A Day in the Life Of… (Part 3, IWD)
You’ve heard from our chefs, but there’s more to the dining experience than the kitchen. Food and eating is personal and emotional. To enjoy the happiness of a meal or two is also about how it’s brought to your table with a human and storied touch.
This March, we’re exploring the voices of some of the wonderful women outside the kitchens of COMO Dempsey in honour of International Women’s Day. What does it mean to be in a male-dominated industry? What can we learn from those who have stuck it out through and through? Keeping the passion for what you want to do in life is not easy, but it’s also worth every challenge. Read on for some humbling and delicious food for thought.
Gerry Bee Billoso, Service Supervisor | Candlenut
Jacqui Khoo, Merchandiser | Culina at COMO Dempsey
Alexis Wong, Restaurant Manager | Ippoh Tempura Bar by Ginza Ippoh
When did you start at Candlenut?
2017. This is the fifth restaurant that I’ve worked at. Before this, I was at an Italian restaurant for more than eight years. There were a lot of hard moments, my boss was quite tough, but I had a really good experience and I’m grateful to have learned a lot there. My sister – who was working at The Dempsey Cookhouse Bar then – recommended me and I joined Candlenut as a Service Captain.
Candlenut is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever worked at. Chef Malcolm is a really good and caring boss. He’s calm and kind, and we’re like a family here. No one here treats you differently whatever position you are. This is important because when you serve a customer with good energy, the same energy will follow through. I am proud to be part of his team.
Have you been in the hospitality line for most of your life?
I’ve been this F&B for more than fourteen years. I started as part of the service crew at a doughnut company in Manila. I realised that I love talking to customers and interacting with them. Even though I’m actually quite shy, I’ll transform once I’m on the floor. I realised this is my strength.
Where were you before Singapore?
I’m from Roxas City in the Philippines, which is a three-hour drive away from Boracay. I led a simple life, but was looking for a good opportunity, and I always believed that there was something waiting for me.
I moved to Singapore in 2008 when my agency successfully applied for me to work at an Italian restaurant. They actually applied for me thrice but got rejected. I had to leave Singapore and come back again to keep looking.
But the process was very hard. I only had three days left in Singapore and my application still wasn’t approved. In those last three days, I prayed. I’m not religious, but I am spiritual. And I was praying that, I’ll accept whatever plans you have for me. You know my purpose is to help my family. and then the next day – on the second last day – I got a call saying that my work pass got approved.
Honestly, always be grateful and know your purpose, that’s what I’ve learned. Sometimes people will not be kind to you but that’s up to them. The most important thing is you to be kind to people. For me, it’s a mindset. What you think about you bring about.
Have there been any moments for you where you were close to giving up?
I’ve had extremely tough times but honestly, you have to go through bad experiences to learn from it. Nobody’s perfect. Sometimes, you feel very down, but you need to control your emotions. Sometimes, I’ll be affected by family problems. But even if I get really down, I’ll just continue. When my siblings are here, they are my support system. They are my strength.
Tell me more about your family.
I have two sisters – Gerlyn and Gerryn – and a brother, Geboy. I’m the second eldest child. My mother left us to work as a domestic helper when we were young. My father is a tricycle driver.
Growing up, my siblings and I had to study and work hard to have a better life, to fulfil our dream of buying our own house. After years of working hard and helping each other, we were able to buy land and build our own family house. We’re very grateful for all the blessings that we’ve received. We try to give back and share our blessings by helping our cousins and supporting their studies, too.
Do you have any dreams to cook?
Yes, I dream of having our own cafe in my hometown. Since I was young, I’ve loved being in the kitchen – an influence from my grandma.
My siblings and I used to wake up at 4am to run our small food business. We learnt how to earn money at the age of 10. We sold the spring rolls that my sister rolled, topped with cheese and condensed milk and fried. We also sold our auntie’s homemade Yema candy at school when I was in elementary school. We even made a frozen dessert made with water mixed with mango or coconut flavour, to sell.
Tell us something about yourself that’s not commonly known.
I have a photographic memory. I can remember my guests from five or 10 years ago.
Take us through one full day of your life.
When I wake up in the morning, I give myself an affirmation talk – I am grateful, I’m loved, I am blessed, I am wealthy and healthy, and much more. Tell yourself you’re beautiful when you wake up. I think everyone should talk to themselves for even if it’s just five minutes in the morning.
At work, we take an early lunch before 11.30am. Then we’ll have the briefing, where we’ll go over how many guests we have, dietary restrictions, how many birthdays, if we have VIPs, or Handle With Care customers. We talk about the menu and drinks, too.
We check on each of our stations to make sure everything’s clean and aligned before lunch service starts at 12pm. Everyone in the service team gets different zones to take care of throughout the day.
Breaktime is from 3pm to 5.30pm. It’s when you get to chat with your colleagues and your loved ones. Then it’s the same, with briefing again, followed by dinner service from 6pm till 11pm.
You have to really take care of your customers attentively from start to finish. I learnt this from my previous boss who was very strict about this. He would scold us if he saw a customer having to turn to look for a server. He said: “You are not a horse only looking forward. You must be a pineapple – meaning you must have many eyes!”. You should be serving the customer before they even raise their hand. You have to be very quick and flexible.
Would you give the same advice to any young women joining this industry?
It depends on their passion. If they really like this industry, just enjoy the ride because experience is the best teacher.
Is there anyone that you look up to?
My mum. She’s a very tough woman. She’s had a difficult life and faced a lot of discrimination because she was very poor. But she was so strong throughout it all and that was very inspiring for me.
And of course, the other one is Chef Malcolm Lee – he inspires us in the way he handles his team. He always puts us first and makes sure we’re ok. He always encourages us and inspires us to love and care for everyone, whether it’s our colleagues or our customers.
Interview on February 19th, 2021.
Take us through a typical day in your life.
I wake up early and swim. I’ll eat something green and healthy to start the day and head to work. I love to be in the store where I get to talk to our customers, share cooking tips and stories of our products and how to use them. Otherwise, I’m researching for products that could be good additions to the Market, creating cooking classes for our Demo Kitchen (this was for mostly before COVID happened), styling food and creating content for our platforms.
What were you doing before Culina at COMO Dempsey opened?
I worked at Club21 as Retail Operations Manager, a long time ago. I also merchandised the gift shops at The Four Seasons Resorts in Bali and the Maldives. It was the best of times. There was a lot of travelling, creativity and long hours, we met wonderful people and saw beautiful things.
I stopped work for a while as I wanted to spend more time with my children who were quite young at the time. During that time, I spent a lot of time cooking, eating and travelling.
I came back when I was asked to help open COMO Marketplace, which was a wonderful little Asian Market. All the Asian products you see at Culina Market today were at COMO Marketplace.
What got you into food?
I’ve been an avid cook and enthusiastic eater most of my life. I’m a collector of cookbooks and I adore markets of all kinds. I’m terribly curious about food; where it’s grown, where it comes from, their cultural references and history.
I always enjoyed good food with my family as I was growing up – something I missed a lot when I lived abroad. That’s also when I taught myself to cook.
Researching on food, trying out cooking projects, exploring tastes – it’s all part and parcel of my own life. I enthusiastically search for the rare and tasty.
(top left) Herby Vegan Pesto Pasta Recipe
(bottom left) Mushroom and Chestnut Ragu with Polenta Recipe
(right) Char Siu
Tell us more about your cooking projects.
I have a personal cooking project every week. I choose something, and I think about how to make it all throughout the week and try it out on the weekends. It can get very elaborate. Recently it was Sri Lankan cuisine.
When I cook something, I might research very thoroughly, spend a lot of thought and time on it, going to lots of different places to look for ingredients. Once I’ve understood it, It may be a long time before I cook it again. Sometimes, I will cook the dishes repeatedly, then may not cook them ever again. Sometimes they become favorites. I’ve recently started to write all my recipes down.
Tell us more about your food styling experience.
I started taking photos of food as I thought food and ingredients are beautiful. And for a while, I did food styling for big food companies and photographers.
Above are some of the tasty visuals you may have seen on our Instagram. Food styling by Jacqui. Credits also to our creative director Chris and photographer Raymond.
What inspires you?
Travelling, visiting markets, reading and talking to people.
Describe your perfect meal.
There is no such thing as a perfect meal but there are many very good imperfect ones. But I’m happy to eat simply, as long as it’s fresh and carefully prepared.
If you could travel, where it would be and what would you do?
Pakistan, Iran or Georgia. I’d like more time in Mexico.
There’s a whole lot of the world left to see.
Is there a female figure you look up to?
I adore my mother. She was always a strong and passionate person – and a terrible cook. She couldn’t boil water or even make a piece of toast, but she told me that if you could read, you could cook. And there began my journey. Ultimately, she taught me to be fearless and to just go for things that I believe in.
I have so many! But currently, they involve regenerating my garden, fermenting (an extremely scary process) and cooking with live fire.
Interview on March 16th, 2021
Take us through a day in your life.
I get to work at around 10am and check my emails and messages. My work revolves around administration, service preparations, table settings and making sure there’s enough stock for the day.
As we’re quite a small restaurant, service preparations are unlike bigger restaurants, but we need to make sure there’s enough of everything and all the nitty gritty details need to be sorted out properly. There are only seven of us on the team, so everyone helps each other out.
Lunch service starts at 12pm. After service there’s a shift break when we have our meals and I’ll continue with the administration work, meetings, and orders. This is also when we get creative and discuss specials as the season changes with Chef Yamamura. Once 5pm strikes, we get ourselves ready for dinner service which starts at 6pm.
You must have to be quite organised.
I have to be in a way. I’m definitely not all over the place. I can be quite a perfectionist, so little things get to me – from small nuances on how to speak to customers and explaining food and beverages, to doing the setting with crockery and glassware.
The level of detail is apparent in Japanese culture and cuisine. When you go to Japan, you’ll see how everything matters – from how napkins are folded to the oshibori (hot towel), design of the chopsticks, down to the crockery. For Ippoh, all the crockery was brought in directly by Chef Seki himself. But since it’s difficult to travel now, Chef Yamamura and I do the sourcing from local Japanese distributors who will import the items for us from Japan. They’re all pretty much handmade. It’s amazing how much craftsmanship and artisanal materials are such an intrinsic part of Japan.
How did you get into Japanese cuisine/the F&B industry?
I used to study in Australia and was there for ten years. After doing Psychology and Sociology in Sydney, I worked as a therapist treating children with autism. But I realised I couldn’t support myself just doing this job. So, I took up a second job as a bartender and it was great fun. People at bars in Australia just talk to you and they’re very friendly. Plus, these kinds of jobs paid quite well.
I really enjoyed myself in bartending and that’s when I realised I wanted to do it full-time. Years later I realised something was amiss in my life, and that was being away from my family and friends back home in Singapore, and that’s when I moved back.
I wanted to try a different kind of hospitality role so I joined a hotel dealing with guest relations and rooms – not related to food and beverage. But I knew quite immediately I didn’t like it there, so I moved on.
After that, I helped a friend open a sake bar called Copper on Stanley at Telok Ayer. While it has since closed, I met a lot of different people and suppliers, and picked up some knowledge along the way through this job.
I actually applied to a bartending position at The Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar but was given the opportunity to work at Ippoh instead. So, I thought, why not? It would be another different kind of hospitality at a restaurant and I was open to that. Personally, I do enjoy Japanese cuisine a lot. My partner is Japanese, which helps me to pick up knowledge related to the produce and what the chef is doing.
What do you cook at home?
I cook a lot at home, but not a lot of Japanese food – especially because I feel that I don’t know the right techniques, though I’d love to learn from my partner’s mum. I cook a lot of light, Chinese food. Sometimes salads and roasts, too. I love BBQs and have a soft spot for noodles in broths, and seafood of all kinds.
Do you like interacting with different people?
The places where I’ve had to interact a lot with people have been different. In Sydney, people are just naturally chatty. But at a restaurant, it’s a totally different thing. And since we have counter seats the element of interaction is very important.
I try to make the guests here feel special and well attended. And it’s interesting to know what their lives are like when they’re open to share. Sometimes, some guests come in with really stern faces, but they begin to feel comfortable and open up.
My background in psychology and sociology does help. Body language and facial expressions are very important. I like to relate to guests and serve them in a way how I’d love to be served.
You are our go-to sake and wine expert. Do you have one that you like in particular?
I like Junmai Ginjo sakes because it generally has a very good balance. In terms of wine, I love Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – I find them really elegant, and they’re both easily accessible. There are a lot of different styles, but I like that it’s more rounded and it just evolves.
You seem to know a lot about wines, too.
I’m quite a wine geek. I’m WSET Level 3 certified and active in a casual wine group.
Every Wednesday, we’ll head out to a restaurant and we have a themed blind tasting. Each week, there’ll be a different theme, such as New World vs Old World single-varietal wines, single vintage, etc. We’ll each bring a wine based on the theme and do blind tastings, make notes and try to guess the bottle, etc.
It’s more of a discussion and everyone is humble about their knowledge and willing to share, it’s a nice and comfortable vibe. We’re all there to have fun. We’ve been doing this for more than a year now.
Other than the wine club, what do you do on your days off?
I either meet family and friends, or just stay home and spend time with my partner. I also quite like being a handyman. I would love to be more crafty with wood but it’s quite hard in Singapore.
Would that be a dream of yours? Going into carpentry?
I think my dream would be to start a vineyard. Probably somewhere in Australia, since I’ve spent time there and I like the lifestyle there.
Do you like to read or watch anything related to food or drinks to keep you inspired?
In fact that’s mostly what I read and watch! One of the things I’d like to do more regularly is to have a glass of wine and read books. I’ve been getting a lot of books from Book Depository recently. Currently I’m reading The Monocle Book of Japan. I just finished Chicken and Charcoal. I really want to learn how to dissect and skewer chicken properly – I love yakitori and izakaya foods.
I’d recommend Rice Noodle Fish as well. It was recommended to me by a regular guest and the book was so enriching. I also watch a lot of Japanese cooking shows on Netflix. Midnight Diner is a great one because it’s short and there’s always a strong story behind their food.
Is there anyone you look up to?
Probably the previous manager here at Ippoh, Machiko. She was really great and fun. She’s Japanese and knew a lot, taught me a lot and we got along very well. It was upsetting when she had to leave.
What have been some of your toughest moments?
Probably when we first opened. It was difficult for people to understand our concept as a tempura bar. We don’t do kaiseki or anything other than tempura.
A lot of it was trying to figure out what works with the business model and how to keep our customers engaged. So, along with Chef Yamamura, we introduced the Seasonal Menus and Sakes, though the menu itself doesn’t change too much as Chef Seki likes to keep things traditional and simple.
What’s something unique about Ippoh that you’ve always been trying to communicate?
That it’s not just about the food. It’s really about the experiences. We keep ourselves as approachable and engaging as possible, to provide wholesome experiences.
I always tell my staff that you need to make sure your guests are happy. Even if they come in unhappy, we can make a difference and enable them to leave happy. I love to see that happen and it makes my job fulfilling. I tell my team not to be timid or be intimidated, always do your best.
Interview on February 17th, 2021.