Yorkshire has produced some darned good cooks down the years. Brian Turner, James Martin, er.. me. But one of the most traveled and seasoned has to be Mike Saxon, author of the new book, Chef’s Tales. Now the name may not be familiar to you for a very good reason, he left the UK in his teens and I seriously doubt he has ever looked back.
Mike’s adventures took him to the four corners of the earth, Toronto, the Bahamas, the Philippines and Malaysia to name but a few. Finally at long last he has found time to sit down and write his stories.
Whether he as delivering room service to naked people in Toronto, coming face to face with huge rats in Barbados or dodging bullets in Houston, Mike’s job was never dull. He met weird and wonderful figures as the mysterious Mr Teppinyaki. Then there was the fearsome French chef who would chase people around the kitchen with meat cleavers. And a whole cast of mentalists who, in spite or because of their antics, produced the best food you will ever taste.
On his days off he has hunted and fished in deepest darkest Canada among the bears, walked the Great Wall of China, and partied like Dionysus. He has sunbathed with Playboy models (presumably on his front), eaten in jaw droppingly dirty Hong Kong street cafes, and had near death experiences being chauffeured by nudist taxi drivers.
So I finally got hold of this Malaysia-based individual for a chat:
My current position is the “Director of the Hospitality & Lifestyle Division” which comes with the additional title of the “CEO Of Delicious Group of restaurants” both these portfolios are for the Eastern & Oriental Group. I have just accepted this position 2 months ago after being promoted from the position of GM of the EOH Hotel in Penang.
I have currently about 1,000 employees who work with me and which I feel a great responsibility to ensure they are well taken care of in regards to all aspects, especially their personal finances, their health and their career development. Ensuring they are working happy is also one of my biggest dreams that drives me everyday which and will hopefully help me to succeed in my responsibilities and tasks.
I am responsible for the financial performance of both the 125 year old Heritage E&O Hotel and the heritage boutique Lone Line hotel on Batu Ferringhi beach. The Eastern & Oriental Hotel fondly known as the E&O was owned by the same family who also built and owned the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. We also build and manage luxury property developments for which I also take overall responsibility. When these 5* developments are completed and occupied, to ensure that all buyers and residents alike get to witness and enjoy the overall E&O Hospitality and lifestyle trademark personal and 5* services.
Of all the chefs you have worked with, who inspired you the most?
I have to be very honest that I am not too fond of the TV chefs who shout, swear, belittle and abuse other human beings to increase ratings. It is my personal view that to make them selves more famous they paint a very bad picture of uneducated and uncouth chefs working in the tourism industry. This puts young people considering a life in the hospitality industry off, we are always complaining concerning the lack of young enthusiasm but kick them in the backside with a size 10 safety shoe the second they walk through the back door of the hotel and are unbelievably surprised when they walk right back out never to be seen again.
I once worked with a chef in Hong Kong whom taught me humility, he taught me how to be honorable and fair and he taught me that deep down that all people no matter how tough the exterior are deep down inside ultimately fragile. He taught me to never think I was any better that the kitchen dish washer, as for without him I would have to wash the dishes myself. He taught me that everyone in the kitchen is of equal importance, a well oiled and vulnerable machine and without you having these basic beliefs you are sure doomed to fail. I have sharpened my people’s skills to ensure that I motivate my people with psychological tools and never with a stick as, I can even today clearly remember being abused when I started out as a chef at 16. The day I have to behave like a Neanderthal is the day I will instantly retire, hang up my gear and walk away.
Did you see much of your family during your international journey?
I left home in 1978 after promising my parents to only stay away for an initial 6 months period and went to live in Canada with 300 pounds sterling in my pocket. I have never been back since other than a yearly 2 weeks holiday to ensure my parents are aright and that they are well taken care of. I am now married to my wonderful Malaysian soul mate from Sabah in Borneo and we have 2 lovely daughters aged 10 and 4. Now that I am almost 51 years old I have calculated to ensure my girls get the great education that I have promised them, that is my responsibility to deliver and for which they definitely deserve, I have now calculated that I have to work until I am 102. However I shall still keep going back to Harrogate one a year as I am proud of where I come from and love my parents dearly.
Why did you pick Malaysia to settle?
I have lived and worked in 9 different countries so far and visited many more. They all have good points and bad points and I guess the idea like everything is to try and choose the country with the least bad points and the country with the most best points. Malaysia is clean, affordable, and stable with loving people of different cultures that live in harmony which made the decision to stay here a no brainer. The fact that I have a wife and 2 daughters living with me in my house and would kill me if I asked to move has nothing to do with it.
Give me a good disaster story?
I was working for a top 5* hotel in the Bahamas and we had been working on a buffet for 1,200 VIP’S whom had flown in from Miami for a trip of a lifetime and we were challenged to give them a dinner they would surely never forget. 30 minutes before they were supposed to arrive, a chef ran around the fully presented and uncovered food items laid out on the huge buffet table and sprayed the entire spread emptying a whole can of bug spray. Everything had to be thrown away and we barely made the buffet presentable with the back up food from the kitchen before the guests arrived. Half way through of course we had to replace the original menu items with what ever we had in the fridge. Hardly the original hard worked, well planned and impeccably delivered master piece, but we at least got them fed. I heard later that the VIP’S had told our General Manager that they had indeed had a dinner that they would never forget, and also I heard that the chef had been committed to the local mental hospital suffering from a nervous breakdown; we all nearly had one as well!
Do you have any advice for the next generation of chefs?
Use cook books to get you started but them improve yourself by cooking with one very secret ingredient… your heart.
The profession of a chef is a challenging one but offers opportunities that are beyond your wildest dreams. Recently, over lunch with a friend who’s in the hospitality training line, we were lamenting the difficulties of getting young people to commit themselves to the hospitality industry. With Malaysia hoping to welcome 24 million tourists this year, (which should generate at least RM26 billion in revenue), securing a good reputation for service, safety, food quality and tourist appreciation has to be our top priority. Towards this end, I am thinking that the hotel industry should do more to make itself attractive to prospective employees. It is only by attracting young, energetic and intelligent people who are dedicated to the hospitality business that we can hope to improve the overall tourism industry.
Well, I always wanted to be a chef. Just the thought of having the opportunity to make people happy with a great dining experience – one that they would remember forever – made it the easiest career choice for me to make. A few hoteliers have taught me that this business chooses you and when you embrace it, you will banish the thought of considering the other professions you had initially tried. To remain in this demanding industry, the passion for it has to be in your blood but the hospitality line is a challenging one which offers immensely rewarding careers.
International travelled chefs are people who have much better interpersonal and problem-solving skills because of their exposure to people from different backgrounds, from around the world. The hotel industry will give you a sense of being that no other profession could; it will help you travel the world, mature in every way humanly possible and send your self-confidence soaring to rare heights. The hotel business will offer you opportunities that are beyond even your wildest dreams. When your chance to join it comes, grab it by the horns and never look back as you will be on the path to fulfillment. Very few professions will ever afford you the sense of fulfillment that you will get from the hotel business.
Mike’s book is available via Amazon.co.uk