Served with Passion - Nicholas from Hideki
My one main passion in life is food.
Good food is that one thing that can connect people beyond all barriers, in tantalising ways that bring us together. In fact, my journey with food has brought me to meet very different people and has given me an avenue to connect with people, to hear about their lives and give them that moment of bliss when they eat my simple bowl of foody goodness. I’m glad to say that I found my passion early on and can pursue it so freely nowadays. But the journey hasn’t always been easy, even now, there are always troubles on the way. But that’s not going to stop me, for I have already made it so far, and given so much. I have found
The kitchen has always been my happy place. As a kid, I was banned from entering the kitchen at home, it was my grandmother’s ‘workspace’, and as her grandson, she didn’t see me as capable to assist her or even cook myself. But I would watch from the doorway as she cooked up a storm in her wok. Watching her cook, smelling the aromas wafting from the kitchen, and tasting the delicious dinners each night imbued me with a burning passion for food.
My parents as most parents would, preferred that I studied and chase passions within education, especially over cooking at that point in time. My father would even lock me in my room to study. They wanted me to study hard and secure a rice bowl for myself, and I guess in a way, not to fill the rice bowls of others with my cooking.
Despite their best efforts, I struggled and failed most of my classes. Books just failed to capture my attention – they were dry, boring, and didn’t taste or smell very good. I much preferred to spend time pursuing my passion, and so began skipping classes to work part-time in restaurants. By the time I was in Secondary Two, my grades were beyond rescue, my class attendance almost non-existent, and I began to consider dropping out of school entirely.
From my vantage, I felt that cooking and food was something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and if I already knew that, I struggled to see the value continuing my secondary education brought me beyond satisfying societal and conventional expectations. In addition, thanks to my dismal grades and my truancy, the school administration had little choice but warn me of the possibility I would be forced out. Yet, the thought of how tough the journey ahead would be if I dropped out left me tossing and turning each night in contemplation.
By the end of the year, we reached the decision that I should drop out of school rather than flog the dead horse which was my schooling career. However, my parents were disappointed, to say the least, by my decision to drop out. I still understood the value of schooling, but I just felt I wouldn’t excel even if I stayed. On top of that, I knew what I wanted to do and what I had to do to pursue that.
At fourteen, armed with only a PSLE certificate and the few culinary skills I gleamed from Home Economics and watching my grandmother cook, there were few full-time job opportunities available for me. So, I started at the bottom rung, as a a waiter in a Japanese restaurant. I wasn’t going to waste my time just doing my routine work but I knew this was the chance to experience the trade I was so passionate about. Between bussing tables and taking orders, I spent what little time I had left watching the chefs cook in the kitchen, trying to learn from them, studying their little movements and techniques as they cooked the dishes. I also savoured the chances I had to showcase my skills, which came when I prepared staff meals during my breaks. This was my chance apply my ‘Rojak’ of skills, using the spare ingredients to create a cohesive dish.
After three years of working in a restaurant without ever playing a part in preparing the food, I decided that it was time to move on, and started an apprenticeship at a catering company. Baskets of cabbages, potatoes, and other assorted vegetables would arrive each day, and it was my job to wash, cut and prepare them. During festive periods, there would be endless baskets of ingredients to prep all in a massive wok, trying to fulfil thousands of orders in a day.
It was back-breaking work, often leaving my hands aching and bleeding after shifts, and was very nearly my breaking point.
Suddenly, the kitchen became less of a happy place at times. It became a place of stress and hardship, fueled by the fast-paced and unforgiving atmosphere of the culinary world with many egos in the form of chefs. Even going back to school seemed like a better option, and I briefly considered giving up on a culinary career to return to my studies.
At times like this I would always visualise a beautiful dish or my grandmother’s cooking and techniques. Seeing the pride that went into not just its preparation and cooking, but its detailed plating reminded me of what I wanted to achieve and why I loved it so much. I knew then that I had to push through the hardship, and that I could not give up yet. Eventually, I decided to leave the catering industry behind in search of my next culinary role, and ended up in a Japanese restaurant as a chef.
My time there ended up being a rather traumatic experience as I was belittled constantly by the Japanese chefs for not matching their skill level. They constantly remarked that I would never be able to make it in the industry, and that my food was bad, instead of providing constructive feedback, bringing me back to the times I had been bullied in primary school. It began to take a toll on my mental well-being, as I started to internalise their toxic remarks, shaking my confidence and leaving me with a lot of self-doubt.
Although a part of me wanted to stick it out to prove my tormentors wrong, I decided to leave as I realised that I still had a long culinary journey ahead of me, and my staying there was doing more to hurt me than to help me along in my career.
Fortunately, the apprenticeship I secured afterwards was at a restaurant with a much friendlier team. The guidance and encouragement offered by my colleagues helped me to improve my skills, and made me realise that even though the professional kitchen was a stressful environment, it did not have to be a hostile working environment. In hindsight, my move to a more nurturing environment was the ingredient I needed to rebuild my confidence and succeed.
Eventually, I felt an itch within me to escape from the confines of working in someone else’s kitchen. So, for the first time since I was fourteen, I stopped working and took a break for myself. It was liberating, but that liberation soon turned into an extended lack of purpose. My mother, too, had noticed me lounging around the house more, and began to pressure me to get back to work. Thus, I decided to start my own business, wanting to finally run my own kitchen.
I tapped into all the resources I had at my disposal. My team was assembled using the connections I had from my previous gigs. An old supplier became a business partner, my best friend joined me as my lieutenant, and we set out to accomplish my vision to provide high quality food at an affordable price. With each business meeting, the idea began to grow, developing into our very first outlet. The unparalleled joy I felt when I cut the ribbon at our grand opening lives forever as one of my proudest moments.
As with every business, there are ups and downs along the way. During the good times, we had several outlets opened, and the momentum we had seemed unstoppable. But as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, that momentum began to slow, and eventually, we were forced to shut down one of our under-performing outlets. At the time, it felt as if my dream was dying, but the resources which we were able to divert from that outlet to the other parts of the business helped improve our standing in the end. The reality is that setbacks are unavoidable in business, but approaching them as opportunities to grow will help you come back stronger.
Today, as both a business owner, and a chef, I feel a great sense of fulfilment in the work I do. As a business owner, I love the sense of community that my stores have provided – a community made up of not just my team, but also my customers. With every milestone the business meets, I feel a sense of pride in seeing how it helps to build this community. As a chef, having to head the creative direction of the kitchen every day when I go to work constantly challenges me and hones my skills, and provides an incredible sense of accomplishment.
And this is such a joy, it is my dream and it is an endless journey. There is so much to learn and this resource bank will never stop growing. I would never want to get too full of myself, to think that I have reached my peak, I want to be in the kitchen, furthering my knowledge and giving back to the community, making them happy and well fed.
To me, passion is not just something you enjoy doing, but is something that you feel so strongly about that you can see yourself doing it for the rest of your life, and cannot imagine your life without. I feel lucky to have pursued my passion for food and that it has blossomed into a fulfilling career.
Each person has their own timing, to find that passion and expand upon it. Passion can come at any time, it can just appear like magic, coming in a snap or it may just come slowly. But trust me it will definitely come to you. Get your life sorted first, cultivate the right habits and do the right things. If you’re in school, go on and continue, don’t give up unnecessarily.
Life will never be easy, finding your passion is also not easy. But the importance is not to regret, for regret will only send you into a downward spiral toward failure. It doesn’t matter what others say about you or think about you. What matters are your morals to yourself, that you yourself know what you are doing, and that what you’re doing is right.
If you are lucky enough to know what your passion is, I urge you to follow that dream! If you don’t yet know what you want to do, don’t worry about it. Keep working on whatever it is you’re doing, whether it be school, or work, and someday your passion will come calling, and when it does, I hope you will be ready to answer its call!
If the food makes your mouth-water, you can check out the store Hideki for the food too :).