It’s not every day you get the chance to work in a restaurant owned by a world-famous chef, but TAFE Queensland Commercial Cookery student Anne (Hyemin) Park is doing just that.
In January next year, Anne will travel to Japan for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: work experience with Hiroyuki Sakai, better known as Iron Chef French on the popular TV show, Iron Chef. Through her placement at Chef Sakai’s restaurant, La Rochelle, Anne will be working alongside experienced executive and sous chefs, learning the art of French food with a Japanese twist, right in the heart of Tokyo.
Anne was awarded the experience through a competition held by TAFE Queensland. Competing in a head-to-head cook-off with fellow students earlier this year in Cairns, Anne won over the judges with her unique dishes that showcased Australian produce.
“I made steamed blue mussels, barramundi, and shaved asparagus and fennel salad with finger lime dressing for the entrée,” Anne says. “Then, pan-fried barramundi and creamy wasabi mashed potato with lemon beurre blanc sauce for [the main course].”
Insider Guides sat down with Anne to unpack her journey, from international student in Australia to competition winner heading to Japan.
Making Australia Home
Originally from Seoul, South Korea, Anne first travelled to Australia five years ago for a working holiday with her partner. Both were taking a break from their careers in the film industry. When the holiday came to a close, Anne and her then-fiancé headed back to Korea to be married. At the time, they were both unsure of the direction of their professional lives.
“We had to think about what we were going to do after we got married – what are we going to do together?” says Anne. “We wanted to change our future.”
Anne’s husband was so in love with the Australian lifestyle that he suggested the pair move to Australia permanently. A few years after their working holiday, Anne and her husband migrated to Cairns, Queensland. At first, Anne was struck by homesickness.
“When we first moved, I didn’t really want to live here because my family and friends are in Korea – I wanted to go back to Korea,” she says. “I had to try to speak English, but it was very hard. Speaking Korean and speaking English is very different.”
Fortunately, Anne warmed to life in Australia as she settled in. She connected with friends made from their earlier working holiday, plus new friends she met studying at TAFE.
“Going to TAFE, I have a lot of Korean friends and Aussie friends, and have met people from many different countries,” Anne says. “The best part about living in Cairns is the good weather, good vibes, and really good people.”
Cairns’ particular lifestyle has made the move a lot more comfortable for the couple. Having visited Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane previously, Cairns’ laidback atmosphere was most appealing to the couple.
“When we were in Melbourne, I said to my husband, ‘We’ll just live in Cairns’”, says Anne. “It’s quieter and people’s personalities are a lot different – they’re really friendly.”
Studying in Queensland
Once in Australia, Anne had the difficult task of deciding what career path to take. Having previously studied business, and with a background in film, she wanted to find something entirely new.
“I was thinking about what I could do and share with my husband, so we chose to cook,” says Anne. “I started studying for another life.”
Anne decided to commence TAFE Queensland’s Commercial Cookery course, where she is now working towards her Certificate IV. Within her course, Anne praises TAFE’s hands-on approach to learning.
“At other schools I’ve studied at, I have to do a lot of written assessments that just ask questions and I have to give answers,” Anne says. “But TAFE is very different – they do practical assessments.”
In classes, Anne feels supported by experienced, skilled teachers who are available to answer students’ questions. For her vocational placement, Anne was able to work in a restaurant, giving her exposure to the reality of working as a chef.
When the Iron Chef competition came around, Anne hadn’t even considered applying: “I had no idea I was going to participate in the competition at first, because I’m not a person that likes competition – I get so stressed.”
However, through the persuasion of teachers who told her to simply enjoy the experience and the encouragement of her Japanese friends — who were all awe-struck by the opportunity to work with the famous Chef Sakai — Anne was set to compete. The timed cook-off between all the competitors was nerve-wracking, as Anne was competing against fellow domestic and international TAFE students, as well as apprentice chefs.
“There were so many great competitors. I saw them practising and preparing very hard before the competition, so I couldn’t imagine winning,” says Anne. “[But when the win came], I didn’t expect it! I couldn’t say anything. My teachers were saying, ‘Anne, congratulations!’ I couldn’t believe it.”
Anne is most excited about the food in Japan. She can’t wait to eat it and learn the art of Japanese and French cooking from the chefs at La Rochelle. In particular, she wants to learn to master seafood: “Japanese chefs are especially good at cooking fish. I want to learn about how to cook and how to deal with fish from them.”
For students looking to participate in the competition in the future, pursue a Commercial Cookery course, or apply for internships, Anne recommends approaching each opportunity by gaining some international experience.
“If you want to learn about food, you should go to other countries,” she says. “It’s good to get new knowledge about cooking, new experience, and skills.”
Looking to the Future
Following the internship in Japan and her graduation, Anne wants to stay in Cairns. She recently began working as a commis chef at a new hotel and wants to build on her experience. Following that, Anne is excited to open a business with her husband.
“We are very keen on coffee,” she says. “If we stay here, I’m going to try to make Australian food in combination with coffee. If I go back to Korea, I’m going to open a French restaurant, I hope.”