CHEF KK KONG: FROM FAILING HIS N-LEVELS TO BECOMING A MASTER CHEF COMPETING AT THE OLYMPICS FOR COOKING
The Executive Chef at Sentosa Golf Club reflects upon his journey that sees him pursuing his culinary passion as a full-time cook and world-level competitor.
“When I failed my N-Levels, I asked myself, ‘What can I do to earn a living and not go hungry?’ I didn’t dream big; my academic background was not that great. I was 17 and the only thing I thought about was basic survival.
I was fortunate enough because SHATEC (Singapore Hotel and Tourism Education Centre) accepted me. So in 1993, I enrolled after dropping out of secondary school. I have to be honest. I had absolutely zero interest in cooking. No passion at all. I simply went down a path that will ensure I never go hungry.
What eventually sparked that fire in me was a passion for competition. There were many people around me competing in various culinary events. I wanted to compete like the professionals, but I was only an apprentice during my two-year programme at SHATEC.
An executive chef told me to build my foundation first, and that was the beginning of how my kitchen and competition life came together. I was doing an internship at Raffles Hotel at the time, and I’d work my regular hours in the morning and practise on my own time at night.
Over the years, as I hopped from one restaurant to the next, trying to gain experience as a young chef, I was also working hard to join the Singapore National Culinary Team. It was a tough journey which required a lot of sacrifice, but I eventually became a core member.
Fast-forward to today, I’ve been in the F&B industry for 28 years. I’m the Executive Chef at Sentosa Golf Club (SGC), and I’ve been competing as a core member of the National Culinary Team for eight years. I currently lead the national team as the team manager.
I’ve competed at the Culinary World Cup, one of the top events in the culinary world. My most memorable competition was the 2018 World Cup in Luxembourg. It was the most memorable, and the most heartbreaking.
We had to cook a three-course meal from scratch for 110 people, 10 of whom were anonymous judges. Everything went well, our plating was nice, but our only shortcoming was we were a little slower in serving. We lost to Sweden by 0.9 points and came in second.
When I went up the stage to get the prize for first runner-up, I teared. I called Andrew (Andy) Johnston, SGC's General Manager, to apologise for not bringing back the cup. But next year, I’m going back to redeem myself. It will probably be my last one because I’m getting older. I’ve had a good run.
None of these would be possible without the support of Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC), SGC and Andy. I’ve worked here for four years, and it’s easy to see why there are many people who’ve worked here for more than 10 years.
With consent and support from SGC & SDC, Andy did a fundraising dinner for the National Team at the SGC Clubhouse, just before the last World Cup. The national team boys came down to cook for 15 tables and all ticket sales went to us as part of our food ingredient sponsorship.
Looking back upon my journey, I cannot help but feel proud of what I’ve achieved. I started out as a school dropout. But now, I have a Diploma in F&B, I’m a certified Master Chef, and I’m also the Executive Chef at Sentosa Golf Club. That puts a smile on my face.
I used to have no passion for cooking. But now, I think that someone who cooks for a living, will ultimately just cook for a living. Someone who cooks with passion and feeling, however, will be able to raise his passion and everyone around him to another level.” - Chef KK Kong, 45
By Arman Shah
Arman Shah is a former travel writer with fond memories of solo adventures in Southeast Asia. His work has appeared in print and online in publications such as Expat Living Singapore, AsiaRooms.com, SG Magazine, and HungryGoWhere.com among others. He now manages The Everyday People, a website featuring people stories and lifestyle content.