Palm trees, beaches, contemporary furnishings – typical descriptions of a tropical resort. The real distinguishing factor is the people working at the resort. YTL Hotels’ latest gem, Gaya Island Resort in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia, will open its doors to guests in July 2012. General Manager Mr. Jeffrey Mong graciously invited us to speak to several outstanding people working in this gorgeous getaway before its opening. Here’s the first of this series of three:
If his childhood dream had come true, Johann Ong Kean Hooi would be a jet fighter today. But today, instead of shooting at enemy planes with the Top Gun Anthem playing in the cockpit, Johann trains, leads and manages chefs in the kitchens at Gaya Island Resort. But he wasn’t always Executive Chef. He’s been a waiter, a restaurant owner …
LPP : You’re Executive Chef, that’s the Boss of all chefs here. Big post. But you’re so young…
Chef : I’m 39. In the old days (hey! who you calling old?!), Executive Chefs were old men with white hair. Nowadays, that’s changed. It’s not about having decades of experience, it’s how well you know how to lead your people.
LPP : How many kitchens are there in the resort?
Chef : We’ve got five kitchens, serving four restaurants (Feast Village, Fisherman’s Cove, Pool Bar & Lounge & Tavajun Bay) scattered around the resort.
LPP : Where did this love for cooking start?
Chef : I’m from Penang and my dad, who is Baba, is an excellent cook. His curry chicken recipe is my favourite! He doesn’t use coconut milk.
LPP : Why did you choose to be a chef (… and not a fighter pilot, I asked in my head)?
Chef : I started working during the recession. When there was little spare change to go around. I had to decide on a career choice. Figured, even when times are bad, people still have to eat, right? I decided to develop a skill that will sustain me through tough financial times and thought cooking is a skill noone can take away from me.
LPP : How did your career begin?
Chef : I enrolled in a cooking class by Penang’s celebrated Master Chef Dato’ Lim Bian Yam. Then I worked in a resort for a year before the opportunity to work in a cruise liner turned up. I spent 4 years there, learning a lot about different cultures, different cuisines. Working onboard a cruise liner isn’t easy at all but I was young. And it’s brought me all around the world and I’ve seen amazing places. Best place on earth? The fjords in Norway. But I remember I was very sea-sick the first week onboard. The toilet was my best friend. (laughs) After the cruise liner, I worked in a Michelin-star restaurant for a year before I came back to Malaysia. My first YTL hotel was Pangkor Laut Resort.
LPP : What is a typical day at work? Even before the resort has received any guests.
Chef : Ordering equipment, setting up, cleaning up, sourcing for food suppliers, train chefs… This is the third restaurant I’ve helped open.
LPP : What’s the best part of your job?
Chef : I enjoy the challenge of creating new dishes. Nothing is carved in stone, our menu is limitless. Chefs experiment all the time, we’re scientist.
LPP : What’s the worst part?
Chef : Everyone is a chef, everyone has different taste. I tell my chefs, just do your best and believe in yourselves.
LPP : Lots of people are inspired to be chefs now, thanks to reality shows like Junior Master Chef. What advice would you give someone who wants to be a chef?
Chef : Be artistic, enjoy crafting an experience for the palate. But chefs must have a passion for their job. You have to enjoy cooking for people, this can’t be “just a job”. If you have that kind of attitude in the kitchen, I’m afraid you won’t last too long.
LPP : Thanks for your time, Chef. (salute!)