Tipsy Boar: Unseen, unsmelled, untasted complications for chefs behind the scenes

July 6, 2020

Suren Krishnan, chef-founder of PJ's Tipsy Boar, has worked in restaurants since he was a teenager. He can complete familiar tasks in the kitchen blindfolded - but in some ways, wearing a mask over his mouth and nose is an even bigger challenge.

Masks are "a necessity now, but they hinder the cooking process," Suren acknowledges. "As chefs, smelling and tasting are your key senses that you use to cook."

By now, restaurant customers are accustomed to seeing servers in masks. But they might not realise how the strict yet unavoidable safety protocols have dramatically complicated the work of cooks and even hampered the training of young culinary talents.

Image of Tipsy Boar's team is from 2019.

Health and hygiene have always been paramount at responsible restaurants - so in some respects, the new operational standards are barely a blip on the kitchen's radar. Disciplined workers have positive habits ingrained, knowing to don gloves, especially while handling raw produce, and wash their hands constantly. Checking temperatures and logging information is merely a minor pit stop en route to food preparation.

Masks, however, have more practical consequences, torpedoing the sense of smell.

Suren is particular about how his dishes smell, a facet beyond aesthetics, taste or texture - for him, this is an essential component of the customer's experience. “There are a few things we smell to sign off on them, like sauces in general. As you prepare the recipes day-in and day-out over the years, you get automated - your body knows what to do and what to expect and how things taste, but you still need that final check of the smell, because that’s what the customers are going to smell. 

"For many sauces and roast meats, we need to smell them to make sure they're alright," he says. "You have to pull the mask down for a quick second to smell them before putting it back on.”

His favourite scent in the kitchen is the sauce for his char-grilled ribs, one of Tipsy Boar's many porcine pleasures. “We have a lot of components in there. Sweet, spicy, sour, and lots of smoky wood elements that need to come through. That’s something I like to check on."

To reduce risks, Tipsy Boar has curbed the number of crew members permitted to taste dishes before they're sent out to customers. Only Suren, his sous chef, or his chef de partie can now perform this task, which means junior cooks have fewer opportunities to learn from this experience.

“Toward the end of finishing the recipe, you have to taste and adjust as necessary - that’s where the cook’s intuition comes in," Suren says. 

"Our younger cooks were previously allowed to develop their skills by training to always taste, to taste as much as they can. But now, they only follow the recipe to the end and then call me or a senior chef to taste it. 

"For the elder cooks like me, a lot of things are second nature - we can tell a lot by visuals or sound, even before something reaches our tongues. We have a big responsibility to pass on this knowledge to the younger chefs, so that they can do it themselves."

Communication is also more complex because of masks, posing problems for teamwork. 

“We're pretty much muffled," Suren says. "Usually, I’m pretty vocal in the kitchen. One of the key things in our kitchen is, we talk constantly. We make decisions about dishes on the spot. We're not a franchise where everything is automated. 

"If the restaurant is full, the chef has to bark out orders to make sure everyone is aware. Not every cooking station in our kitchen has a ticketing printer or tablet. Sometimes, if I'm free, I'll go station-by-station, to make sure everyone's aware of what must be done."

And of course, masks make breathing less comfortable - but this is magnified in a stifling kitchen. “It’s hot," Suren says. "You try to do everything without taking your mask off, but it gets humid. Our kitchen is fairly cooling, so it's not too bad. For kitchens without air-conditioning, their teams are probably suffering."

The toughest S.O.P. is social distancing. Staying six feet apart in a kitchen crammed with equipment is a stretch for most restaurants.

“It’s pretty much impossible," Suren says. "We had a discussion and decided we can’t deliver on that. The kitchen's a small space and the staff is constantly walking to and fro. If we can keep our distance, we keep our distance. 

"During busy times, we have to walk past each other while not standing shoulder to shoulder. When you have to walk past someone or if you need to go to another station to talk about something, you will come into close proximity.”

Ultimately, veteran chefs like Suren believe they've done their best to navigate these new intricacies.

“From the patron's point of view, we want them to feel safe, to come into our establishments to dine," he says. "As a chef, I can perform better without these measures, but I understand why we need them, to make sure we can protect ourselves."

Reporting by EDKL writer Aiman Azri. Interview excerpts were edited for brevity. Images are courtesy of Tipsy Boar.

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This is the 19th part in our series on how people in Malaysian restaurants, cafes and bars are confronting their current challenges.

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