Career Change: How Two Renowned Chefs Left Banking For Culinary Adventures
At first glance, cake expert Penk Ching and chef LG Han from Singapore may have nothing in common except for being on top of their own game. The former remains to be the household name when it comes to elaborate celebration cakes, having produced edible masterpieces for many high-profile weddings here and abroad as well as milestone events like the 2008 Olympics held in China. The latter is the 36-year-old chef of restaurant Labyrinth, the lauded ambassador when it comes to contemporary Singaporean cuisine and sustainability, having been recognised by the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants group for his commitment to championing local produce and communities.
Dig deeper and you will discover that the semblance doesn’t end there. In fact, their careers couldn’t have taken any more similar paths. Both were bankers by trade. Ching graduated with a business course, two master’s degrees and DPhil units under her belt, while Han finished with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and finance in London.
Both also enjoyed cooking as a hobby. Hers started in high school when she would spend longer hours in the home economics lab compared to her classmates because she wanted to learn the basics of baking. “I just love to eat sweets, simple as that,” she says. Since there were no culinary schools available back then, she thought of taking up fine arts in college to hone her creative expressions. But that didn’t pan out in the end. “I wanted to go to art school, but my father told me that if I wanted to be rich, I should take a business course for in art, I will only be earning if I die,” she cheekily says.
Upon graduation, she became a consultant for the United Nations in New York before returning to her home country and taking the reins as the training and recruitment manager in a multinational bank for more than four years. The job may have allowed her to practice what she learnt in college, but the call of the oven was just too difficult to resist. In between filing papers and conducting interviews, she would find time to produce baked goods. Her bosses would even place orders for her brownies. After a while, the long office hours got in the way of her having a more relaxed lifestyle, and a baby; so she applied for an early retirement plan.
With more time in her hands, Ching, along with sister Shen, enrolled in short baking classes conducted by Maur Lichauco, Salud de Castro, Lilia Gutierrez and Avelina Florendo. Her skill in cake decorating became pretty evident that not long after, she got requests for cakes.
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Her very first order was for a simple wedding; she made a three-layered fruitcake draped with fondant. It might be an easy task for an experienced baker but for a novice who wanted nothing less than perfection for her first professional gig, half a sack of flour was used just to get things to the standard she abides by. “A great cake for me should make my senses excited,” she says when it comes to her creations. “It should be delicious, should smell good and look good. I put myself in the shoes of the recipient and ask myself if I would be happy getting that cake. That’s how I know.”
It eventually paid off as word of mouth got around and she received countless referrals and calls asking for more intricate designs, including a scale replica of the Malacañang Palace as the inaugural cake for President Benigno Aquino III, the Peninsula Manila’s 40th-anniversary cake, Singapore’s 50th Independence cake and the Manila Hotel centennial cake. Her brand Pastry Bin is now on its 32nd year of operations and continues to be ahead of the pack.
Meanwhile, Han entertained the idea of working in the food industry just before he graduated from the London School of Economics with an honours degree. He was 23 then.
His grandparents were partly responsible for his passion for food since he was brought up in an environment with plenty of it. His grandfather used to own and run three restaurants: a Hainanese steakhouse, a shop offering Szechuan cuisine and a casual eatery. His grandmother, on the other hand, commanded the home kitchen, often preparing a feast for the entire extended family every Saturday. She handed down to him all her signature recipes, which he has given new life to in his menus. “Labyrinth has become an important platform for me to not just express myself and my beliefs on a plate, but also to preserve both their legacies through my cooking,” he says.
After finishing his studies, Han was led to a rewarding position in the finance industry. And while it wasn’t really where his drive was at, the job paid well. Plus, “it’s something that my parents expected from me after investing in my education”, he adds. He started his career with Goldman Sachs before moving to Citibank where he worked for more than two years before finally deciding to take the plunge into the F&B industry.
“The motivation for quitting was purely because I did not enjoy what I was doing and I felt that life is too short to be doing something that I had no passion or belief in,” he says. He enrolled in a six-month culinary certificate course in At-Sunrice Academy in Singapore and gathered experience by staging at different restaurants and pop-up events featuring big-named chefs the likes of Mauro Colagreco, Tom Kerridge and Alvin Leung.
In February 2014, he opened his own fine dining restaurant specialising in neo-Singaporean cuisine, serving signature dishes such as the chilli crab ice cream; ice kacang or a shaved ice dessert featuring native local herbs such as oyster plant, wandering Jew and roselle; Bak Chor Mee No Bak Chor No Mee, a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of a local noodle favourite; and his grandma’s Ang Moh Chicken Rice, which is a twist on the traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice.
Labyrinth received its first Michelin star in 2017. Then early this year, he was recognised for his noble efforts to hold sustainable operations in his restaurant—from its waste reduction practices and use of locally sourced ingredients to supporting different communities.
Even if they have turned their backs on banking, they still manage to practise what they learnt from their previous careers to the current one. “Especially on the business front,” says Han. “From the ability to read the market and understand the economy and studying the company’s financial statements to doing forecasts and managing my day-to-day cash flow, knowing what and how much budget is available to spend at any given time.”
Ching adds, “The skill in dealing with people. The customer is always the priority and I usually go the extra mile to serve the client. For me, excuses don’t serve any purpose, so I plan ahead and always have a strategy.”
From crunching numbers to managing the kitchen, both chefs have traded office attire for aprons, and they couldn’t be any more fulfilled and fuelled in what they’re doing. Han says, “I spend six days, up to 14 hours per day working and never once have I felt that I wanted to be anywhere else but in my restaurant.”