Career Path

Cooking up a storm

by Miranda Breding

Dan Segall, executive chef
Zuma Hong Kong
Photo: Nolly Leung

Top chefs are part of an increasingly global hospitality industry with plenty of opportunities for international career advancement.

One such chef who has come a long way since his humble beginnings as a "kitchen boy" at a summer camp is Dan Segall, executive chef at Zuma Hong Kong, who recalls starting off his career as a 16-year-old, mainly to keep himself in food and gas money, he says.

Mr Segall continued to work as a cook while studying for his degree in theatre and, later, while pursuing writing, directing and acting in plays in New York. After quitting for a while and vowing "never to return to restaurants", he was lured back to work at a small cafe and delicatessen in Brooklyn two years later. "What I found out during that period was that I hate the theatre and love the restaurant business," he says.

Working for a Manhattan chef, Mr Segall started work early and stayed late, helping out in different sections of the restaurant so that he could learn about all the various aspects. Within nine months, he became third in command of the kitchen. "I just kept doing the same thing, learning every job, until somebody suggested I become the boss."

He then went to culinary school "to fill in the gaps". He explains, "The difference between a chef and a cook is that a chef knows why he is doing the things he's doing and a cook does not."

Asian connection

With his experience and contacts, Mr Segall could find a good intern job at one of the best kitchens in New York, but acting on advice from a chef friend he opted to go to Singapore to study authentic Asian cooking instead.

"I had always loved Asian cuisine. Since I was a little child I could use chopsticks and my family would go and eat Chinese food on Sundays," he recalls.

In Singapore, a two-week culinary course led to a six-month internship at a Singapore hotel focusing on Cantonese cooking and management. Within four years, Mr Segall was working in Beijing, cooking American as well as Japanese fare. He then accepted an offer to open Zuma Hong Kong, offering contemporary Japanese cuisine that aims to be "authentic but not traditional".

Although Mr Segall's daily responsibilities include managing a team of 35 chefs and 10 stewarding staff, he was also involved in the design and construction of the 10,000-square-feet, 250-seat restaurant, as well as with recruiting and sourcing.

Working six days a week, 13 to 15 hours a day, Mr Segall's duties go beyond cooking, cleaning and kitchen maintenance to include people and budget management. He also plans parties and is involved in public relations. He notes, "People like the chef to be involved."

There are a number of routes to becoming a chef, says Mr Segall. These include attending culinary school and working for other great chefs. He points out that while a university degree is not required, education is important for personal growth. He advises a trial run for those considering restaurant work, conceding, "I don't think everyone is cut out for it."

Give and take

Chefs should be adaptable, unafraid of failure and able to take risks and to deal with extremely tight deadlines. Experience is crucial. "If you can't work in a place you love, work in a place where you'll get stronger," he says, advising, "Find a place where you fit in."

Commenting on the career path in restaurants, he points out, "When I work somewhere, I act like I own the place. I believe that's how you work your way up — by taking your job as seriously as the owner would. My opinion is that if you work hard and do what you need to do, the career path opens up for you."

Mr Segall's personal work motto is, "Make it yours." He says, "Look for opportunities every moment. If you don't look at your job as something exciting, no matter what you do, you're in the wrong business."

It is difficult to recruit experienced and trained staff in the fast-growing Asian hospitality industry, states Mr Segall, explaining, "In Hong Kong, chefs are seen as disposable, so employers don't treat them well enough to keep them." He does, however, expect that employers will begin offering better salaries and limiting split-shift work in order to retain chefs. "I want my chefs to be fresh and feel like they have a life," he emphasises.

"I just love the magic and theatrics of a restaurant," he concludes. "A great restaurant takes you away and I love that about the job. When we get it right, it's fantastic and people walk out of here floating."


Taken from Career Times 17 August 2007, p. C4
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