Chef talk: Hilton Port Moresby beckoned
The new Hilton Port Moresby was opening, and Paul Foreman, Consultant chef and Black Box Kitchen king, and Kirsten Bacon, pastry chef and teacher at Elizabeth College, have just returned from a gig in Papua New Guinea.
Was it wild? “Yeah!” Was it rewarding? “Double yeah!” This was a big gig, and included so many memorable life lessons and experiences for both Paul and Kirsten.
For such a big hotel chain, opening the Hilton Port Moresby in time for the huge Asia/Pacific conference and getting the staff ready for an influx of international dignitaries was a big ask. Paul and Kirsten were up for it, and curious to see the land that’s been so under the radar for so long. Vertiginous green landscapes are just the beginning. Read on for how it played out:
Paul Foreman (in the transcript as PF)
And Kirsten Bacon (KB)
PF: Paul Brown contacted me about 3 months prior – he’s been working in the Asia/Pacific region for over 15 years and is an expat Taswegian. He had just become Executive Chef of the new Star Mountain Hilton Port Moresby, and it was opening up in mid October. With such a big new property, he offered me a consultancy to help him get the kitchen up and running.
I had to assess everything, then thought of Kirsten – she was a perfect fit, coming from a teaching role, to a training role to support all the new staff up there, so to complement me and my experience, it was a good mix.
We got visas sorted, and Paul Brown sent us videos showing us through the kitchens via video messenger, and we thought, “Holy shit, this is a monster!” Then we started researching PNG before we went. We found out all these warnings, security issues, and it appears to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world. It’s so under the radar – I was seeing coconut palms, beach and water, and there’s no real information on what it’s actually like to live and work there. But we bit the bullet and headed north. I guess at the end of the day, we were keen to help Paul and keen for the challenge.
When we got there, the Hilton wasn’t ready for guests yet and so we stayed at The Holiday Inn. We were shocked that even though it was only 200 metres away, we had to be bussed there and bussed home. The central locking went on immediately once we got in the car and we noticed there is a rapid response button for car–jacking. On top of that, the windows are all blacked out so the rascals can’t see what’s in the car.
KB: It’s definitely a different way of life, living the life of an expat, given thatyou’re working with the same people everyday and often living in a compound together or very close. It has its ups and downs I’m sure. Simple things like If you need to get groceries, you have to take a group or security. This was to the local supermarket even!
Once we’d established ourselves, and remember this was a culture shock for both of us, we met some amazing Papuans. The kindness and generosity they showed us was incredible, but we were challenged by the inequality of pay – the locals are on very low wages – about $2.40 – $4.20 an hour, but I guess then they (the Hilton company) can employ more people. It was interesting to note that even though wages were low, the cost of living is quite high, so life can be a struggle.
Some of the highlights for us was the Hilton as a company – they provided complimentary meals every day and free post mix for the staff – and it was very generous, The meals were high quality and plentiful, so I guess that ameliorates the low wages to some extent.
PF: A little bit of expenditure to keep your staff happy will totally outweigh losing staff and having to rehire and retrain, won’t it? It just makes such economic sense to me to invest a little in providing better conditions for your staff in the first place. The Hilton showed they invest in their staff, with progressive training for all staff.
KB:The biggest challenge was doing an audit on what the staff knew – they didn’t have the skills they needed for a Hilton. Their training had been way below what they were going to need to step up to a 5 star property, so both Paul and I had to be across what they actually knew, and what we needed to do to support them so they were set up for success, not failure. That was our main concern really.
PF: Basic skills such as making a stock were missing but they were really keen to learn. There’s no such word as millennial over there – there were no expectations. They were so happy to be part of something so big and exciting so they would do whatever it took. That’s attitude you can work with and it’s a pleasure. I found this extremely rewarding and appreciated the staff’s interest.
KB: Meeting the locals and working with them was incredible. So many stories I could tell you. Benny will always stand out to me as an incredible staff member. We did a food safety training session and after all the staff had left, Benny came up to me weeping. I was shocked, and worried, until he told me that he had to leave school so very young and this had been his first opportunity to learn something in a class – well for him, it was overwhelming. When we left, the gratitude was incredible. This trip has been life changing and the memories and people will be with me for the rest of my life.
PF: It’s a burgeoning culture – they don’t have much, and whatever they get is anamazing experience for them and they’re grateful, so grateful. And unfortunately we’ve lost that. It goes back to gratitude. When I got my apprenticeship I was so incredibly pumped. Now, for many graduates, it’s like ‘meh’! How can we get that enthusiasm back? That appreciation?
KB: I’ll never forget that every morning, we were greeted in Pidgin with “Morning chef.” We picked up their greeting, “Gutpela” for good morning, (literally means ‘good fella’). And there were Paul’s all over the place it was very funny. I came to be known as Paulie… a nickname the General Manager of the Hilton gave me, just to keep with the flow.
PF: For the two Aussie expats who were left, it was incredibly challenging. You know it’s like if you take the crutches away you have to walk – Kirsten was the left I was the right. It’s sort of taken me about two weeks to wean out of some of the wonderful habits I picked up there. If I smile at you, a stranger in the street , then don’t think I’m being weird. It’s what you do there. So we brought something back with us as well, as well as some fantastic memories. When we left we felt we had given them something solid and tools to go forward with. It was so satisfying, to arrive to an almost blank slate and leave them with skills that would make them shine and feel confident.
KB: I found it a very male dominated society and in the kitchen it was often tricky as it was unusual for men to take instructions from a female. This was just one of the cultural challenges you are faced with. Thankfully I had Paul always there backing me up so it made it easier. Every day, someone would bring me a gift in. I think it was partially because my relationship with the women and our conversations while in the kitchen gave us a connection. Not just as cooks in a kitchen, but as mothers, wives and sisters in the world. I still have conversations with them via email and Facebook. One must remember in Papua New Guinea it, is still a very unsafe place for women, whether they be tourists or locals.
I had an incident in that one of the men kept referring to Paul for confirmation of my teaching. It’s a very patriarchal society – the women are qualified, but the hierarchy stands as it’s who’s the oldest who reigns, or they’re a male or it can be age based. That took some understanding for me not to get upset – just to accept that their cultural mores are thousands of years old and are very strong.
So for the women, they were so happy to have a woman in a responsible role that they could aim or identify with. I valued them as much as the men, so they would bring me in a gift. I saw the help as minimal, but to them it was something really big. With Paul, they loved being shown how to create great dishes, and were thrilled at their new knowledge.
PF: Kirsten and I were lucky that we did meet up with one family who got her husband and brother (both called Tom!) who hired a van for us – and drove us through areas – six mile and nine mile – which were very third world, to go up into the mountains. We saw a very tiny market, which was minimal but incredible to see the fresh produce they were selling and then onto to see the dam (Sirinumu Dam). It was opened in 1963 as their first hydroelectric power supply and the highlands were flooded so there’s houses there still under water. The dam supplies Moresby, and near there we saw the start of the Kokoda Trail. It can be a scary place, because there’s still tribal law there, but also exquisitely beautiful.
Another highlight while there, was we got to meet Mike Schueman (part of the chefs association, and going to open a food van in the Philippines) who’s a friend of Andre Kropp (Wrest Point Executive Chef). Mike took us to a five star restaurant, The Stanley, which was incredible, he was so gracious and the food was outstanding.
KB: Where the Hilton is, it’s right in Port Moresby, and that is so central. Paul and I would love to go back at some stage and reconnect with the people and see how Paul is going or maybe do some more training or something. The General Manager is Australian and committed to employing the locals which is wonderful. Paul Brown particularly is committed to ensuring the kitchen is run by the Papua New Guinea people. In his words, “I want you guys to be running this place in your country,“ and he is very committed to that. He and his colleague Paul Fenton (yes another Paul) both have a strong sense of commitment to what they are doing.
PF: What did I get from that, that I would pass on?
Go and work in a different country. See what people have and don’t have. It challenges, but enriches and teaches gratitude and community, empowerment, and life’s values. It was the same as Bali, but in Bali you didn’t have the violence and the threat of danger just walking down the street.
And the people may be poor, but they were happy and full of pride. They were so well dressed and well groomed – they could have come from shanties but were very proud of their positions.
KB: Part of my ‘thing’ was to put motivational messages up all round the kitchen – the walls were all whiteboard so we used them to write the menus on them and messages all over. The collegiality was strong with all the other chefs and management. In any sort of teaching role you need empathy and patience, and at times it was hard work. But if you’re young and single, it can be a fantastic opportunity. You learn to understand the East meets West dynamic which can be difficult and confronting. It is a constant question, “How do I make this work?”
PF: When we first got into the kitchen we had 32 going through the process or organising the brigade, so I clapped my hands together, said “Right”, and they stared at me blankly. I knew instantly this was going to be no ordinary job, and we’d have to be agile and inventive. What I did notice was how keen they were to learn and me from them just as much. On one of the days they cooked local food and it was amazing. It was so very different but perfect for their restaurant MUMU which focuses on the indigenous food of the country.
KB: For both Paul and me, it was learning how to speak to people that have English as a second language and acknowledging that comprehension isn’t always there, trying to find strategies that allowed for lapses in comprehension and understanding. From a training perspective, it was all about building those bridges and ushering them across with me. It was exhausting, challenging, and worth every single minute. I know we left them better off than when we arrived, and now Paul Brown will follow on the lessons so they are continued and extended. Any hotel is a busy, dynamic environment, and to be at that threshold of opening was an experience neither of us will ever forget. Like all great teaching opportunities, it was a two way street, definitely, and we both took away as much as we gave. I am so appreciative that my friends, the ‘Pauls’ invited me to be a part of this and my Principal at Elizabeth College supported me and gave me an opportunity to have the most amazing professional development for me as a person but also in the big picture, for what I can bring back to my students. It is critical for me as a Hospitality/Cookery VET teacher to remain current and be involved in all aspects of the industry. While I was there I got my students to send a little ‘hello’ video to my students at Elizabeth College.
And then? Both Paul and Kirsten are off to continue their busy lives and spread the love they brought back from a neighbour we so rarely hear anything about. I did hear that APEC (the Asia/Pacific Economic Conference) that was the catalyst for their trip was not without its incidents. But those incidents arose from some questionable behaviour from delegates, not from the proud and newly trained staff at the Hilton Port Moresby.
Thank you Paul and Kirsten for sharing the journey with us, and I am sure that you’ll both be back there, making a difference, in the near future.
For Kirsten’s story and interview click here
For Paul’s journey as a chef click here