Singaporeans are increasingly seeking out meaningful, skilled labour, amid a growing push for better recognition and pay for such professions. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts of young Singapore residents who have chosen careers in manual trades and are thriving.
Here, professional chef Jay Teo, 33, recounts the highs and lows of his culinary journey, which began at the age of 16. From winning a tapas competition in Spain and a Michelin star in Singapore, to launching a failed pop-up restaurant, one must love both the good and bad to thrive in the Food & Beverage business, he writes.
I studied electronic and computer engineering at Nanyang Polytechnic. During that period, I was a part-time cook at Fish & Co.
My parents were not keen on me joining the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry as they saw how tiring it was, but I enjoyed the camaraderie in the kitchen and wanted to try out the job.
I graduated in 2011 and after National Service enrolled in a Workforce Skills Qualifications diploma in food services (culinary arts) at Shatec.
My mum encouraged me, despite knowing it would be tough — she knew how stubborn I was!
In 2015, near the end of my course, I applied for the 8th Spanish Gastronomy Training Programme offered by the Spanish government.
I got selected and was off to Valladolid, northwest Spain, for six months after graduating.
We spent the first three months studying the Spanish language and cuisine. We were also attached to Tapas restaurants and worked there after school, including our off days.
I was placed at a tapas bar called Villa Paramesa Tapas.
It was challenging working from 6pm until closing. Sometimes we ended at 2am, but serving 200-300 people a night was satisfying, especially with just four in the kitchen.
The next three months, I interned at one-star Michelin restaurant La Botica de Matapozuelos, near Valladolid.
We would pick herbs from the back garden. Sometimes we foraged for berries or visited the farm at our chef’s home to catch chickens and harvest vegetables.
It was a chef’s dream come true.
We ended the stint with a competition to create a tapa dish, and I won. For the first time, I felt I was good at something.
I returned to Singapore fully intending to work in Spain.
Shortly after, chef Rishi Naleendra, who started Cheek by Jowl restaurant at Boon Tat Street, invited me for an interview. I had always wanted to visit him as he, too, had interned at La Botica.
I joined his restaurant in 2016 while waiting for an opening in Spain. That year, the famed Michelin guide launched in Singapore.
Chef Rishi asked if I could stay and help the restaurant achieve a star, and I agreed. We managed to do that in 2017. It is still one of my proudest moments.
We kept the star for three years. During that time, I rose from commis chef to head chef in 2018.
In 2019, we rebranded as Cheek Bistro and I stayed until end-2020 — the year Covid-19 hit.
I had gotten engaged that year and wanted a change. Shatec had offered me a training instructor role and my fiancee and I agreed that I should accept it. We got married the year after.
As an instructor, I truly enjoyed spending time with my students, but I still longed for the kitchen.
So, I sold homemade char siew tarts, cookies and fish stuffed with laksa paste on my off days.
I also created my own brand, FullCircle by J.man — a nickname Chef Rishi gave me. I found a business partner and left Shatec to set up FullCircle as a pop-up restaurant at Thye Hong Centre on Leng Kee Road. It operated from August 2022 to August 2023.
I was happy to showcase my own cooking style. But there were challenges — from staff shortages to poor sales because of our location. After a year, the partnership ended. I took a break to refresh myself mentally.
What I’ve learned from this experience is that it’s okay to fail and know when to stop. It was not an easy pill to swallow, but a necessary one.
Things are looking up. In November, I entered another tapas competition in Spain and placed fifth out of 16 international contestants.
In future, I plan on opening a Singapore-style tapas restaurant.
My parents are proud of my achievements, and they tell their friends about me. My wife has grown to understand and support my work. She’s the backbone of our family, taking care of our two-year-old boy on top of her job as a teacher.
I believe that to thrive in the F&B industry you must love both the good and bad. If you realise you only love cooking, then keep it as a hobby.
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Mr Jay Teo Junxiang, 33, is the owner of pop-up Asian cuisine brand FullCircle by J.man, which is currently on a hiatus, but has a pop-up event planned at the Arts House from Dec 21-23. He has worked in kitchens since the age of 16 and has been a professional chef for eight years.
If you have an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.