Kay-Lene Tan rocking the Marbella Chef Jacket and Memphis Bib Apron
Not everyone realises their ideal career straight away. When they do, it can be daunting to change their occupation and follow their dreams. It is often a big step to turn your hobby into your ideal career, but with dedication and hard work, Chef Kay-Lene turned her dream into a reality.
Chef Kay-Lene began her career in communications & media, but realised her passion was in cooking and took the leap to qualify as a pastry chef. She then went on to build her career working in restaurants including Joel Robuchon (Singapore) and The European (Melbourne).
Chef Kay-Lene now successfully juggles the role of Head Pastry Chef at the upmarket Indian restaurant, Tonka and Vietnamese, Asian fusion restaurant, Coda in Melbourne. Recognising her success, Chef Kay-Lene recently received Foodservice Magazines ‘Rising Star Award’.
What motivated you to take the leap and follow your passion to become a chef?
I went through a “quarter life crisis” at the age of 25, and began questioning what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life. My peers were moving up in their careers, and graduating from university; whereas I felt that I was stagnating in my job. Having grown up in a Peranakan household, I was brought up with a great love for food; my Mum and Grandmother are amazing cooks.
The idea of becoming a chef was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. I asked myself, “What better job could there be than being able to work around food every single day?” So I did some research, enrolled myself in At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, and took up a Diploma in Pastry & Bakery Arts. I guess you could say that the rest is history; it is a leap of faith that I have never regretted taking.
Kay-Lene Tan in the Marbella Chef Jacket and Memphis Bib Apron
How did it feel to turn your hobby into a career?
Being able to do something I love as a career is such a blessing. I always look forward to going to work, and even though working in the kitchen does have its day to day challenges, I can’t imagine doing anything else. It is a kind of happiness that cannot be fully expressed with words.
Were there any skills you were able to bring from your communications and media background into the kitchen?
I’ve definitely learned to utilize what I learnt during my time in communications and media in my career now. Even simple things like how to take a good photograph of my desserts, and speaking to a camera or an audience have come in handy. (my worlds collided when we filmed The Chef’s Line for SBS last year!)
What is the most gratifying thing about your role?
Making people happy through food; dining out has now become such a multifaceted experience, and expectations of diners have definitely been heightened. Being able to see people’s eyes light up, and smile from the kitchen when they take that first bite of my dessert is incredibly gratifying to me.
Being able to share my experiences and the lessons I have learned with younger chefs is also very gratifying. I am blessed to have an incredible mentor in Chef Andres Lara; he taught me so much when we worked together in Singapore, and he continues to support me now whenever I need any guidance. I love being able to pass those lessons forward, it is my way of giving back for what was given to me.
You have no idea how many recipes actually cross over from cuisine to cuisine, but are called different names. I find things like that utterly fascinating.
Kay-Lene Tan wearing her Marbella Chef Jacket and Memphis Bib Apron
What do you enjoy about working with two cuisines and what challenges do you face?
One of my philosophies in cooking is that you cannot know where you are going if you do not appreciate where you came from. I create desserts based predominantly on food memories, and flavour combinations that remind me of my childhood.
Singapore is such a great place for a chef to grow up because there is such an amazing food culture. It is a melting-pot of every kind of cuisine imaginable. Working at Tonka (modern Indian), and Coda (modern Vietnamese) has allowed me to fuse my love for Asian cuisine with classic French techniques. I love finding old recipes, and using them to create a modern-styled dessert; it makes them more approachable as well.
I have learned so much from working in Tonka, and Coda; you have no idea how many recipes actually cross over from cuisine to cuisine, but are called different names. I find things like that utterly fascinating.
It can be challenging to find, and recreate authentic recipes. Some people who dine at Tonka, and Coda have expectations of traditional recipes in terms of look or taste, based on their heritage. Chocolate is always challenging to integrate with an Indian menu. I guess it isn’t traditional, but who doesn’t love chocolate.
What are your aims for the next year?
I would like to get more involved in charity work; I am starting this year by contributing a cake to the Free To Feed Good Friday Bake Sale. It is a great non-profit organization that champion people who have sought refuge, and asylum in Australia. I hope to find a charity that I stand behind, and can actively be a part of, whether be it through the contribution of food, or skills.
What advice would you offer to future Rising Stars in the industry?
In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground.” And, this may sound cliché, but never give up.
Regardless of where the industry takes you, always stay humble, and never forget that you once started out as an apprentice too. With all the glitz, and glamour that the industry offers some chefs these days, it is easy to lose focus on your reasons for becoming a chef. For it is for the love of food…that’s all it is.
Life, especially in this industry, is going to throw you a lot of curve balls. There are even going to be times that you feel incredibly disheartened, and just want to give up. Believe me when I say that I have been through those tough periods. But always stay optimistic because things really do get better if you keep at it, and keep your head up.
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