If you’re into Sunday brunches, you would probably be familiar with PS Cafe. They’re most known for their swanky (and very Instagram-able) outlet at Harding Road, Dempsey, and for popularising truffle fries.
And although most millennials frequenting the cafes may not know, PS Cafe first started in 1999 as a cosy cafe within Projectshop, a now-closed clothing store. In its heyday, Projectshop had 15 outlets islandwide, but it eventually succumbed to the pressures of the Asian financial crisis in 1997. But instead of closing the entire business for good, they decided to only give up the fashion arm and focus on food.
And oh, how things have taken off: PS Cafe now has 10 restaurants islandwide, and 2 outlets overseas in Shanghai and Seoul.
In this episode, Matthew tells us about his unconventional journey thus far, and how he ended up helming the kitchens at one of Singapore’s trendiest F&B chains, PS Cafe.
5 Career lessons from Matthew Wan, head chef of PS Cafe
Here are 5 career tips we can learn from Matthew’s career journey.
1. You don’t have to get it right the first time.
Yup, the successful chef did not start his career in the kitchens.
Matthew actually graduated with a business management degree, and spent his first 2 years in advertising.
“I did that [advertising] for 2 years and realised it wasn’t for me,” says Matthew. “But when I was here [in Singapore] and while I was studying in Australia, I realised I like to cook.”
With that, Matthew left the industry and went back to Australia for culinary school. He graduated again at 26 years old and rejoined the workforce at 27 doing what he loves.
There’s a lot of pressure on fresh grads to get it right the first time, but few realise that many successful people end up in careers that have nothing to do with what they studied in school.
Try your best and pick your first job wisely, but if you later decide that it’s not what you want, don’t be afraid to start afresh. It’s better to make a u-turn than to continue towards a dead end.
Of course, not everyone can afford to switch lanes on a whim. Financially, you may have to deal with things like short-term unemployment or a pay cut, which can prove inconvenient. Unless you are Singaporean and can claim the fees under the SkillsFuture programme, upskilling can be expensive. At institutes of higher learning, even the entry-level courses cost a few hundred bucks.
If you’re not sure where to begin and need help, you may want to consider consulting a professional. It would be helpful to discuss your situation with a career counsellor to work out your career goals and source for opportunities. Private ones can be costly ($180 to $200 per session), but WSG offers free career matching services, which include career coaching.
2. You can turn your hobby into your career.
As Matthew found, sometimes finding your “calling” is as easy as pursuing your interests. “[It was] probably a very naive way of thinking of what I wanted to do next in my career, but I decided I would go back to Australia, to culinary school,” says Matthew.
Of course, there was no real way Matthew (or anyone, for that matter) could know if his career as a chef would take off. All he knew was that he didn’t enjoy what he was doing, and he wanted to change that, so he took a leap of faith. Luckily, it paid off.
Matthew’s career shift is quite a unique one, but even for those considering a less dramatic switch, the inertia to move can be quite high. After all, it can be very intimidating to “throw away” years of experience and be “the newbie” again.
WSG Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP) for Individuals
If you can relate, you can consider checking out Workforce Singapore’s Professional Conversion Programmes (PCP) for Individuals, which provide opportunities for job placements and attachments in new industries.
There’s also funding support, which is especially important for “mid-career switchers” who already have financial commitments like a mortgage, family dependents, and etc. Depending on whether you choose the Place-and-Train or Attach-and-Train schemes, you will be paid either a monthly salary or have your training course fees subsidised.
3. It’s never too late to pursue your passion.
As mentioned, Matthew graduated again at 26 years old, and was 6 years behind his peers when he started working again.
He admits that it wasn’t easy: “It’s a bit of a challenge when you’re coming in at 27, and the people above you are 21 to 22 years old. You have to kind of swallow your pride a little bit.”
But instead of being discouraged, he saw it as motivation to work even harder and clock extra hours to keep up.
He says, “For me, time was of the essence. I was determined to learn as much as I could in as short a time as I could. When I was meant to come in at 3pm for work, I would come in at 12pm to help anyone who needed it.”
So yes, the Chinese proverb was right in that it really is never too late to pursue your passion… but only as long as you are prepared to work doubly hard to make up for lost time.
4. Don’t be too proud to do the “dirty work”.
No doubt there was an element of luck in the mix, but more importantly, it was Matthew’s hard work that played a bigger part in his success. “Working hard” includes being prepared to take on the “dirty work”.
“When you watch shows like MasterChef, it all looks very fun and glamorous. But there is nothing glamorous in the beginning years of being a chef.
A lot of people who go into culinary school these days don’t know the reality of being a chef. Being a chef requires years of grind. You’re constantly doing a lot of unpleasant jobs that are necessary to the operations of the restaurant,” says Matthew.
Although especially relevant for the F&B industry, this lesson can be applied to any kind of work. Whether it’s chopping veggies in the kitchen or filing tedious paperwork in the office, the worst thing to do is snub your boss and say, “that’s not my job”.
Not only do you give up an opportunity to learn and leave a good impression, do it often enough and you’ll earn a reputation as someone who’s very unwilling to go above and beyond.
5. Job titles don’t always matter, it’s the work you do that does.
The last key takeaway is that job titles don’t always matter — every company has a different way of doing things, so when looking for opportunities, don’t be too fixated on getting a “senior” or “manager” role. Sometimes, all it is is an inflated title.
And other times, it is the exact opposite. Take PS Cafe for example:
Usually, the head chef oversees a single kitchen (or restaurant) and is supported by a sous chef, who is the second in charge.
But at PS Cafe, the sous chefs work as head chefs — they are “like small business owners” who are in charge of the success or failure of their respective outlets.
In the same way, although Matthew’s title is head chef, he actually takes on more of an executive chef role.
“We step up the roles a little bit, so I am actually almost like an executive chef. As the head chef (at PS Cafe), I oversee the operations at the outlet level. I help to make sure that everything is running smoothly, I create new dishes to help boost their sales… things like that,” says Matthew.
What do you think of Matthew’s story? Tell us in the comments below.