Mbok Crystal

The first leg of my travels have officially concluded.

It’s unbelievable that after two months I could be so attached to a kitchen staff, but that’s the nature of a professional kitchen. When working under pressure with a group of people for ten hours a day, six days a week, a family forms. There’s no option but to be close to one another.

It’s as if I lived a full life in the span of two months. There were laughter and tears, happiness and disappointment. I attended a baby shower, and celebrated a marriage and birthday. I witnessed births (of baby chicks), cooed over pets and met significant others. There was endless teasing over boys (somehow even I became a victim), and provided sisterly advice on crushes. And what family would be complete without road trips to the beach and mountains?

Now that I think of it, I adopted a pack of little sisters and brothers, ages 17 to 28, when I came here. But really, they adopted me. To them, I am mbokolder sister.

As an older sister, one would think I should be setting an example or perhaps serve as inspiration for my little sisters and brothers, but that thought never crossed my mind early on. When I arrived, I thought it was me who would be receiving the guidance. That’s what I embarked on this journey for; to improve my own self. Midway through my stage, I realized I was very wrong, especially when I got to know one pastry cook in particular.

This cook is Indonesian and in her early twenties. She attended university on her home island and eventually moved to Bali to work at another well-regarded kitchen. Chef Will hired her because he has a strong desire to develop local talent instead of hiring foreigners with more experience. He wants to give these kids a fighting chance to become successful in their own country or beyond. Simply put, to give them options, because I learned that the odds are stacked against them.

From my observation, she is a special cook. Even though her experience hasn’t been extensive, her behavior is as such. Her ability to think and process through situations in a kitchen is a rare find, so I can see why Chef Will is rooting for her. As with all young cooks, she can learn to work faster, fine-tune basic techniques and be more aggressive, but that’s what staging in other kitchens is for. But for an Indonesian cook to develop serious skills in fine-dining, one must travel abroad to see how a world-renowned kitchen operates.

Ah, but that’s where the hurdles lay. In addition to finding a sponsor and taking a language proficiency test (in this case, English) to start the visa application, the biggest kicker has to be the financial one. The Indonesian government requires any citizen who wishes to travel abroad to have roughly $5,000 USD in his/her bank account before being allowed to leave. From what I understand, this is to encourage their return back to Indonesia. $5,000 isn’t exorbitant, but it is for Indonesians with meager wages.

Here is perspective. When I worked in New York City, I earned $10 an hour plus overtime, so in one day I would earn about $130 a day. Obviously a small, sad amount, considering I was also living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. But when the cooks here asked me how much I earned and I told them that number, their eyes opened wide. Not because it was so little, but because it was so much. What I earned in two days is what they earned in a month.

Granted, the cost of living here is very low, but to them it’s normal. There’s enough money for rent and transportation costs, but there is little disposable income. For most the point is moot, but for someone like this cook who wants to travel and learn outside her country, this is a major financial speed bump. I struggled plenty to save up enough money to travel, but I’m fortunate that the U.S. dollar can go a long way, especially in Southeast Asia; the Indonesian rupiah is clearly not as strong.

Then how is this cook to feel, knowing that the obstacle to leave is just half the battle? We are not paid as stagaires, so not only does she have to save to leave, she has to save to live. Cost of rent in Melbourne, Australia, where she plans to go later this year, could easily be 1,000 percent more than what she’s used to. If that isn’t a daunting prospect, I don’t know what is.

So what could I do, as an older sister? Short of handing over all my money, I thought the next best thing was to encourage and ready her as much as I had time to. I noticed the moments when she became apprehensive and doubted her abilities. Her English is also conversational at best and is very conscientious of it. But with someone of her potential, I didn’t want her to think that she could not overcome these obstacles. Difficult, but not impossible.

I started to correct her grammar and pushed her to practice English, instead of finding someone to translate. She may be shy with guests, but she didn’t have to be shy with me. I began to inform her of kitchen etiquette in other countries, like never leave sharp objects in the sink, and demonstrated how to properly hold a knife and position fingers while chopping. Anything that would make her better prepared.

And to prove I seriously believed in her, I gifted her a few of my tools before I left: a Sharpie, a mini rubber spatula and a Kuhn Rikon paring knife. Giving your tools to another cook—now that’s true love. But I willingly gave them to her so they could serve as a reminder of what’s to come and instill confidence within.

I expect to see her in Melbourne when I go there later in this trip.

So now I have to mentally file away the Bahasa I’ve learned, say my goodbyes and wear my traveling pants again. I’ll arrive in Hong Kong on Tuesday and I sense it’ll be a cultural slap in the face after the tranquility of Ubud. But always onwards. I’m ready for the next installment of my stages—Aberdeen Street Social with Chef Jessica Wu.

– C

Photo: My favorite view into the kitchen—through the pass.

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