Chef with a passion for pastries
by Chen Ai Shih
DATU Kiplee Ali Hassan became a pastry chef by chance.
When he finished secondary education in 1996, he worked part time in a hotel kitchen in Sabah while trying to look for a job. There, he was advised to take baking as a career.
The senior chef told him to seriously consider pursuing such a profession, saying he could become a professional. Later, the chef asked him to take up the job in the hotel full-time.
“So I didn’t look for other jobs but just stayed in the hotel, learning and working hard everyday. Life was difficult during those days because as an unskilled junior worker without any baking background, I did not get paid much.
“I had to do everything – from cleaning, baking to washing. I stayed up late to learn as much as I could. I also tried working late to earn overtime,” recalled Kiplee from Sandakan, Sabah.
The 36-year-old said he could not remember exactly how he made it through on a small salary. But hard work paid off and he was promoted from kitchen helper to commis three, then commis two.
A commis chef is basic chef in large kitchens who works under a chef de partie (station chef or line cook) to learn the station’s responsibilities and operations.
After working for several hotels in Sabah, Kiplee had a three-year stint (2002-5) as commis one at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
After that, he returned to Sabah and was hired by Sutera Harbour Hotel as chef de partie.
“I worked there for five years. I gained a lot of experience not only by making sure the food was good but also doing other duties such as paper work, monitoring the kitchen, outside kitchen operations, kitchen cleanliness and staff management,” he remembered.
In those days, he did not have much of a social life because he was working more than 12 hours a day.
During the peak season, he only slept a few hours.
“There will never be enough kitchen and restaurant staff during the peak season like festivals and school holidays. Everyone needs to help, regardless of rank,” he said.
According to him, it was not only about making good food but also organising and ensuring things went smoothly in and outside the kitchen for hotel functions, service in the coffeehouse and restaurant as well as catering.
“When there were many guests and functions, we rushed. It was the most stressful time and conflict could happen in the kitchen. Stressed out chefs could lose their cool and become emotional,” he explained.
His other tasks included keeping enough stocks and placing orders from the supplier.
He said sometimes, the supplier could take a long time to fulfill the orders, making life in the kitchen very difficult and sometimes, the wrong brands were sent over, making the food taste very different.
“Early preparation and planning are important. Stocks have to be checked one or even two months before festivals and holidays. We need to maintain the hotel’s standard. All these are challenges — keeping stocks, especially the seasonal ingredients, getting and meeting last-minute requests and many more.
“So, the chef has to be sensitive and creative in making changes to overcome all these unseen circumstances. If not, everything can get messed up and the workers will get stressed out too. What you watch on TV – like shouting and throwing things – can also happen in the kitchen when everyone is very busy.”
Kiplee started work as early as 6am and always finished late — about midnight.
“My home was the second home. My first home was the hotel. I only stayed at home a few hours to shower and sleep. I’m grateful my wife understands me and never complains I don’t have time for her and my children,” he said.
Although life was hectic and sometimes stressful, Kiplee enjoyed working in the hotel.
He was having fun talking to the staff and the guests and making great pastries.
“No matter how tired, how busy, as long as we enjoy what we do, we are willing to pay the price and sacrifice. That time, I always thought I would devote my life to working in a hotel,” he added.
Kiplee has come a long away since his kitchen-helper days, having worked in various hotels such as Shangrila’s Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa as well as Promenade Hotel, both in Kota Kinabalu, Grand Dorset Hotel in Labuan and Marriott Putrajaya in Kuala Lumpur.
He also lectured at a baking training college in Labuan.
“I’m thankful I was given the opportunity to start this career and stay in this line.
“I appreciate mine is a respectable and professional career. It is very rewarding too,” he said.
Today, he is the pastry chef of Sky Cafe by Mas Awana Catering, supplying food to Malaysia Airlines at Kuching International Airport.
He dreams of opening his own coffeehouse that serves his brand of Chef Kiplee’s special pastries.
He also likes to travel and visit bakeries and hotels in other countries.
“No matter where I work and what my position is, I will never stop making pastries,” he enthused.
To youngsters interested in this line, he advises them to be prepared to work hard and not give up.
“If you are really interested in hospitality, you must have passion, self-discipline, creativity and be willing to sacrifice.With these attributes, you can go far.
“It is important to be ready to accept that you have to work hard first. And don’t give up easily when troubles hit. I worked for 10 years to become a professional chef,” he said.