One very visible sign of Hong Kong's strengthening economy is that more people are dining out and any number of smaller restaurants have opened up to offer discerning gourmets a new range of exotic cuisines to choose from.
According to Yeung Ka Sing, head of corporate human resources for the Hong Kong and China Gas Company Limited (Towngas), western-style restaurants with a boutique ambience and tables for two to four people have become particularly popular. "The portions they serve are relatively small compared with those in Chinese restaurants, but the menus are innovative and offer things for different tastes," he explains.
This means that chefs are under pressure to come up with inventive recipes and learn new methods of cooking, and has led to a shortage of qualified manpower in the catering sector. Therefore, in collaboration with the Vocational Training Council, Towngas is now offering training courses for both chefs and frontline staff in the catering industry. Those who go on to acquire the necessary experience have a range of career options and can even expect to be courted by prestigious restaurants and the bigger hotels.
Mr Yeung also notes that, nowadays, successful chefs are often promoted like superstars. Employers groom them to take part in competitions, appear in features in the media, hold cooking demonstrations, and even host TV programmes. This boosts their profile and income and makes it possible to become known for signature dishes which can attract food connoisseurs.
"An executive chef is the soul of a kitchen," Mr Yeung says. "Apart from having good cooking skills, he must also manage a team of junior chefs, giving them the opportunity to learn and a free hand to create new dishes." Besides that, it is necessary to design menus, write them in English, control a budget, monitor hygiene standards and the storage of refrigerated food, and have a good grasp of the prices and availability of seasonal produce.
Even something as apparently simple as brewing a cup of coffee requires special techniques, so making it to the top takes time and real dedication. "You have to be patient and enjoy everything involved in working in a kitchen," says Mr Yeung. He also points out that junior staff must be ready to work hard and cooperate with colleagues if they expect to be promoted. In addition, he advises young people interested in the field to consider starting in a smaller kitchen, where they can probably gain broader experience more quickly.
The usual progression is to move from cooking assistant to cook, then to sous chef and executive chef. The monthly salary for an executive chef is at least HK$25,000 plus bonus, but can vary depending on the place of employment and how efficiently he controls operating costs.
The career path for frontline staff can lead from a position as waiter or waitress to floor supervisor, restaurant manager and, ultimately, food and beverage manager in charge of all operations and promotional activities. New joiners should have a Form 5 standard of education, must understand the concepts of customer service, and should be willing to work long hours. Starting salaries for waiting staff are between HK$6,000 and HK$8,000.
In 2001 and 2002, the company opened two retail outlets with cafes in Tsim Sha Tsui and Causeway Bay, under the name Towngas Avenue, as a way of promoting local culinary culture. These both have areas where customers can experiment with different cooking techniques in professional surroundings. Other features include regular cooking demonstrations by renowned chefs and the chance for customers to watch their food being prepared in an open kitchen or via a TV monitor.