Landing her new role as Chef de Partie at Josh Emett’s acclaimed Madame Woo restaurant in Auckland is the latest step up in an exciting tour of work that has taken Tamara Johnson, ServiceIQ Apprentice Chef of the Year 2013, all the way from St Heliers Bay Café & Bistro, to Florida’s Hyatt Regency Hotel, and Food Co-ordinator on popular TV shows ‘My Kitchen Rules’ and ‘Masterchef’.
“Each job has had exciting aspects such as good pay, cooking for famous people and working with colleagues that are almost as passionate for food as I am,” says Tamara. “But my current job is the most exciting since graduating from my apprenticeship (in 2013).”
Customers dine on super stylish Malaysian Chinese cuisine at Madam Woo, where Tamara runs the steam and fried section; serving delicious dumplings, sui mai, satay chicken and crisp wontons.
“I love that it’s completely different cuisine and I am experiencing all new flavour combinations,” she says.
The bright, refreshing top notes of chilli and coriander, golden ginger and toasted coconut are a world away from the richer fare that Tamara created in the US, where she was an intern at the upscale Hyatt Regency Hotel in Orlando, Florida for five months.
“I learned how to make traditional sauces from scratch, cook the perfect porterhouse steak and I was introduced to amazing ingredients such as truffled formaggio imported from Italy, pumpkin lagers, yellow cauliflower and pencil asparagus,” she says.
The unique starter that Tamara created for the hotel’s Italian eatery was an irresistible pairing of ingredients so good that the creamy “burrata with kumquats, prosciutto, figs, fresh tatsoi, hazelnut and fennel dukkah, and balsamic reduction, became a hit with diners and every dish sold out that night”, says the young Kiwi chef.
She also worked in the pastry production kitchen “scooping kilos of cookie dough to baking trays of corn bread”, organising functions, plating up to 600 dishes a day for hotel conventions, and she did a stint in the hotels’ 24 hour diner.
“It was a learning experience that definitely helped me identify the path I want to go down,” says Tamara.
Back in Auckland, her career is really taking shape thanks to skills she gained at the start of her great adventure two years ago.
“My apprenticeship didn’t set me up for Madame Woo, but it definitely helped by getting that experience so early on in my career,” she says. “It has given me an advantage over someone who has walked fresh out of a cooking school. I would say that a chef is more likely to hire you based on your experience level in the kitchen over years in a classroom,” she says.
“Anyone can cook but to be a chef you have to want to live and breathe food. It’s not a job for the faint hearted. It is hard at times and you sacrifice a lot, but on the other hand it can also be very rewarding. If you are passionate, you will succeed in this field. It takes discipline, patience and perseverance. You can always get work experience in the trade, so what better way to find out if it’s the career for you.
“One of the most important things I have learnt over time is that you can’t take anything to heart said in the peak of service. Everyone is busy and all that matters is the food going out perfect every time. You need to let things go. There’s no point spending five hours of service dwelling on the fact that you didn't get enough colour on that fish skin, and Chef ripped you a new one for it. Just learn from it and move on. And do better than your best!
NB: In August 2016 Tamara was promoted to Head Chef at Madam Woo.
Find out more about ServiceIQ's Cookery qualification here.