Cooking up confidence
Indonesian chefs are among the world’s best. They are well respected, reliable and work hard. But they have one major problem - a lack of self-confidence.
That’s the opinion of Irwan Ruchimat, who hasn’t suffered from this deficiency thanks to an “open-minded” upbringing and a determination to take charge of directions in his life.
The test came when he turned up to work one morning at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Central Jakarta to find it ringed by 11 tanks even though most occupants had fled.
The time was May 1998 and the riots that led to the fall of the Soeharto government were well underway.
“I thought this wasn’t the best way to develop my career,” Irwan commented dryly. “I decided it might be best to go overseas.”
So he headed for New Zealand when such moves were easier, and where a friend was singing about the opportunities. Fortunately Irwan wasn’t just a dab hand with a wok – he also had a couple of other sharp knives in his top drawer making him a wanted employee: He’d already worked abroad, and he spoke English.
Now he’s an ambassador for the Indonesian Chef Association helping guide young people in the hospitality industry to get ahead by heading offshore.
“I tell them that the cooking part is easy,” he said. “It’s the English that’s difficult. If you want to work overseas put mastering language skills ahead of your kitchen abilities.
“Before flying to places like Australia and NZ get some experience in Indonesia and another country because conditions can be quite different. Moving directly from Jakarta could be a shock.
“Here (in NZ) it’s tough. Things are done differently. Workers are focussed and have self confidence in their abilities – that’s something Indonesians need to develop
“Labor costs in Australia and NZ are high. As a result there are few workers in the kitchen, so we must be able to do everything, including cleaning plates - something I hadn’t done in Jakarta. (Chefs in NZ earn from Rp 140,000 an hour, more with overtime).
“I recommend trying Dubai because it has a large number of restaurants and hotels, including international chains. Conditions for workers are better there than other places in the Middle East.”
Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu has been reported saying that 100 chefs will be able to work in NZ under the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.
However the details have yet to be determined and it seems unlikely visas will be available till later this year. Issues to be resolved include the qualifications required.
NZ has an unemployment rate of almost seven per cent and visas are not given to overseas workers when skilled locals are available.
“There are currently few vacancies and chefs might have to wait long periods for a job,” said Irwan. “A local friend has just spent six weeks hunting for work. We need a central point for applicants to seek positions. I’d also love to see NZ chefs in Indonesia.”
Irwan credits his unusual upbringing in Bandung for his present success. His lawyer father insisted the family be fluent in English. While other kids were flying kites Irwan and his siblings were being ferried on Dad’s Vespa to study at the British Council library.
At home the family did not employ a maid. Mum and an aunt did the cooking. The children were allowed in the kitchen, and so was Dad, who also owned a restaurant specializing in Sundanese batagor (fried fish dumplings).
With typical Kiwi understatement Irwan claims he could hardly boil water when he entered the National Hotel Institute in Bandung. However it’s clear he already knew the difference between a bread roll and breadfruit – and that cooking could make him a breadwinner.
After graduating he worked in Singapore, then Jakarta before having his life-changing encounter with the Indonesian military.
In the NZ capital Wellington he soon got a job – and a surprise: His Indonesian diploma wasn’t recognized. So he had to retrain in culinary arts at a polytechnic where he found he was teaching his tutors who weren’t skilled in Indonesian cuisine.
“The situation has changed since then, but it’s important to make sure your qualifications are acceptable,” he said.
There are several Malaysian restaurants in Wellington, but no Indonesian eateries, much to the chagrin of ambassador Agus Sriyono. He and others have been trying to encourage entrepreneurs to rectify the omission – so far without success.
The situation is different in Auckland, the country’s biggest city where there are several Indonesian restaurants. Celebrity chef Farah Quinn (pictured left) from the Ala Chef show has been in the city to stir interest in the archipelago’s rich and varied cuisine.
She’s been entertaining Kiwis on local TV wearing outfits that would boil over Indonesian Broadcasting Commission censors but have helped promote her homeland’s many charms.
“Working in NZ is heaven for me,” said Irwan, 40, who spends his spare time fishing and following football. He’s been in the country for 12 years and has become so acclimatized that he, his wife Irma Iryanti and four children have lost their immunity to Indonesian stomach cramps.
On a recent visit to Bandung the family spent half their six-week holiday getting medical treatment after eating bad food, despite taking all precautions.
“In Jakarta it was difficult to get unpolluted fish,” he said. “We could smell the oil.
“Here in NZ there’s a growing interest in Indonesian food, though most only know of Balinese cuisine. We have to tone down the chilli to match local palates. I’d say rendang (beef cooked in spices and coconut milk) is our national dish, followed by nasi goreng (fried rice), sate (satay), and soto (clear meat soup).
“I enjoy everything – including fish and chips.
“Preparing Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, Tex-Mex or European food isn’t difficult. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the North Pole or South Pole provided you have the right method, good equipment and fresh food.
“With self-confidence maybe Indonesian chefs can do much better than Kiwis.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 10 May 2012)