Achievements never show the true extent of one’s hard work, dedication and resilience. Keisia is a perfect example of how she allowed her strength to shine through as she embarked on her journey to become a chef of her own right. We chatted with Keisia to understand what made her chose this path and how she conquers challenges.
Q: Hi Keisia, can you share a bit of yourself?
A: I recently graduated from Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Business, where I was awarded the Valedictorian of the Culinary & Catering Management 2021 cohort. My passion for food started with my Peranakan upbringing, where I’m constantly surrounded by food. Combined with my family’s love for travelling, these experiences further nurtured my passion for food.
Like all sisters, whatever my elder sister was doing, I’d try to do the same. She’d bake, and I just tagged along as much as I could! She eventually gave in and said, “You bake it, I eat it!”. My very first bake was a carrot cake for my aunt. Through word-of-mouth, family and friends started placing orders during school holidays. Then, at the encouragement of my uncle in the banking industry, he urged me to bake 2 cakes and a tart for his company’s fundraiser. With these bakes, we raised $5,000!
Although I was sure about learning culinary arts, my mom was hesitant about my decision due to the harsh reality of working in F&B (Food & Beverage). Other than irregular off days, the hours are long, and there is a fair amount of physical labour. However, a chance to bake for my mother’s friend swayed her mind, as this friend reminded my mom that it’s hard to find passionate people.
Q: The F&B industry is definitely a tough one! How did you prepare yourself?
A: Perhaps I was naïve but driven and passionate about my choice. This mindset helped to push me further.
COVID-19 made my learning journey exceptionally hard. My internship with the famed Les Amis was cut short after one week due to the Circuit Breaker. The restaurant wasn’t catering for takeaways. 20% of my cohort were misplaced. Having to stay home while my peers were gaining precious work experience made it difficult for me to manage myself with extra time at home. It truly felt like a shame, as I missed precious time to gain valuable experience and skills. As part of our internships, we’d have to write reflections based on our experience, but there was only so much I write about.
Mom being my rock helped me to understand everything better and how others struggled just as much, if not more. People were falling terribly ill and succumbed to the virus. Like many other home bakers, I started baking again, too, by making my own sourdough starter.
Thankfully, Les Amis restarted operations after the circuit breaker, and my internship with them restarted.
Q: That’s quite something! What are your aspirations, and how do you see your future playing out given events like COVID-19?
A: Although I’m trained in pastry and baking, I have a keen interest in fine dining and hope to take on a leadership role, spurred by my time with Les Amis. Working in the kitchen is like a dance. You can anticipate the next step, and everyone knows what to do precisely, and I’d like to work towards this future. Currently, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is my next stop, where I’ve enrolled for the BBA in Food Business Management.
Fine dining is complex as takeaway food. When you pay that high price, you pay for quality food, service and that ambience, which can be tricky to replicate at home. Some restaurateurs reinvent this experience by combining takeaway with online service. Having a sommelier adds flavours by introducing accompanying wines and dishes.
Cloud kitchen is big in the F&B scene now. This new concept allows chefs to offer menus of their passion and inspiration while minimising the cost of operating their own dedicated kitchen. There is a need for the F&B scene to be constantly changing and adapting, and that’s no different for me.
Q: A lot of chefs out there are men. How do you feel about being a young woman in this industry?
A: This was a question I asked the Head Chef of the CIA. She never thought any different and just kept working at it. I hope to follow this advice too. Gender has never held me back, and I’ve found female chefs to be more straightforward.
The women of Les Amis have been a massive inspiration for me. Watching these amazing women at work pushed me to step out of my comfort zone. My male colleagues were just as lovely and never treated me any different. Chef Emma Bengtsson, the first female Swedish to hold two Michelin stars in New York and the only second female chef in the US to earn this accolade, is one of my role models too.
Family balance in the industry is something I think about sometimes. F&B requires long hours, but this is my first love. So I guess we’ll cross the bridge when we get there.
Q: Getting back to school, how did you end up being Valedictorian?
A: It came as a surprise, actually! The chairperson nominated me, and I later went for interviews. The role was based on grades and contributions to the school, so my experience in helping with the school’s open house for three years definitely came in handy. For 2021, our organisation committee planned a virtual open house where I could run a bread baking demo. I also led the freshmen orientation in 2019 in the CCM interest group as Vice President of CCM. I didn’t think I’d get the honour of Valedictorian. Still, my attitude of putting knowledge into use gave me an edge.
During the 3rd year of our course at TP, we were assigned an individual project on starting a hawker stall. Focusing on the quality of my work and less on my grades made the entire journey more enjoyable.
Q: Lastly, can you share some advice with your peers?
A: Passion. When you’re passionate about something, work doesn’t feel tedious. I felt I had to prove to myself and my mom, who has never stopped worrying about my career choice. Exploring and understanding your passion is crucial in making work feel like a breeze. Focus less on money and what brings meaning and joy to your life.
Try to think of being the best version of yourself, as the day before. Avoid comparison, too, as it can be limiting. You can only be as good as they are. Lastly, encourage your friends, rather than trying to compete.
With a burning passion for honing her skills further, Keisia continues to challenge herself through various competitions such as the WorldSkills Singapore (Restaurant Service; Bronze Award) and World Gourmet Awards (USA Rice Federation Apprentice Chef Finalist). In addition, she is a current student of CIA, where she hopes to expand beyond her pastry training and delve into the business management of F&B. In the future, she sees herself taking on a leadership role as Head Chef for a fine dining restaurant.
Image credits: The Straits Times, Keisia Dominique Lim-Urquhart, World Gourmet Awards