In his home in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, 25-year-old Edric Lee Mun Foong is hard at work. First, he places a funnel atop a narrow-rimmed glass bottle. Then he tips the contents of a humongous receptacle filled with the sieved contents obtained from a mixture of water, pineapple slices, cinnamon sticks and palm sugar through the funnel’s narrow chambers, waiting to see how much fizz is generated, before he tops it up again.
The drink Lee has hand-crafted at home is a fermented Mexican beverage called tepache and is just one of the many fermented products that he makes (including kimchi, sauerkraut and fermented tomatoes with thyme) under the auspices of his home business, Aged.
Lee was inspired to start his home-based business after struggling to find a job following the completion of his degree in culinary arts and food service management from Taylor’s University just before the movement control order (MCO) struck.
“Just before the MCO hit, I sent out a few resumes and did a few interviews and I actually got a job offer at a local fine-dining eatery. But when the MCO hit, the company had to stop all hires and void the contract for the time being. So that kind of fell through for me, ” says Lee.
Despite continuing to apply for jobs, Lee and many other recent culinary arts graduates are all stuck in the same boat. Restaurants and hotels are struggling to stay above water, and few have the resources to spend on hiring (and training) fresh graduates, which in turn means many graduates are simply not able to find suitable jobs at all.
The current job market
Culinary schools have become increasingly popular over the years, buoyed by the rise of celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, television shows like MasterChef and even the success of homegrown talents, like the jubilant Malaysian team that won the 2019 World Pastry Cup.
As a result, there has been a surge in enrolment over the years, with most schools producing hundreds of graduates every year, each of whom spends between RM40,000 to RM120,000 on courses as far-ranging as culinary arts, culinology and boulangerie.
In a pre-pandemic world, many of these graduates would have been able to find employment in local hotels and restaurants. But with many restaurants shuttering for good and hiring freezes the norm these days, those jobs are simply not open to them.
“In the past, we did take new graduates into consideration as they already have basic culinary skills. But for the time being, we are currently not hiring any positions in culinary, ” says Christian Metzner, the general manager of luxury hotel W Kuala Lumpur.
Metzner says the hiring freeze at W Kuala Lumpur is identical to what most hotels and some restaurants in Malaysia are experiencing, which in turn means most culinary arts graduates won’t be able to find traditional jobs for the next few months at least.
“If I’m honest, it’s a terrible time to graduate, ” says Jacob Chay, who graduated with a culinary arts and food service management degree a few months ago.
Chay has been actively hunting for jobs since he graduated and has had no luck finding a position in a fine-dining restaurant locally, which is his main area of interest.
“Right now I am still actively searching for jobs, but the thing is, you have to be realistic, you can’t afford to be too picky especially at times like this. You should count yourself lucky if you even have a job, ” says Chay, who currently spends his time volunteering to cook meals with the Food Aid Foundation.
Veronica Anak Dempi, a graduate from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Malaysia, says she too has hit a wall in terms of finding jobs. Dempi has been applying for multiple positions in hotels, resorts and restaurants for weeks now with no job in sight.
“In the past, you would get a response quite quickly, but so far, I haven’t got any replies. There are now very few openings and you don’t really have much of a choice in terms of where you want to work – you have to take what you can get, because you are also competing with people who lost their jobs and have more experience than you, ” she says.
With forces outside their control at play, many culinary school graduates have opted to regain some semblance of power over their careers by kick-starting online home-based food businesses using social media platforms like Instagram, to help generate an income.
Lee says home-based businesses have become so popular among his peers that of his 14 classmates who graduated recently, 12 have started their own businesses during these trying times.
Nurul Nadhirah Abdul Azis, 23, for example, was doing her internship at popular local patisserie Dew when the MCO was implemented. Although she had initially planned to work at Dew for another year, the establishment was unable to keep hiring her as there was no longer a need for her services.
Consequently, Nadhirah found herself forced to come up with an alternative source of income when she graduated in April.
“I had to stop my internship earlier than scheduled, so that’s why I decided to start right away with my small home bakery business Gooti Pastries, ” she says.
Nadhirah makes custom cakes and desserts and says she has now gotten used to working from home and managing her business herself.
“I think I am comfortable working at home already with whatever I am doing now. I’ve gained some momentum, so I don’t think it’s worth it to just stop and work in a restaurant and come back to this, ” she says.
After losing the job he had initially secured, Lee decided to start a custom cake business, but soon realised it was a saturated space in the online market, so he switched trajectory and focused on another passion of his instead – fermented products.
“I felt like I had to really stick out in order to succeed. So I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I can start selling fermented stuff like kimchi’.
“Also there is very little storage space in my house, so with fermented stuff, you can leave it outside for days before packing it or sending it to customers so it was really good for me, ” says the innovative Lee, whose kimchi and fermented drinks have become quite popular with a few local restaurants and bars.
After failing to find a job despite applying to numerous hotels this year, culinary arts graduate Putri Nur Affizah, 22, who studied at the Academy of Pastry & Culinary Arts Malaysia, decided to start a home business selling her signature lasagna as well as other dishes like pies and pasta.
“My cousin ordered lasagnas from me for her party early this year. At that party itself, everyone kept asking me how much my lasagna was and then it occurred to me that this could turn into a business.
“When I first started taking orders, I didn’t put much effort into it as I was still keen on looking for a job but once MCO started and I realised that it would be almost impossible for me to secure a job in a restaurant kitchen, I decided to properly run the business and create an Instagram account as an ordering platform and also a place where I share recipes, ” she says.
Given the current economic situation, even culinary arts students have taken the initiative to start home-based businesses before they even graduate.
Erlina Mohd Khairuddin, 24, is currently finishing her degree in culinary management at Taylor’s University. Unable to pursue the internship she had initially secured in the United States, she decided to start a home-based business called Elle Bakes instead where she makes custom cakes and other sweet treats, with the idea that this would help give her a taste of what it is like to work in the real world.
“Many of my classmates deferred their internship to next year, but I decided to do my own home business, because I get to apply everything I am learning in school in the business, ” she says.
In many cases, these home-based ventures have proven extremely successful, even given the current economic downturn. Both Putri and Nadhirah for example, say they are probably out-earning their contemporaries working in restaurants.
“Actually, I think I can make more than my friends who are working in restaurants. If you work in a restaurant, you might have to do split shifts, whereas I can work all day, so I can make a few thousand ringgit a month now, ” says Nadhirah.
Lee meanwhile says business has been generally booming since he started Aged a few months ago, but because the appetite for fermented products is not constant, he has good months and not-so good months.
“I have peaks and lows, so that is one of the downsides of starting something new and different from whatever everyone else is doing, but still, I think I am earning about the same as someone working in a restaurant, ” he admits.
The next step
Both Putri and Nadhirah have become extremely heartened by the response to their online businesses and are looking to grow them in the future by widening their customer base and potentially even opening physical outlets.
But a home-based business isn’t the be-all and-end-all for graduates coming up empty in terms of restaurant employment, especially as there is a growing demand for non-traditional jobs in the F&B industry.
Kartthigeen Tamelselvan, 21, for example is a final-year student doing his degree in culinology, which combines food science with culinary arts. Unlike many of his culinary arts classmates, Kartthi as he is more popularly known, is not anxious about his future as he sees a burgeoning need for culinary arts graduates in large-scale food manufacturing companies, which typically produce commercial food products.
“I think the culinary industry has branched out, so it’s not just about hotels and restaurants, it has also branched out to commercialisation and mass production of food, so chefs or culinary students can also end up in these pilot plants where they can apply their skills to producing a huge amount of food in a day.
“So for me, I feel more positive, because I don’t think that kind of industry is very affected by Covid-19, ” he says.
In any case, even for traditional restaurant jobs, the future shows promise. Metzner is hopeful that 2021 is the year hotels and restaurants start bouncing back from Covid-19.
“We have plans to rehire again in January 2021, depending on our business situation by then. So I do believe that there is hope for all students to come back and start a career in the hospitality industry, ” says Metzner.
Lee meanwhile sees glimmers of hope in the industry as the fine-dining restaurant that he was initially supposed to work at has now offered him a part-time job – a sure sign that recovery is on the way.
Ultimately though, in this climate of ‘the new normal’, many culinary arts graduates are discovering reservoirs of resilience and potential in themselves that they never would have tapped into if they hadn’t been forced into these tight corners. And many are coming out of this stronger than ever.
“We always learn to adapt in any kind of situation, whether it’s a restaurant kitchen or somewhere else so now that we literally have to put food on the table, this is something that in a way is pushing us to adapt to new circumstances, ” surmises Lee.