The Boy Who Overcame Dyslexia To Represent Singapore

Disciples Escoffier

My life has been full of comparisons, me being mostly on the losing end.

I was born into a traditional Hokkien family where customs and traditions were meant to be upheld.

Being the first male grandson, there were a lot of expectations to be someone high-flying and academically smart.

However, my life was pretty much the opposite.

I wondered why I struggled so much with simple alphabets like p and q, or b and d.

Dyslexia
This is what reading is like when you have dyslexia (Source: CNN)

My academic scores in primary school were embarrassing especially when compared to my brilliant older sister.

It’s not that I didn’t want to do well, I was so frustrated why I studied so hard but couldn’t perform well in exams.

I looked down on myself, feeling the uncomfortable spotlight when any exam result was released.

Then I was diagnosed with dyslexia.

But my mum refused to give up on me.

She researched and found stories of people who became successful despite having dyslexia, like Lee Kuan Yew and Tom Cruise. She shared these stories to encourage me, that having dyslexia doesn’t mean I have no hope.

Dyslexia
People with dyslexia have many other strengths (Source: dyslexiaresource.org)

She also enrolled me in classes for dyslexia, where three of us students would have one teacher to help us. Having more attention and help from the teacher motivated me, and I began to have more self-confidence.

Just as things were looking up, I didn’t perform as well in PSLE, compared to others who could enter Express and Normal (Academic) streams.

Life as a Normal (Technical) student

I started teenage life as a Normal (Technical) or NT student in Deyi Secondary School.

Looked down as an NT student by others, I was very demoralised and began to lose interest in studies. Some people even commented to me,

“You cannot make it, don’t even bother joining CCA.”

To avoid facing such elitist bullying, some days I would climb over the school gate and have a nice quiet breakfast at the nearest coffee shop.

I was lucky that even though my smarter peers didn’t think I would amount to much, there was a group of teachers who didn’t give up on me.

Besides helping with my studies, they encouraged me to join military band where I learnt discipline, working in a team and overcoming my dyslexia.

Dyslexia
For a person who has issues with alphabets, I challenged myself to learn how to read the taugay music notes. (Source: YouTube/Chromatik)

It was difficult reading music scores, so I relied on memorising the fingering of the notes, and playing by ear to remember what notes came next.

This exposure gave me more confidence that whatever weaknesses I had, I had other strengths within my control, such as finding another way to get the job done, and persevering until I could do something new.

At the same time, I started helping out my maternal grandmother, who was Peranakan, in the family kitchen, chopping garlic and ginger. This was to be my first introduction to the realm of cooking.

What I did after getting rejected by ITE

After my N Levels, I had set my sights on learning culinary skills in ITE. Unfortunately, my N Level scores did not meet the cutoff, and I was rejected.

By this time, I saw rejection as a challenge to overcome. I appealed to the lecturer and convinced him I was sincere about learning. Hence, I was accepted into the first batch of Asia Culinary Arts NITEC course.

To brush up on my understanding of F&B, I worked part-time in a Korean BBQ restaurant as a server, before my colleagues brought me into the kitchen to help out. Sometimes customers would compliment the kitchen staff, and I felt a sense of satisfaction that I’d never experienced.

My ITE lecturer told me, “Cooking is a platform for you to go places.”. At first, I didn’t believe him, but my journey after ITE has proven him correct.

Working in the real world

My first internship was at Raffles Hotel, making their famed truffle mooncakes and pastries for 3 months.

However, I wanted to learn more. So after 6 pm, I convinced the pastry chef to let me help out and learn in the Raffles Grill kitchen. I was so hungry to learn I was happy to work for free.

These efforts paid off, because at the end of the internship, I was chosen out of 6 candidates for a place in Raffles Grill, and more opportunities started to come into my life.

After Raffles Grill, I had the opportunity to work at Joel Rabuchon restaurant before National Service, serving patrons French fine dining cuisines.

The next opportunity came after National Service, when I worked at the Tippling Club and did the opening for Chef Ryan at the Open Farm Community in Dempsey.

Dyslexia
A typical working day at Open Farm Community would start at 9 am and end at 12 midnight or 1 am, where we served 300 pax over lunch and dinner each (Source: hungrygowhere)

This was one of the most exciting places I’ve worked in, as we could use a lot of locally-sourced products for our ingredients, and even grew our own Thai basil, laksa leaves and pandan in our garden.

This is why after I left Open Farm Community, I continued to try out working at different restaurants like Atlas Bar for free until I felt comfortable becoming an employee.

People may think I’m crazy, but I am not afraid of working hard, because working hard opens doors to a better future.

Representing Singapore in competitions

During my career, I joined the Singapore team as an assistant in Food Hotel Malaysia competitions, before being promoted to being one of the main players. To hone my culinary skills, I participated in mini competitions and trained under experienced chefs.

It was a fellow chef who encouraged me to join the Disciples Escoffier International competitions.

Competitors had to go through several selections, first to represent Singapore, then to represent ASEAN, then to finally compete with chefs around the world in the global selection in 2019.

Disciples Escoffier
For the Disciples Escoffier ASEAN selection, chefs had to make a dish centred around salmon (Photo: Disciples Escoffier Int’l, Singapore Delegation)

With guidance and training from fellow Singaporean chefs like Chef Anderson Ho, Chef Edward Voon and Chef Yew Eng Tong, I was chosen to represent ASEAN at the global selection in France next year.

Disciples Escoffier
I’m (centre) proud to be part of the Singapore team that won the Disciples Escoffier ASEAN selection (Photo: Disciples Escoffier Int’l, Singapore Delegation)

For someone who has never been to Europe, it is exciting to travel there for the first time and even more significant to represent Singapore and ASEAN on the world stage.

I’m grateful to be working for Collin’s now, as my bosses are understanding when I need time off to train for such competitions to represent Singapore.

Academic success isn’t everything

To anyone who feels that their lives won’t amount to much because they cannot perform well in school, I want to tell you that I don’t believe talent will bring you success.

I believe I got to where I am because I work really hard, and you have to find something you really like to do. Enjoy the process and the reward will come along.

Normal Tech is NOT THE end.

The question is: What do you really like that you are willing to work hard for?

I believe I have found something I like, and I hope you will too.

Special thanks to Chef Neo Jun Hao for sharing his journey with us, and to Disciples Escoffier International Singapore (DEI-SG) and the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i) for arranging the interview.

Disciples Escoffier International Singapore (DEI-SG) has been working continuously to provide culinary education and apprenticeship for the young talents/chefs in the culinary industry.

DEI Singapore’s representative, Chef Neo Jun Hao, won Young Talent Escoffier during Hong Kong’s September Asia. He will represent DEI Asia to compete in the 2019 World Young Talent Escoffier competition in France.

e2i has recently been inducted as an Escoffier Honorary Member as it has supported DEI-SG’s initiatives to provide better wages, welfare and work prospects for working people in the culinary industry.

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What do you want to tell others? Find me at jules <at> workersofsingapore (dot) com

1 Comment

  1. […] year, I first got to know Chef Neo Jun Hao, who poured out his thoughts about overcoming dyslexia to represent Singapore in Bordeaux, France. He is one of several chefs who were hired by […]

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