I never was a good cook.
The best meal I've made was baked chicken breasts, which were a little under-cooked because I was hungry and impatient. My mother said it was the worst piece of food she has ever chewed. Tough love.
When my boss sent me on an assignment to cook wanton noodles for a day, I was eager to prove my mother wrong. Most importantly, I wanted to know why some youths would want to venture in this line, when there are probably better prospects elsewhere.
That's right, there are youths working as hawkers. Instead of being marketers, Jonathan Cho, 28, and Ai Min Cho, 30, chose to run their parents' noodle business, Cho Kee Noodle.
The Cho siblings, both graduates from local universities, oversee two of the three stalls owned by their family island-wide.
THE CHO SIBLINGS ARE AMONG SECOND- AND THIRD- GENERATION HAWKERS FEATURED IN THIS YEAR'S SINGAPORE HERITAGEFEST.
PHOTO CREDIT: CHO KEE NOODLE FACEBOOK PAGE
Last Tuesday evening, I reported for my "shift" at the air-conditioned outlet at Singapore Polytechnic's Koufu.
The cheerful siblings were all smiles when I met them, which made me feel guilty if I were to screw up. As I wore my apron in the back of the kitchen, the younger brother, Jonathan, told me Cho Kee Noodle is a third generation business that started from a pushcart stall manned by their grandmother in the early 60's.
You can't imagine the pressure I felt at that moment.
Nevertheless, I stepped into the kitchen with two goals: to cook at least two plates of noodles for their customers, and to take two orders successfully.
Older sister Ai Min was gracious enough to show me the ropes, or in this case, the noodles. She first taught me how to cook, which Jonathan claimed to be "easy".
Sure enough, it wasn't that complicated. I followed her lead by tossing a handful of noodles into the boiling water. While it was boiling, I added chili, lard, and some sauce into the bowl that I will mix with the cooked noodles.
Finally, I placed the wantons and char siew (roasted pork) on the plate of noodles. Feeling confident about my first plate, I showed it to Ai Min.
"It doesn't look very pretty," she said, while chuckling at my masterpiece.
AFTER MY THIRD TRY, IT LOOKED A LOT BETTER. I BET YOU COULDN'T TELL THIS WAS PREPARED BY AN AMATEUR.
Apparently, the char siew bits were all over the place, and the wantons were not spread out equally. That's when I learned presentation is just as important as the cooking.
After cooking two plates successfully (I got the thumbs up by Ai Min), it was time for me to get on the cash register.
I was overwhelmed. The menu on the cash register was a 10 by 10 table that listed all the dishes and its different condiments and ingredients, such as extra chilli and tomato noodles.
Though the dinner crowd was a mob, most of the customers were patient with me. Some customers looked amused – they were probably wondering how this Indian boy ended up working in a Chinese noodle stall.
A handful, though, looked worried, as if I might ruin their orders by adding curry into their noodles. (I didn't.)
MANNING THE CASH REGISTER WAS MORE CHALLENGING THAN COOKING, BUT I MANAGED TO GET FIVE SUCCESSFUL ORDERS.
At the end of my "shift", I decided to cook myself a plate of wanton noodles to test my skills. I might have let my noodles boil a little longer, but I gave myself a "pass".
Still, I'd eat Ai Min's and Jonathan's noodles over mine any day.
While I only worked at the stall for a measly two hours, I can only imagine how it would be like at a real hawker centre, where the environment is hot and stuffy. The working hours are longer too, ranging from eight to 12 hours a day, for at least five days a week.
I asked Jonathan why he decided to work in this line, despite having a business degree from a local university.
He said: "I would have to work many hours working outside… I rather use those hours on my family's business than for someone else. It's much more fulfilling."
Their passion for their family's business was indeed heartening. Perhaps I'll open a stall with my mother one day, if she ever approves of my cooking, that is.
SPECIAL THANKS TO JONATHAN (FAR LEFT) AND AI MIN (FAR RIGHT) FOR TEACHING ME THE WAYS OF COOKING THE NOODLES!
This is part two of 'For A Day', a new series that features underrated jobs in Singapore. In this series:
Working as a "shampoo girl" for a day