The recipe may be short and sweet, but the results speak for themselves. Take several years' hard work, add a helping of self-discipline, blend in enthusiasm and creativity, mix in some management skills, include a flair for dealing with people, top it all off with a passion for excellence and, voil? you have the perfect executive chef.
This combination of ingredients propelled Mark Patten from life as a 14-year-old apprentice cook to his current lofty position as executive chef at the hotel InterContinental Hong Kong. In little over 20 years he has gone from preparing vegetables and washing dishes to overseeing internationally acclaimed restaurants and heading up a team of about 130 chefs at a five-star hotel.
"I knew what I wanted to do from a very early age," says Mr Patten. Born and brought up in Melbourne, he was a qualified chef at 17 having completed an apprenticeship which usually requires working five straight days and attending college one day a week for four years. "I completed it in three," says Mr Patten proudly. "I was in a hurry!"
"To succeed, you must be a flexible, patient and determined individual"
As a qualified commis chef, he focused on classic French cuisine. "In the early '80s, food was not that exciting in Australia," he explains. "Today, it is a food destination." In 1989, he was appointed sous chef at Quarter Sessions, an acclaimed Melbourne restaurant and found himself in the right place at exactly the right time. "The chef left the week I started so I became executive chef at the age of 22," recalls Mr Patten. During later stints at five-star hotels in Melbourne and on Hayman Island as chef de cuisine, he created his own style of eclectic Australian cuisine which he showcased via food promotions in Europe.
Recruited next by the InterContinental Hotel in Sydney as executive chef and food and beverage director, he oversaw, at 26, all restaurants and banqueting facilities and supervised 350 staff. He was able to develop his knowledge of Asian cuisines while training in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
The time was then right to take the plunge and move overseas. As consulting chef at the trendy Hempel Hotel in London, Mr Patten looked after Italian and Thai cuisines, creating delicious new combined menus. Taking this concept a step further, and using a combination of Mediterranean products and Asian cooking techniques, he introduced contemporary fusion cuisine to the resort island of Cyprus when working there for a spell in the late '90s.
Mr Patten found experience of a different kind when he later moved from the Mediterranean to Barbados as a culinary director. "The Caribbean was not an easy place to work," he remembers. "The hotel's average room rate was US$2,200 at Christmas. Guest expectations were through the roof but the staff's education, work ethic and skills were not up to standard. Motivating people for a successful opening was a challenge," he explains.
Much to the delight of Hong Kong's InterContinental Hotel, in mid-2003, Mr Patten said farewell to the beach and took over as executive chef responsible for all food operations including seven restaurants, kitchens and banquets.
Being a chef is no nine to five office job, according to Mr Patten. "As an apprentice, you start early and work late. For the first three years you hardly know what a break is. No lunch! No dinner! You are working all the time," he emphasises.
Unfortunately Hong Kong has no chef apprenticeship programme. Mr Patten recommends that school leavers obtain work experience and take a part-time course at the Chinese Cuisine Training Institute. "Start cooking at a restaurant or hotel to get the basic knowledge," he says. "Be disciplined, on time and well-groomed." Trainees are put to work peeling vegetables and cleaning floors. "Everyone must pay their dues," he stresses.
Promotion depends on ability and there are no clear-cut rules. "To succeed, you must be a flexible, patient and determined individual," Mr Patten adds. "Being a chef is one thing, but be a businessman first. Unless you are business-oriented, no matter how good your food is, you are less likely to succeed."
Mr Patten finds the job is never the same and his favourite part is seeing an idea come to fruition. "It is demanding and highly pressured," he says, "so you must be super organised and plan well in advance." Despite the demands, there is much to enjoy. "I like the camaraderie. I watch people progress and develop. I rely on and trust the people I work with."
Chefs interested in working on the mainland will find there is tough competition with the local Chinese since salaries for chefs in China are around 20 percent lower than in Hong Kong. Therefore, relatively few hotels in China are prepared to hire chefs from Hong Kong. Cultural differences are another factor to consider for anyone contemplating a move across the border.
Within Asia, most chefs prefer to explore job opportunities in Hong Kong rather than in China because they generally have better career prospects and remuneration packages here.