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Pressure Cooking: What’s it like to work as a chef?

We chat with British expat and culinary enthusiast BRIAN KENNETT about his recent experience heading up a restaurant kitchen for a night, and about an upcoming food event for charity.

When did your interest in cooking start?

It was when I was about five years old – I was taught by my grandmother and mother. Those from the UK will know what I mean when I say we had an “allotment”. After World War II, people were given smallholdings of land to grow their own vegetables and fruit. As a kid, I’d run over with Mum and Nan in tow and we’d pick the veggies to bring home to prep and cook. I think the first thing I cooked was that hearty English staple, Shepherd’s Pie.

Is cooking your day job or just a passion?

It’s a passion – my day job is digital business development for Telstra. Weekends are my relaxing time and cooking is the channel I use for that. Getting the kids involved is important too, and we have fun creating, shopping, prepping, cooking and, of course, eating as a family. The cool thing is that the kids will now eat pretty much anything, without the “Ooh, I can’t eat that, it’s green” nonsense.

Brian Kennett guest chef at Kilo Restaurant
Brian Kennett in planning mode at Kilo Restaurant

 

What do you most like to cook?

Asian hawker-style food. The fact that the dishes we eat on the street or in local hawker stalls are handed down for generations and cost just a few bucks is awe-inspiring to me. Sadly, it’s also a dying thing – if you’ve followed the Tiger Beer campaign in Singapore of late, or the great work of KF Seetoh and Makansutra, you’ll see the efforts being made to save it. I cook this style of food and I also write about it – you may have seen some of my EX magazine posts and recipes on your website.

How did the chance to cook at Singapore restaurant Kilo come about?

I’d been to Pact, their restaurant on Orchard Road, and I started following them on Facebook – even wrote a review on my blog. One day, up popped a note about “Kilo Under Pressure” – an invite for wannabe chefs to realise a dream of cooking in a restaurant for a night; you were required to have no formal training and no professional alignment to the F&B industry. You then had to create a five-course dinner menu, have a video interview with the owners, and finally a tasting session of the menu. Finally, they selected what they called “The Lucky 7”, and I was named in the list. I was given my timeslot to cook on 6 October.

What did the Kilo Under Pressure challenge involve?

It was scary. I ended up with a six-course menu, rather than five, of hawker-fusion dishes. On the actual morning of service, we had about 85 confirmed covers, which grew to 100 in the blink of an eye; and about two hours before service that became 110. I thought: “Sh*t, have we even got enough food?” I was largely in control of the kitchen, the menu, ordering the produce (a challenge in its own right – how many onions do you need to feed 110 people?), getting the kitchen staff “timed” to do the prep, prepping all day on the day before and the day of service, “training” the team on the recipes, and plating of the food. On the night, I had a sous chef and five cooks at my disposal. Holy cow!

Brian Kennett guest chef at Kilo Restaurant
Some of Brian’s delicious cooking

 

What sort of preparations was involved before the night?

Two days of prepping included de-boning six whole pork bellies, marinating them in a secret rub, making a Thai red curry sauce, making sorbet for overnight freezing, making the pho bo stock (that was eight hours on its own!), and making the Cambodian salad dressing.

As for the actual day – well, what didn’t we do? Aside from all the chopping and prepping, the hardest bit was doing a couple of “emergency” things, like making a whole additional pot of pho bo when we found out there was going to more covers. Also, at the last minute, we had to make a single-portion serving of the entire menu to show the team how to plate, to allow the owners to taste, and to show the serving staff what they’d be serving and how they should describe each dish. And, literally as the last dishes were being tested, two guests walked in early for first service…

How did things unfold on the night? Any major hiccups?

All went really well, actually. Nearly running out of pho bo stock was a scare, but we were able to water it down a little with no adverse effect on the flavour; having a litre of boiling stock puree running down my leg was a different kind of hiccup! My sorbet not coming out right was the major one, though, so we had to manufacture a “new look” sorbet by scraping it into flakes and giving it a new name. All that aside, though, of 660 dishes only one came back. And the only reason for that was the diner wanted the soup to be hotter. Hotter? Mate, I just had a litre of it down my leg, how bloody hot do you want it? So, yeah in summary, not too bad, very happy. The amazing thing for me, though, was how quick and resourceful the Kilo team was to react to a need or a hiccup.

Brian Kennett guest chef at Kilo Restaurant
Celebrating Brian’s successful takeover!

What were you most proud of at the end?

The customer comments, feedback from servers, the standing ovation from the remaining guests when I left the kitchen to grab a much-needed beer, and the requests for the recipes. It was a bit of a head-swell, but also very humbling – and I was more proud of what we’d achieved as a team. There was no way in the world I could have done this without the support, guidance and morale boost from that kitchen team – a few of whom were from mainland China and couldn’t speak English! A great bunch, and I’m forever indebted.

What insights did you gain about the work of a professional chef?

Never again will I moan or complain about my food in a restaurant without a bloody good reason. I left the kitchen battered, burnt, cut and with major cramp in places I didn’t know I had. I grabbed a beer as the kitchen staff washed and cleaned, and sat down knackered as they worked on. The next morning I was in a sort of semi-coma state, while they would have been back in the kitchen, prepping for service that night. Chefs and cooks are machines; they are MacGyver; they’re mind-readers, mathematicians and experts in supply chains and logistics. Incredible people! I’m in awe!

I have to thank Javier and Joshua, the owners of Kilo, for this opportunity, for selecting me and for being so much fun on the night. Without them, trying my hand as a chef would still be on my bucket list; they have delivered seven people’s dreams. By the way, it’s happening again next year, so anyone else out there who fancies a punt, register on Kilo’s Facebook page – and drop me a line if you want some insights!

Brian Kennett’s three favourite…

… kitchen tools: My knives, my wok, and my pestle and mortar.

… ingredients: chili padi, Kampot black peppercorns, and yuzu juice.

… local dishes: If by local you mean Singaporean, it would be beef kway teow, roast pork belly and coconut steamboat. If you mean Asian/local it would be laab gai, pho bo and tom yum.

In November, you’re going to be involved in another food-related event. Tell us a bit about “Tea for a Cause”.

Tea for a Cause is going to be amazing. I urge you all to attend, if you can. It’s a fund-raising food festival organised by the amazing Diana Loo from Drool, featuring a bunch of home chefs, bakers and a few well-known restaurateurs. All funds raised will be going to a great cause, Camp Vision, a charity focused on helping underprivileged, at-risk youth in Singapore, with a vision of seeing young people from different backgrounds connected and empowered to achieve their own dreams – as I just did with Kilo. With three kids of my own, it means a lot to me.

All you have to do is come by and drop $70, and you’ll get to try 10 mouth-watering dishes. We hope to have some of the beneficiaries volunteering as sous chefs and cooks, so come and meet them – your donation goes to them, and we’re hoping to raise a big pot of cash for this amazing cause, so you know it makes sense! Our particular stall is “Hawker Fusion”, while my partners in crime will be dishing up French, Italian, Japanese, Korean and Peranakan dishes and desserts. Oh, yeah, I also hear there is a bar – it’s thirsty work, this cooking lark! Hope to see you there.

Tea for a Cause
Saturday 5 November, 12 noon to 4.30pm
CulinaryOn Cooking Studio
One Raffles Place Tower 2, #04-63

Images courtesy of Kilo Restaurant Singapore

Learn more about Kilo Under Pressure, and read Brian’s culinary adventures at his website, Is Life a Recipe?

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