Being a chef is no easy feat. Fifteen-hour workdays are common, hot stoves are an everyday reality and disgruntled customers are part and parcel of the job. But some chefs’ thrive on this challenge and consequently distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
Well-known local chef Sabri Hassan is one of these rare creatures. Growing up in Taiping, Perak, Sabri’s family had meagre means – his father was in the army and there were 10 siblings to feed. Sabri began learning to cook when he was nine, and would often help his mother make kuih to sell. That initial foray into the kitchen blossomed into something bigger, and Sabri went on to pursue a career as a chef.
“I woke up early every day to help prepare ingredients for my mum. As I grew older, I realised I needed to further my studies as a chef and make my mum proud,” he says.
In the over 30 years since, Sabri has gone on to do just that, working in no less than 12 hotels, starting out with Hilton KL, and then moving on to other hotels like Crowne Plaza JB, Hilton Seremban, Summit Subang, Impiana KLCC and Novotel KL and rising up the ranks with each job.
Sabri has also competed in numerous competitions since he started out in the industry, establishing himself as something of an expert at ice carving and butter and chocolate structures.
“In order to be a successful chef, you must be different. That’s why I learnt how to do all these additional things,” he says.
In between, he took on various mentorship roles, most noticeably becoming team manager for Malaysia at the 6th International Culinary Competition 2001 in Vienna and the World Cup Culinary Competition 2002 in Luxembourg.
When he left the hotel industry a few years ago, he struck out on his own, establishing himself as a consultant, food stylist, judge, mentor and even a television star (he starred in TV1’s Biker Chef series).
While he could easily have opened his own restaurant, Sabri says his goal now is to mentor talented young culinary students and teach them how to become professional chefs.
“As a senior chef, my responsibility is to develop young people to become chefs. That’s why I haven’t opened my own restaurant. If I did, I would be in my own world. Instead I go to different colleges and teach the students what I’ve learnt over the years,” he says.
Sabri says many young chefs have unrealistic expectations when they first start out, derived from watching reality shows like MasterChef. But the real-life reality is a lot less glamorous. Sabri recounts his first few years as a kitchen apprentice when he was only allowed to do menial tasks.
“When I was an apprentice, I didn’t get to cook. For one year, I cleaned the chiller and peeled vegetables every day, from 7am in the morning to 12am in the night!” he says.
To make sure he stayed on track and continued excelling, Sabri set himself targets and actively entered culinary competitions, something that he strongly encourages young chefs to do to better themselves.
“My end goal was to get a Harley Davidson, so I knew I had to prove myself by entering and winning competitions. And I also set myself targets and worked towards that – I wanted to be an executive chef at 35, but I got it at 31,” he says.
Earlier in March, Sabri was a judge at the Anchor Food Professionals Pastry and Culinary Challenge 2018, a competition that aims to unearth the best talents in the local industry. Previous winners of the competition have had the opportunity to compete in a global edition of the competition. As Sabri knows only too well, this can lead to bigger, better things.
“Winning competitions like this gives local chefs a passport to open restaurants or work overseas – it’s their passport for their next journey,” he says.