The other day I took a look behind the very elegant curtain of The Peninsula hotel on a walkthrough of the Hong Kong icon’s kitchens. Bustling with staff in perfectly pressed uniforms, the area was filled with everyone from cooks with simmering, supersized pots of stock to stewards polishing silver, and white-jacketed waiters getting dining rooms ready for lunch.
One of the people I met was Johnny Chung, the hotel’s senior bartender. Chung has been at The Peninsula for 55 years, having joined his father there when he was still a teenager. He’s been there ever since and even stakes a claim to having served the city’s first Screwdriver cocktail to none other than Clark Gable.
Hotels, jobs and opportunities have changed considerably since Chung started out in the 1950s. But during a week when news broke that each qualified Hong Kong high-school graduate would have to battle with one other for a state-funded university place, The Peninsula’s busy back-of-house poses an attractive alternative.
While admission to hotel schools like those in Lausanne or at Cornell is competitive, fewer and fewer teenagers choose to take the vocational route into hospitality. Attracted more to jobs with quick promotion prospects instead of the long hours and slow career progression associated with hotels, many young job hunters would turn their nose up at a front desk or housekeeping job in even the most starry of five-star hotels.
But it wasn’t hotel school where all of today’s most established hotel managers and staff started out. Apprenticing in kitchens, running around as bellboys or cleaning rooms provided the beginning of many careers where dedication can be rewarded with jobs all around the globe.
Back at The Peninsula, nearly 40 per cent of this year’s new staff came from vocational schools and the hotel is working hard to make sure some of the speciality jobs that its guests rely on will be filled for years to come. Despite being consistently popular with diners around the globe, the art of dim sum making is being set aside by today’s young chefs, who are instead choosing more glamorous paths in pastry kitchens or as chocolatiers.
Aiming to inspire a new generation to take up the 15 years or so of dedicated training to become a dim sum master, this summer the hotel partnered with the South China Morning Post to invite young chefs from vocational schools and kitchens around Hong Kong. They’ll be competing for a place to train with The Peninsula’s dim sum chefs in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.
After three rounds of competition, this week the winner was announced as 21-year-old Felix Leung. Unlike thousands of other Hong Kongers of his generation, Leung is on the path to a specialised job that could keep him employed for a lifetime. Perhaps in 50 odd years time, he’ll even be overtaking Mr Chung’s long career.
Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.