How He Poached Gordon Ramsay's Heart

Butter and a cool head helped Institute of Technical Education student Koh Han Jie win an internship in Gordon Ramsay’s kitchen.
Mr Zave Toh (left), Section Head of Western Culinary Arts, says Han Jie (right) is very eager to learn and improve.

With just ten minutes to perfect three types of cooked eggs – soft-boiled, poached and omelette – the four culinary students competing for a much-coveted internship at Gordon Ramsay’s new Bread Street Kitchen restaurant here were definitely feeling the heat.

In particular, 21-year-old Koh Han Jie from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College West had reason to fret: One of his two stoves had stopped working just a minute into the competition.

“I was very nervous and lost at that point,” he recalled. “[But] I tried not to panic.”

Making do with the remaining stove, he decided to begin with the soft-boiled egg, which would take the longest time to cook. Once done, he used the same pot of hot water to poach another egg before promptly starting on the omelette.

In the end Han Jie, who had learnt the different styles of cooking eggs only two months earlier, won the cook-off. One winning technique he used – which Mr Ramsay praised – was to brush the omelette with melted butter.

Han Jie “handled it very well”, said Mr Wong Wai Kay, ITE Lecturer-Mentor in Western Culinary Arts, who has taught him in several modules and was at the competition last September to lend his support. “He’s very calm and street-smart… and he applies all the techniques that we taught him in school.”

Han Jie removes a poached egg from a simmering pot of water and vinegar.

Training in Western Culinary Arts at the ITE College West is no walk in the park. To prepare for the real-life pressures of working in a restaurant kitchen, students regularly have to cook under tight time constraints. They concoct a dish or meal in under an hour for their weekly practical tests, closely watched by their lecturers.

In the face of stressful deadlines and his lecturers’ strict demands, Han Jie remains unflappable. He may seem at first like an ordinary boy next door, soft-spoken with a slight mumble, but in the kitchen, a different side of him emerges.

Wearing a white chef’s hat and a matching apron, Han Jie is focused, moving nimbly around his workstation, and finding tools and ingredients with ease. The meticulous student executes each step of a recipe calmly and swiftly.

A good omelette should have a smooth and evenly coloured surface, says Han Jie. Here, he carefully folds the edges of an omelette to the centre.

Finding his culinary passion

However, Mr Wong shared that the confident Han Jie of today is “totally different” from the boy who first entered ITE three years ago for a National ITE Certificate (Nitec) in Western Culinary Arts. Then, Han Jie had no interest in cooking and would sometimes even skip class.

Han Jie explained that he had wanted to work instead of furthering his education. He had been feeling jaded after his GCE N-levels and strongly disliked studying. It was only at his mother’s insistence that he grudgingly applied for a few skills-based courses at the ITE and happened to be accepted into the Western Culinary Arts course.

“I wasn’t really looking forward to it,” the bespectacled youth admitted. “I didn’t really study in my first year, [I] just went for lessons and hoped to pass [to] get the cert[ificate].”

The turning point came in his second year of the Nitec course, when he served a compulsory six-month attachment at Pierside Restaurant. The fast-paced environment of the restaurant thrilled him and he enjoyed being part of a team.

“I’m a more hands-on person,” he said. “[Through the attachment,] I found that I actually like cooking [and] the bond that we have inside the kitchen.”

Most of all, he was touched by the care and mentorship of Pierside’s Chef Robin Ho. Not only did Mr Ho stay back after working hours to coach Han Jie for an upcoming ITE competition, he also bought extra ingredients for Han Jie’s training. That spurred the youth to work harder, and ignited his passion for cooking.

Han Jie removes the top of a soft-boiled egg, which took him six minutes to cook during the competition.

Han Jie went on to win a gold medal in cooking at the 2012 WorldSkills Singapore, a national skills competition for youths. In 2013, he represented Singapore at the international WorldSkills competition in Germany, where his skills and hours of staying back in school to practise were recognised with a Medallion of Excellence, awarded to top participants who scored at least 500 out of 600 points.

Besides acknowledging the guidance of his mentors and lecturers, Han Jie is also thankful for the unwavering encouragement from his mother. She often accompanies him to competitions to give him moral support. “When I see her I won’t be so stressed,” he said.

Although she could not be at the Gordon Ramsay cook-off because of work, being a superstitious mother, she wished her eldest son good luck by preparing a set of red socks, hat and even underwear for him to wear on the day of the competition. “When I told her that I got selected [as Mr Ramsay’s intern], she actually cried,” he said.

He may seem at first like an ordinary boy next door, soft-spoken with a slight mumble, but in the kitchen, a different side of him emerges.
After he is done with cooking, the diligent student cleans his utensils and organises his workstation.

Aspire to learn at work

Students like Han Jie, who thrive in the workplace, will have more opportunities to develop their skills following the Applied Study in Polytechnics and ITE Review (ASPIRE) committee’s recommendations to strengthen on-the-job training. These include improved internships as well as integrating work and study through place-and-train programmes.

Mr Alvin Goh, Deputy Director of Culinary Arts at ITE College West, is heartened by these recommendations. “The announcements made by the ASPIRE committee is a big step forward in recognising the importance of a work and study structure, which allows students to learn through a system of on-the-job training,” he said.

The ITE culinary students learn to sculpt ingredients, such as a cauliflower, for a pleasant presentation on the plate.

A step towards his dreams

After completing the Nitec programme, Han Jie chose to pursue his love for French cuisine by taking up the ITE’s Technical Diploma in Culinary Arts. The niche programme focuses on techniques for French cooking and is conducted in collaboration with the renowned French culinary school Institut Paul Bocuse. It also covers skills that are essential to managing a fine dining restaurant, such as marketing, serving, menu planning and budgeting.

Han Jie now enjoys learning about wine and picking up the French language. He will be able to put these new skills to use later this year when he goes to Lyon, France, for a two-week student exchange trip.

Meanwhile, his six-month internship at Bread Street Kitchen, opening at Marina Bay Sands by May, will help him fulfil part of the nine months’ industry experience required for his diploma.

The hardworking youth has big dreams for the future – he wishes to work in France after graduation, and eventually cook at a Michelin-starred restaurant, goals that he will no doubt be one step closer to after his stint in a Gordon Ramsay kitchen.

Han Jie’s love for French cuisine began when he learned French cooking techniques during his attachment at Pierside Restaurant.
    Jan 6, 2015
    Tay Qiao Wei
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