From Culinary School to Odette, and Back to School
CIA Singapore alumna Elaine Koh returns to her alma mater to groom Singapore’s future culinary professionals.
After eight years working in Singapore’s finest kitchens, Culinary Institute of America (CIA) Singapore alumna Elaine Koh returns to her alma mater. Now, she is vested in grooming Singapore’s future culinary professionals.
Whether it was cookies or cakes, Elaine would grab any chance she could get to whip up one of her creations for her family and friends on their birthdays, or just about any special occasion.
When she started cooking, Jamie Oliver was one of her favourite go-to chefs because his recipes were simple enough for her to experiment with. She would also browse through food magazines to further immerse herself in the culinary world.
She was halfway through her diploma programme when Elaine realised that her heart was set on working in the kitchen. So, she started her research on various culinary schools. However, she only found short-term diploma programmes or courses by private culinary schools, which did not appeal to her desire to pursue a university degree.
Then, she heard the news that the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) was coming to Singapore.
“It was a stroke of luck that the Singapore Institute of Technology (SIT) was bringing the CIA to Singapore,” said Elaine, who was then a fresh polytechnic graduate.
As one of the world’s premier colleges, CIA offers a renowned culinary degree programme for students who want to develop their culinary skills. Through a partnership with SIT, CIA opened its first international campus in Singapore, which allowed Elaine to take her first steps into the world of professional cooking.
Although she was part of the pioneer batch of CIA students, Elaine had no hesitation or doubts. She was simply excited and happy to be enrolled in a culinary school to pursue a university degree.
Working With the Best
As part of the school curriculum, Elaine was required to complete seven hours in the kitchen, followed by four hours of study for her academic modules. It was gruelling work but it helped her with the transition to restaurant kitchens, where long hours are the norm.
Pollen, a restaurant located at Gardens by the Bay, was the first professional kitchen Elaine worked at. As an intern, she completed job rotatations as garde manger − a cold food station − and a cook at the meat station, where she cooked meats over a Josper grill. It was fast-paced work.
“In school I learnt to cook one steak at a time, but at work I had to handle 10 orders simultaneously. It was a learning experience I could only get in a professional kitchen,” she said.
She has also worked in The Dempsey Cookhouse and Bar, which offers Asian-inspired European fare. On average, the restaurant could serve up to 120 diners a night per sitting. “I’ll always remember being drenched in sweat by the end of the night,” she shared.
Elaine also had the privilege of working under Chef Julien Royer in Odette, which was then ranked eighth on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. As a member of the team that launched the restaurant, she was elated when Odette won two Michelin stars in the first year it opened.
The main difference between a casual and fine dining setting, she revealed, lies in the use of tweezers to plate food.
“Let’s say you order a steak at a casual dining restaurant, your steak might be served with a sauce, maybe a side, and that’s really about it. When you go to a fine dining restaurant, you will be served an eight to 10-course meal, and everything will be intricately plated. There’s a lot of finesse that goes into it,” she added.
From Kitchen to Classroom
With eight years of experience under her belt, Elaine’s extensive skill set drew the attention of Chef Eve Felder, Managing Director of CIA, who happened to be on the lookout for an instructor for the school.
“At CIA, we hire professionals, and not purely teachers, because we need people who are at the top of their game, those individuals who have had a progressive career path,” shared Chef Felder.
Elaine Koh (right) pictured with Chef Eve Felder, Managing Director, CIA Singapore, who was instrumental in her culinary journey and return to the renowned culinary academy.
Truth be told, Elaine never expected to venture into teaching. She had grown accustomed to the hectic environment of the kitchen and wondered if she had the patience to be a teacher. However, the unwavering support she received from her family eventually made her decide to make the switch.
Having completed her first year of teaching at CIA in September 2020, the journey has been a two-way learning experience for both Elaine and her students.
“Some people say that teaching is the end of your culinary journey but that’s not true. You’re still pushing the boundaries, but you’re pushing it together with your students.” she shared.
Teaching in a school kitchen gives Elaine the chance to use her creativity, and undoubtedly, the opportunity to still learn something new every day.
Chef Elaine Koh finds the bustle of the Temasek Culinary Academy classroom just as intense as the kitchens in top-tier restaurants.