If you’re in Orchard anytime soon, you should make time for a meal at The Peranakan, a new retro-cute Straits Chinese restaurant the Claymore Connect. They do a mean tok panjang amid colorful wallpaper and old school furnishings. But perhaps the most charming part of the experience is the service. Chances are that you’ll be waited on by their Benny Choo and Kenny See, two silver-haired, super-polished waiters who have been in the F&B industry for almost 40 years. We were so charmed by their doting service and gentle humor, we sat them down for an interview. Here, they tell us about how they got started waiting tables, and what changes they’ve seen in the industry.
When did you get started in the F&B industry?
Benny: I started my career in F&B at a very young age of 18. I was living in Katong, and my first job was in Civic Hotel which is now closed. After my National Service, I worked in Hilton Hotel for about five years. Back then, we couldn’t immediately start as a waiter, not before being a houseman which meant that I had to carry and clean tables and chairs. I did stop for a while when I joined the fashion industry for 12 years to be a hairdresser, but I went back to F&B because meeting people and understanding cultures have always been appealing to me.
Kenny: I started working at that age too. After I joined the army, I went back to the hotel service again at Shang Ri La as a trainee waiter, or what we used to call the bus boy. So I would assist the waiters by cleaning up and following instructions; a buddy system that allowed me to learn from them and make their jobs easier at the same time. I love it because I love eating; it’s why I joined F&B in the first place. Drinking and eating, it’s on the house which meant that I could eat whatever I wanted and enjoy the dishes at the places I’ve worked at.
What are some challenges you’ve had to face when it comes to waiting tables?
Benny: When it comes to waiting tables, it depends on whether we’re running a full house. We usually serve them drinks at a waiting area while they wait for their tables or alternatively we would try to give them queue numbers.
Kenny: We’ve even had to prevent quarrels because of misunderstandings, so we’re caught in the middle because both sides are our customers. We would then encourage them to come to a level of understanding to compromise because they are after all our customers.
What is your favorite Peranakan dish?
Kenny: My favorite Peranakan dish is babi pongteh [stewed pork with fermented soya bean] but for someone of my age, I try not to eat it so much because of the cholesterol but once in a blue moon, I’ll treat myself to one or two pieces.
Benny: For me, it’s the satay babi which I shouldn’t be having at my age too because of how unhealthy it is but it’s my favorite. The assam fish head is also another favorite of mine, I usually don’t like fish but it is because of how the fish is cooked for a very long time making it melt in the mouth when you eat it.
What about F&B service do you enjoy the most?
Kenny: I love serving people, young or old because I’ve always had a passion for it.
Benny: It’s the same for me because I wouldn’t be here till I’m 60. I love getting to meet and interact with different kinds of people from around the world especially when you work in areas near hotels. At the end of the day, many of them actually end up being good friends of mine and regular customers. Many of them have helped to open up my knowledge on various cultures and that’s what makes it so interesting for me.
Do you have any fond memories that have stuck with you?
Benny: My fondest memories are ones that take me back to the hotel days because of the way we were trained. The strong push is not the way it is now since the late 60s and 70s.
Kenny: My good memories are the ones I had overseas when I went to Mongolia to work with the locals there but it was difficult because they didn’t understand us and our requirements. We were more like policemen than managers so we had to constantly check on them which made it hard and challenging. It was very satisfying when we would get news that they’d been promoted. It made us happy to have achieved something and contributed to their learning. I had to also be very patient because of the difference in culture.
How has the F&B restaurant scene changed over the years?
Benny: You don’t get very authentic food nowadays. It’s not like how Japanese cuisine would mean sushi. Now, you get fusion and it’s more diversified as compared to the traditional and typical dishes last time. To them, they’re making a new creation but to me, it’s mixing it with something off from tradition. I prefer the authentic dishes which is exactly why we like working here.
How has the customer-restaurant relationship changed?
Benny: Times have changed and so has our culture. You’ll find the general people are much more understanding and adapting, it’s only a certain group with the money to spend who will never out rightly say that the food is nice. They will constantly compare you to others and when they go elsewhere, they do the same. There is definitely less tipping now compared to the past when the salary we’d get would be more than our normal salary. I think in the past, generous tipping was a tradition carried forward from the times when we were under the British colony, so it was a natural thing even when service charge had already existed then.