in, with your right hand gently fold and stir. Gently, the fish is soft at this point. OKAY ENOUGH STOP STOP. The thing about potato starch is, when the heat is off and the liquid isn’t boiling, the sauce doesn’t seem so thick. That’s cause the starch is still raw. But once you turn the heat back on and the starch cooks, it ‘tightens’ the whole mix dramatically. So add starch slowly. It is better to add more later than to have to add stock and water. ladles a bit of stock in finally, add dark soy sauce. We are done, faster dish up and wash, let’s go for coffee”

Was a very precious tutorial, because I’m supposed to work strictly with rice/hor fun/cheong fun until deemed worthy :3

March 23, 2017

A few days ago the sous chef asked me, “is there anything you really, really love to eat?”

“Tomato scrambled egg”
“Dry or wet”
“Wet”
“Okay”

So today while I made fried rice for the managers, he was cracking eggs beside a saucer of tomato wedges.

“Today we gonna make tomato scrambled eggs”
“REALLY?”
“Yes really, faster, scramble the eggs first. Do just like you scramble egg whites for fried rice. Don’t turn up the heat too much. It’s done. Eggs out tomatoes in. Add a bit of stock, ketchup, where I come from we use ketchup. Add some sweet and sour sauce, optional but this makes it restaurant-style. Chicken powder, generous amount of sugar, MSG, a bit of salt. You have to add enough sugar or it won’t taste like childhood. Taste. Sliced scallions in. A bit of potato starch to thicken. Put your eggs back in. Stir. Taste again, remember this flavor. Make this for your mom.”

March 28, 2017

Yesterday while we were doing coffee, the sous chef was like “hey I got a question”

Me: Yeah

Sous: why? Why did you choose this line?

Me: I don’t like that question

Sous: Oh. Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you, I’m curious

Me: It’s okay, it’s a fair question, it’s just that I hear it all the time and I don’t have an answer either

Sous: You don’t have to have an answer, no answer is also okay, I won’t ask anymore

Me: quiet I just have a lot of feelings and it’ll take a long time to talk about this

Sous: I have time

Me: what do you think the answer is?

Sous: Coincidence. You fell into this line and then, for some reason decided to stay.

Me: Interesting.

Sous: Interesting?

Me: I like your answer, it’s very accurate and very honest, most people think I went into this because ~passion~ or interest or whatever

Sous: You have no interest in this work?

Me: Don’t we all, have at least some interest in this work, else we would die of boredom and resentment?

Sous: True

Me: I once had this colleague, a Singaporean, he was super super in love with cooking and stuff. But he quit rather early in. Smart guy, perfectly literate, rather educated. He decided it was better to have more money and time for himself to cook at home. I agree, interest and work are related but also very distinct.

Sous: …true, you are smarter than I expected.

Me: He didn’t think that an industry with long hours and little pay was healthy for his ~interest~. He said this life is too hard to be interesting

Sous: Maybe he’s not like you, he’s not an ox hehe

Me: I’m not the same, I sort of just wandered into this industry and then found my place here. I don’t like people to ask me a million questions. Why why why, why don’t I do this instead; why don’t I go back. It’s so funny. Nobody asks you, “hey Ming why did you choose this line, do you, like, cook a lot at home?” Isn’t it funny to your ears?

Sous: I grew up poor, kid, I gave up school to work and support my family. I wasn’t any good in school anyway. I took the first job I got, just so happened it was a kitchen job and I was quite interested. I thought, what other choices do I have? People like me are…supposed to fall into this category of work.

Me: Fair. Okay. Sorry.

Sous: But people like you, it’s considered a waste.

Me: I respect and admire the work we do, I respect and admire your expertise, and if I aspire towards that I don’t consider it a waste. To say “waste” would be to disrespect our profession.

Sous: Good point

Me: I think asking why, why, why is pointless. Not pointless but not as relevant as “do I wish to continue” “where do I go from here” “am I doing my job with diligence and consistency, am I putting in my best work”

Sous: Hmm. Okay. I know what you want. And I support you.

Me: thank you it means a lot to me

And it really did, to have this conversation, to be given an hour of time and mutual respect, to finally hear these words from a person that I 100% look up to.

April 6, 2017

Today’s lesson, part 1: Claypot eggplant

In my lineup today were XO sauce cheong fun, Yangzhou fried rice, claypot eggplant, and stir fried HK egg noodles, in increasing level of difficulty. The sous chef rolled his eyes at the fried rice and tossed it at wok 3, who hadn’t stopped bantering with wok 4 for an entire two hours.

“Today we will allocate more time to the eggplant and noodles, since you’ve never attempted them before. We will no longer go through fried rice with you. For every thing you learn, after a certain point you already know what is to be done, but you just need time and practice to master it. Faster settle the cheong fun first.”

I stir fry the cheong fun quite successfully

“Done? Okay so you know how to flash fry eggplant. Do it first. Eggplant out, minced pork in. Just get it to brown. Okay take it out. Throw in the salted fish, make it golden brown. Careful don’t burn it. Take it out. Wash the wok.

Blanch the eggplant. Add salt and sugar, that’s what we mean by the term "打”. It means to blanch with salt and sugar, a technique usually used for bitter vegetables. We blanch eggplant after frying because eggplant soaks up a lot of oil. Look, the oil magically comes out. It’s done, take it out.

Now stir fry your bean sauce, add the minced pork and salted fish. Add stock, oyster sauce, chicken powder, sugar, soy sauce, dark soy sauce. Eeeeasyyy on the seasoning, you are always adding a lot. Taste. It’s about right.

Add the eggplant. Now you must move quickly, once the eggplant is in, it disintegrates easily. Add your starch. Do you know that for potato starch water, you have to ‘pinch’ more water than starch? If your starch to water ratio is too high, once you add it into your wok and stir, it coagulates too quickly and unevenly and you get this rough gloppy mess. Thickening is a technique in itself, kid. Hehe. Good attempt here. Needs more color, add a bit more dark soy sauce. I’ll get the claypot.“

April 6, 2017

Yesterday’s) tutorial, part 2: Stir fried HK egg noodles

"Okay moving on to the egg noodles. You have your pre-cooked, weighed portioned egg noodles, but look. I dunno which idiot blanched the egg noodles the other day, but they are overdone and too soft. And it will show when you make your crispy HK noodles, or in this case, when you stir fry. Even more obvious when you stir fry. Thankfully this is the last of this shitty batch. Later in the evening bring me a fresh packet and I will blanch the noodles myself.

First, ready your wok for deep frying. While the oil heats, throw the noodles in your strainer and ladle hot water over them. Loosen the noodles. Now we will deep fry the noodles. The procedure for stir frying egg noodles and mee sua, is the same - deep fry first, then blanch. Get the oil super hot. Once the noodles are in they will expand immediately, it’s quite beautiful to watch. Keep deep frying the noodles until they are a rigid, crisp, and slightly golden mass.

Take the noodles out, wash the wok, and blanch them. Do NOT press or prod the noodles while they are still crisp. They will break. And you will have broken ugly strands when you stir fry. Just hands off until they are soft. Your water does not need to be at a rolling boil, just hot enough. Okay done, these noodles cannot be blanched too long. Strangely, it is mee sua that survives a longer blanching time, even though they are so much thinner. Anyway quick strain the noodles out, wash the wok.

Stir fry your beansprouts, sliced onion, scallion whites briefly. Remove them from the wok, onto your egg noodles. Now scramble eggs very briefly. No need to turn up the heat, you’re just making a light scramble. Everything in, noodles and the rest. Okay go go stir fry. You know the motion right? Stir fry while keeping the noodles loose. Similar motion as hor fun, try.

Okay now we can season. Here I have that same soy sauce we serve with steamed fish. But if you don’t have this sauce on hand, you already roughly know the formula. Some superior soy sauce, some fish sauce, a bit of Maggi, sugar, MSG. Add to it dark soy sauce, chicken powder. Stir. Add the mix to your noodles.

Oh shit.

Haha my bad I was supposed to tell you, it is better not to add the entire mix at one shot. Why? It’s not a big problem, but you might have over seasoned. It’s okay we’ll see how it turns out. Stir fry quick, turn up the heat, keep the noodles loose.

Look. Observe.

This is what I meant when I said the very initial pre-blanching the noodles was done wrong. It will show. Once you introduce moisture into the stir fry, the noodles start sticking and they break easily, and the stir fry becomes very challenging.

It is okay. What we can do here is stir fry with chopsticks, instead of the usual ladle or spatula. But I will take it from here because this is some higher level shit.

goes at it with chopsticks, adds a bit more color, it’s done

Tomorrow morning when you come in, you try it on your own, with the noodles -I- pre-blanch.”

April 12, 2017

The Right Way to Make Tomato Scrambled Eggs

The sous chef is on leave, so Wok 3 is my temporary tutor. In our lineup were tomato scrambled eggs and Xingzhou (basically curry powder) fried bee hoon. Since the sous chef had already taught me the tomato scramble once, I didn’t ask any questions and went ahead by myself. I prepared my wok to scramble my eggs, then Wok 3 stopped me.

“Wait. Tomatoes in first.”

“What?”

“Serious. Okay go. Huge fire, get them to sort of brown at the edges. Careful, they will catch fire because your heat is turned up very high. Do not be alarmed, carry on.

Okay good, off the fire. Pour in your eggs. Yes really. Now do this. Using your spatula, in a pulling and turning motion, gently scramble your eggs. Don’t move too quickly or your curds will be messy and small and ugly.

Transfer the entire thing to a plate. Wash your wok. Make your sauce. A bit of oil, ketchup, stock, salt, chicken powder, MSG, sugar. More salt more salt! WHY DO YOU ADD MORE SUGAR, WHO TAUGHT YOU THAT? Wait I know who, nevermind. Sweet and sour sauce. Taste. Sigh it’s okay, I guess. Okay thicken. Finish with a bit more oil, for shine. Ladle the sauce over your tomatoes and eggs. It’s done.”

The Laoda was standing beside, was like “I DO NOT ENDORSE THIS METHOD”, and so the two descended into an argument I didn’t understand, again punctuated with many DLLM.

April 14, 2017

After work I happened to get in the lift with the BBQ Laoda. He’s this middle-aged, cherubic balding man with a rather zen demeanor, they call him Master of Soy Sauce Chicken. He also dresses a suckling pig ridiculously fast. We barely speak, only occasionally making small talk. He appreciates the hor fun/fried rice that I deliver to his work station some mornings.

He speaks.

“What date is it, Mei?”
“The 14th. Wow it’s the 14th. How quickly time passes”
“Oh? Haha yeah soon this month shall also pass.”
“In two months I can officially say, I have worked at Golden Palace for an entire year. I AM SO EXCITED.”
“One year is a short time, kid.”
“Yeah I guess”
“But you know, you are doing well, for less than a year on this job. I tell you, from us old people’s point of view, you have a remarkably early start on the wok. In our time, one did not simply gain tutors after only ten months. It was a much stricter time. You stuck to your place. Shifus were not interested in being mentors. We have never seen, some kid with no prior experience come in, and from her 9th month suddenly she is allowed to attempt all the noodles and rice and even vegetables and tofu. In my time our Laodas did not simply say "you are welcome to try, I will guide you”. What a different time it is, haha. It is good, very good. I guess old farts like your own Laoda, his generation of HK shifus, are softer. We know that for everyone’s good, maybe we should not carry our knowledge to our graves, like the Laodas before us. What a great time to learn these days, what remarkable pace at which you can achieve things. How interesting, also, that the kid who has surprised me so much is…a girl. The world now is so interesting"

He lets out his signature zen chuckle. The lift doors open and we carry on our separate ways.

ETA: this really made my day, and it’s been a very long and productive but really very long 14-hour day

May 18, 2017

Because we always have iceberg lettuce in abundance, and it’s cheap, I get to make fermented beancurd stir-fried lettuce (腐乳炒西生菜) at least twice a week. I failed at all of my attempts, the lettuce would always be overcooked, and when lettuce is overcooked, even slightly overcooked, it’s this gross dull gray color. The sous chef would always say “not fast enough, this is a dish that requires speed and good judgment”.

Some time last week I was about to attempt this dish again, and the Laoda stopped me. “I have a method for you, a simple method that works well for beginners,” he said, “look Li Ching, it doesn’t require much from you. It’s not as high-level as your sous Chef makes it appear. Just watch me this time.”

“First, prepare to blanch your lettuce. As usual with blanching most veggies, add oil, salt, sugar, MSG. When the water is at a rolling boil, add your lettuce, stir. Once the lettuce has started to wilt, strain it out. This is a matter of seconds.

Okay your lettuce is out. I tell you, you don’t use your wok ladle to press down on the lettuce. I know you have learned to do this with spinach, to get rid of excess water. Do not do this to lettuce, you will ruin its texture. Be gentle with lettuce. Don’t need to poke and prod it.

Quickly add sugar, MSG, and wine to your mashed up beancurd. Just throw in the sliced ginger and chilli with it. Add a bit of oil in the wok. Over high heat, stir the entire mix till it bubbles vigorously. Add your lettuce in. I tell you the next thing. You do NOT turn on the heat at this point. Just toss gently first, to distribute the beancurd and seasoning evenly.

Finally, now is the time for potato starch. When you ‘pinch’ your starch water, pinch more. You need more starch with lettuce than with other vegetables, since it has a super high water content. Again, throw the starch in and toss gently first, without heat. THEN turn up the heat and toss very briefly, and you’re done.

Look, it looks good, it tastes good, it isn’t difficult. Sometimes you succeed with a dish by doing less, not more.”

This afternoon there it was again, waiting for
me, a basket of lettuce trimmings. The Laoda was like “let’s go Li Ching you know what to do”. So I did exactly as he showed me last week, and I got waaaay better results this time. “Look, Li Ching, much much better. This is what we call 玻璃生菜”‘
Because we always have iceberg lettuce in abundance, and it’s cheap, I get to make fermented beancurd stir-fried lettuce (腐乳炒西生菜) at least twice a week. I failed at all of my attempts, the lettuce would always be overcooked, and when lettuce is overcooked, even slightly overcooked, it’s this gross dull gray color. The sous chef would always say “not fast enough, this is a dish that requires speed and good judgment”.

Some time last week I was about to attempt this dish again, and the Laoda stopped me. “I have a method for you, a simple method that works well for beginners,” he said, “look Li Ching, it doesn’t require much from you. It’s not as high-level as your sous Chef makes it appear. Just watch me this time.”

“First, prepare to blanch your lettuce. As usual with blanching most veggies, add oil, salt, sugar, MSG. When the water is at a rolling boil, add your lettuce, stir. Once the lettuce has started to wilt, strain it out. This is a matter of seconds.

Okay your lettuce is out. I tell you, you don’t use your wok ladle to press down on the lettuce. I know you have learned to do this with spinach, to get rid of excess water. Do not do this to lettuce, you will ruin its texture. Be gentle with lettuce. Don’t need to poke and prod it.

Quickly add sugar, MSG, and wine to your mashed up beancurd. Just throw in the sliced ginger and chilli with it. Add a bit of oil in the wok. Over high heat, stir the entire mix till it bubbles vigorously. Add your lettuce in. I tell you the next thing. You do NOT turn on the heat at this point. Just toss gently first, to distribute the beancurd and seasoning evenly.

Finally, now is the time for potato starch. When you 'pinch’ your starch water, pinch more. You need more starch with lettuce than with other vegetables, since it has a super high water content. Again, throw the starch in and toss gently first, without heat. THEN turn up the heat and toss very briefly, and you’re done.

Look, it looks good, it tastes good, it isn’t difficult. Sometimes you succeed with a dish by doing less, not more.”

This afternoon there it was again, waiting for me, a basket of lettuce trimmings. The Laoda was like “let’s go Li Ching you know what to do”. So I did exactly as he showed me last week, and I got waaaay better results this time. “Look, Li Ching, much much better. This is what we call 玻璃生菜”

July 19, 2017

Was talking to Wok 3 about my very first attempt at stir frying mee sua

Me: So there I was right, at 8am, fiddling with mee sua, and I had no idea what I was doing. I mean from watching y'all do it I only have a rough idea of “flash fry then blanch” but when I tried it -
3: You failed right?
Me: Yeah
3: And you failed two times right?
Me: Yeah
3: First time was when you deep fried the mee sua. You burned it right?
Me: Ye
3: You probably did better on your second try, but then when you blanched the mee sua every strand broke into a gazillion short sad strands right?
Me: How do you know all this
3: Kid. These are the mandatory failures a person must go through with mee sua. They’re so textbook. Even your sous been through them, you thought he was born knowing how to stir fry mee sua? Hmmph I taught his Hong Kong ass how to make this dish.
Me: Oh. Um. Could you show me this afternoon?
3: Of course, Meimei

When the time rolled around

Me: LEZGO
3: Okay look. You know by now that your oil cannot be too hot lolol
Me: Yeah
3: Fry until the mee sua gains dat color and stops ‘bubbling’, it’s nice and tan and ready
Me: Ohhh
3: Now I tell you. You bring your blanching water to a boil, then turn off the heat. Throw your mee sua in. Don’t touch. Wait. The mee sua will begin to soften. Only then can you gently push and flip the mee sua. You really need to wait till the mee sua has softened entirely, then turn up the heat and blanch it a while longer. You’ll get the hang of it with time.
Me: Oh wowww
3: so you know what to do, go go go. Same procedure as stir fried bee hoon, carry on, pls be careful with your seasoning, and ease up on the dark soy sauce, your mee sua ummm is a bit on the dark side

So this was my mee sua tutorial today

August 29, 2017

Today I saw something in my lineup that I didn’t know how to handle: lettuce with fish maw, crab meat, mushrooms, egg white gravy. In Chinese - the “蟹肉蛋白扒 (vegetable of choice)”. I finished making everything else first, then glanced at Wok 3. He was busy making an order.

Wok 3: Oh. That. Okay just do your preliminary things first then I’ll walk you through the gravy

Me: flash fry mushrooms, then blanch together with crab meat and fish maw blanch lettuce, season and stir fry briefly, squeeze out excess water, plate

Me: okay

Wok 3: LEZGO. Shallot oil, bit of wine, regular stock, a bit of superior stock, Four Heavenly Kings*

Me: okay

Wok 3: thicken. For this sort of thing you need a lot. Like six times what you have in your ladle now. Pinch more. MORE.

Me: stir the starch in, turn up the heat

Wok 3: let me see. A bit more. Okay now egg white.

Me: how should I add it in? Pulling or stirring?

Wok 3: blast the heat and stir quickly. DONE. VERY GOOD.

Sigh one of my final tutorials with the dude.

*the Four Heavenly Kings refer to salt, sugar, MSG, chicken powder

August 31, 2017

RECAP: So remember the last time I dragged my mate down to some hotel to interview? After filling out the Ritz-Carlton’s very lengthy questionnaire (basically testing your memory and attention to detail, as well as character), HR told me to come down for a trial and tasting. We agreed beforehand that I would make a sweet and sour pork, beef hor fun (dry), and an egg white fried rice - all of them orthodox and common dishes that are also important tests of technique and judgment.

PART 1: PRE-TRIAL

The day before the tasting, I told the Laoda and he rolled his eyes and said “They offer you the exact same minion’s position, with a lower pay, and they expect you to be able to use the wok? This is a job application, not a pageant.”

“In any case, I’m curious and I’d like to go through this step, I think it’d be an important milestone in my life,” I said.

That night, I keyed in an order for those exact three items, I fetched the required ingredients myself, and stepped up to the wok. The Laoda immediately appeared by my side, and the other wok guys were also very interested to join this tutorial.

“Okay Li Ching, since you have made this an official order, we gonna make it good”

“You know, for sweet and sour pork, there’s this rule that once the fried pork goes into the wok, you toss no more than three times and it has to hit the plate. This means that your sauce has to be perfect before you put in the pork. In a sense you only get one chance to make this dish right. I mean sure, nowadays we’re not so strict with The Golden 3-toss Rule, but yknow. Soggy pork is not nice.”

“Wash your wok very thoroughly after you make sweet and sour pork. It’s a lot of sugar and colouring.”

“You know why egg white sticks to the wok when you scramble? It’s because you didn’t season your wok properly. This is a basic step you must get right. Get your wok white hot first. Add two ladles of oil. Pour it back into the drum. Again, add two ladles of oil to the wok. Pour it back again. Now add some back into the wok. Turn up the heat slightly. Start scrambling. See? Magic! No stick. Scramble slowly until your egg whites are fully cooked. They must be fully cooked and solid. If they are not, they will make your rice stick to the wok later on.”

“It’s interesting that you are doing both egg white fried rice and beef hor fun. Similarly, hor fun requires that you season the wok properly. If you don’t, hor fun will stick later on. After seasoning your wok, poach your beef slices in oil. Your oil cannot be too hot, but it also has to be hot enough. Do NOT overcook your beef slices. They really just need a few seconds. Take them out now. Stir fry your beansprouts and sliced onions briefly, set aside. Throw in your hor fun and stir fry over high heat. Season and add the sprouts and sliced onions back in. Taste. Add in the beef slices and a lot of dark soy sauce. The thing about dark soy sauce is, you add it in only at the end, because dark soy sauce makes your hor fun start to stick, and also it burns easily. Also you can’t stir fry hor fun too long, it begins to break and clump.”

When we were done I hurried back to my section to begin closing and cleaning. The mate went for a smoke and wasn’t back yet. I quietly did my thing, gathered everything to toss at the end of service, inspected all my garnishes, topped up sauce bottles, started a pot of soap water and bleach, kept my most perishable items back in the chiller; while plating and sending out any remaining orders. The Laoda gazed at me and shook his head. “It’s like watching your kid grow up and leave you.”

I laughed; it came out awkward. “You’re being silly.”

“Good luck, Li Ching, you’ll be okay.” He smiled sadly, turned around, and started washing his own wok area.

PART 2: DAY OF TRIAL

I left the house at noon, headed to the workplace to get my shoes (because of the person that I am, of course I forgot to take my shoes home after work yesterday). I traveled down to City Hall, took a walk through City Link, Marina Square, finally Millenia Walk. Throughout culinary school I interned around this area, first I pulled pizza at some gastrobar at Millenia Walk, and then I was wrapping dumplings at some rooftop restaurant-bar at Marina Square. I physically moved past these locations. They are no longer there; they’ve closed down. The ghosts of my former routines, my naive dreams, my past loves, all the day to night to day to night loops, the coffee breaks and taking out of trash and tumbling out restaurant back doors through empty mall corridors - are just shadows in my head and figures of my imagination, there is no monument I can revisit, just those atas-mall smells that never change even as half of their old tenants have emptied out.

I went past the loading bay, where delivery men and maintenance workers, servers and cooks smoked; past security in some remote corner at the end of that loading bay, up the tiny staircase, and finally into the HR office. The HR lady I had been in touch with, C, took me to the laundry room to fetch a standard issue jacket and apron.

“If you’re ready, I’ll take you to the kitchen now.”

And so we went, turning and moving through several corridors, up a cargo lift, and straight into a kitchen, where a room full of men turned to gawk at me - and Executive Chef Cheung Siu Kong, who had interviewed my mate and I just the other day, Michelin-starred Chef Cheung, turned and grinned. He had sliced onions in his wok, he stir fried at lightning speed.

“Gam yat yao sek ah?” (Off today?)

I smiled weakly and nodded, my mouth dry. There were hushed whispers, discrete laughter.

“Wait outside for a bit, okay? Just let me wrap up these orders and I’ll be with you.” He turned off the heat and ushered me out to a cosy sofa. I paced the floor until he came back.

“Okay just a few things. The pork is ready for frying, just dust with starch as in standard practice. We use Kobe beef slices here, they aren’t marinated yet so just add a bit of seasoning and starch and you’re good to go. For the fried rice, we’ve actually already scrambled egg whites for you, just blanch the chopped up veg with a bit of salt. I know that normally we just season with MSG, salt, chicken powder, but here we prefer to add a bit of soy sauce towards the end, but not too much - too much alters the color of the dish. Do you understand what I am saying? Cool let’s go, don’t be nervous, it’s okay!”

I went in, and he gestured to his wok station where ingredients had been laid out nicely for me. I first prepared the pork for frying, and then marinated the beef slices. I went before the wok to wash my hands, folded my cloths, washed the wok. More hushed whispers behind me as men pretended to be absorbed in work.

I lifted the wok to gauge its weight. It was a heavy wok, heavier than the ones we use at work, and deeper. His ladle and spatula were slightly longer and heavier. His fire power was strong, just like the Laoda’s own wok station. Everything else was exactly the same. Two drums of oil side by side, on the seasoning rack dark and light soy sauce side by side at the top, oyster sauce and MSG side by side in the centre, salt, chicken powder, and sugar from left to right at the bottom. My right knee moved instinctively to turn on the heat. I smiled. I became absorbed in the task, one year and three months in the making, of showing myself to a bigger world.

PART 3: POST-TRIAL

I washed the wok and looked up. I was done, the three items on beautiful china plates, waiting at the pass. The chef who stood behind me the whole time ushered me out, saying “I’ll take care of everything else, don’t worry about washing up.” HR lady and Chef Cheung met me outside and we sat down at a dining table. Their tableware really was beautiful and elegant, everything from the teapots to the sharing plates was beautiful. They poured me tea.

Chef: This is lychee oolong. It’s nice, right? If I’m not wrong they sell it at some store in Ion, in case you wanted to look for it

HR: I know that this is a really long process, but it’s just the procedure at Ritz-Carlton. We do a tasting for every single kitchen candidate, senior or junior. This is because we believe we are not just hiring bodies for jobs, we are interested in gauging your abilities and potential, and we are interested in your career progression

Chef: Yeah you’re not actually required to be able to make all these at your level, but good that you’ve learnt a few things already!

Chef: Pork could be even crispier. Could use even less time in the wok. Rice is okay but if you add a bit more water towards the end it would be better. Hor fun is tricky I know, yours is on the oily side. Good attempt! Honestly this is new to me. gestures at my person

HR: He’s never hired a girl in his life

Chef: I haven’t, but there is a first time for everything. Relax, we were already planning on hiring you before this trial thing. By the way, the dude behind you in the kitchen, he’s the assistant banquet Chef, and he single-handedly cooks for a thousand people at a time. He’s great.

Me: WHAT. WOW.

Chef: haha yes wow. By the way what happened to your friend?

Me: He got stuck at the form-filling

HR: Oh. That’s a shame. We really require him to complete that step though

Chef: and how is your Laoda handling it, the two of you leaving at the same time?

Me: My Laoda himself resigned straight after I resigned.

Chef: raises eyebrows REALLY? Why?

Me: I’m just a minion, I’m not supposed to be involved with higher politics

They caught my drift and sipped their tea.

HR: Tell me more about what you do every day

“All the things,” I thought to myself.

Me: The first thing I do when I arrive is wash the cloths, get pails for the wok side as well as for my section, gather all my tools, mixing bowls, spoons, baskets, chopsticks, put them in place. I make sure all the seasoning racks, sauce bottles,
condiments are topped up and put in place. I crack and separate eggs just like your minion was doing just now, I prepare a batter for deep frying, I ensure that there are drums of new oil beside the woks. I check and replenish all my garnishes. I bring out all the noodles that require blanching, I take out all items that need steaming or defrosting or deep frying. And so on, all the little things that are part of the opening process. After all that is done, I start sauce prep. For example, if we’re running low on sweet and sour sauce, I write a list and run to the dry store room and fetch what I need, weigh and prep everything, then give it to the wok guy to cook off. If it’s XO sauce, I need to start soaking the dried shrimp, dicing the ham and salted fish, steaming the dried scallops etc.

Chef: yep sounds about right

HR: And do you have any offers from elsewhere?

Me: I got an offer from Paradise for a higher position, their casual outlet at MBS

HR: and the pay?

Me: upwards of $2k

HR: okay look. If you join us, I assure you there is much room and opportunity for growth and promotion. His right hand man joined us ten years ago as a minion SO I AM NOT PROMISING ANYTHING but I am telling you that it is very much possible for you as well. I can also confidently say that it is easier, much easier to negotiate a job at other dining groups or independent restaurants with a hotel job in your resume. The reverse is not true. So while the offer from Paradise is a solid one, it does not necessarily translate to an equal or higher position at other restaurants and hotels.

Chef: Um okay I’m not gonna tell you what to do, because I strongly believe that different people want different things for their careers. But I’m going to say this - if you join that particular outlet, you might as well never have left your current post, because at least y'all have some standard.

HR: the last part of the process is an interview with the executive Chef from the western side. He’s this Italian dude, name’s Massimo. We’ll schedule it for next week. Barring some freak accident, you pretty much got this job down. You’re okay with English, right?

Me: I can speak some

September 5, 2017

Today I saw 豉汁豆根焖鱼骨 in my lineup. (What is 豆根 in English? It’s not tofu, not taupok either /: ) Wok 4 walked by. “I have a better idea, Mei. We just do a 豉汁蒸 on the fish, and reserve the 豆根. Cause fuck em. We shall eat the 豆根. Personally I like it tossed with fried garlic, salt and pepper. What do you like?”

Me: I really like our cereal
Wok 4: Okay cool go fetch the stuff

So I go fetch the curry leaves, chilli padi, scallion whites, our cereal premix (I know it by heart!), and the Planta margarine. I make everything else - stir fried cheong fun, garlic fried lettuce, bee hoon.

Wok 4: You know, you keep on doing that slow rotating motion on your fried bee hoon, eventually you’ll get san lor bee hoon
Me: …oh so I should stop…?
Wok 4: huh no you’re doing good I meant to say we really do have this pancake-like fried bee hoon that’s amazing. It’s more a Malaysian thing. GREAT NOW FOR THE CEREAL 豆根. Go ahead and fry your 豆根
Me: cruises along frying the thing
Wok 4: yas get it nice and puffy and golden. Now empty your wok, wash it clean, BUT DO NOT HEAT IT. From now to the end of the cooking process, we work with low heat. Add a bit of oil, a bit of margarine. The margarine will begin to melt. Now add your beaten egg yolk. Just a bit.
Me: now??
Wok 4: yes now, do it. Stir stir stir. Do not turn on the heat. Stir stir stir. What you have now is 蛋丝, really fine ribbons of egg. Keep stirring. Periodically on and off the heat, stir. Your egg mix will froth and bubble and start turning a golden brown color. Stop. Scrape the egg out into your strainer. Put your curry leaves in and fry them briefly. Toss the egg ribbons back in, together with the 豆根. Mix evenly. Add your cereal now, fold it in. Now turn on the heat and stir fry VERY BRIEFLY. IT’S DONE. Any more and the cereal will burn.
Me: I LOVE THIS DISH.
Wok 4: yeah the cereal is something all junior wok people gotta do all the time, because it’s a cheap basic item, but yknow. It is a very critical test of your timing and control of heat

October 31, 2017

We got off lunch shift a little bit early today, so the section mate and I grabbed coffee.

He said, “I keep trying to get coffee with you and hang out more because I think you’re worth mentoring. I don’t speak much, I keep my head down and work. I never studied much, am barely literate. The sous told me, before you came in, "hey I got a new person for you to teach. From the way she sounds to me, this is a strong girl.” The first time I saw you at the practical trial, the first time I saw you use the wok, I thought to myself, “this girl is not a simple person.” You looked, to us, like someone who has tried and tried and tried. Then I observed you work, and saw that we have similar temperaments. I tried to tell the rest, maybe it was just me thinking today much, but I felt a keenness in your gaze. I believe in you, and I wanted you to know that people say the same.“

Towards the end of the dinner service I asked the knifework sous, "hey can I steal a few tomatoes?” He waved dismissively and said “what’s mine is yours, Meimei, take what you like”. He is the best, he even checked back to make sure I took my tomatoes. I was already peeling them by that time. The knifework chief generously gave me a basket of diced asparagus.

I got started on my tomato scrambled eggs, since I had a lot of old egg yolks to use. The 3rd wok, J, a tall, sturdy workhorse of a man from the mainland, watched. He laughed. “Oh man, I loved this when I was a child. Could you leave a generous portion for me?” I smiled. I did this dish the way I learned it at Golden Palace. Runny scramble, in a hot well-seasoned wok, just like previous wok 3 taught me well. Set aside, tomatoes briefly tossed, stock, seasoning, ketchup, sweet and sour sauce, thicken, eggs in. J saw me reach for the sweet and sour sauce. “Oh! Interesting. Hmm. Very interesting.” By then everyone was watching me closely. This time I wasn’t nervous. Exactly as I’d done it before, I thought, exactly the way I did it like my previous sous taught me back then, handholding me through the steps, chiding me for being hesitant, for not being generous enough with seasoning, I remembered, as I tasted and added a bit more sugar like he would’ve preferred. Thicken before adding the eggs back in, he would’ve said, but not too thick, the eggs will actually thicken the sauce once they’re in. For the first time J was actually enthusiastic about what I’d made. “This is great!!” He chuckled, “This looks good I can’t wait to eat it.”

They finished everything, and had some of the oyster sauce tofu and asparagus I made after that. I quietly washed the wok. “Who taught you that?” J asked.

“A former mentor, my sous back at Crystal Jade. Hong Konger. I learned a lot of what I know now from him.” He once literally held my hand showing me how to stir fry hor fun, I nearly said, but then I might’ve cried on the spot. I loved this person, and for a while maybe he felt the same, but changed his mind along the way. What would he say, if he were here today? Would he bother taking a bite, would he scoff and walk away? Why did it matter so much to me, after all this time? Every morning I tell time by counting the number of days since we last spoke. Then I revise all our preorders for the day. I remember the little fragments of grace and good judgment that were built into my bones, and let day, after day, after day wash the rest off.

 
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