The decision to start your own family isn’t one to be taken lightly especially considering the toll it takes on your life.
Bjorn Shen, 36, owner and chef at Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant, Artichoke, learnt this life lesson early on when he and his wife, Roxanne Toh, welcomed their daughter, Gemma, who’s now 18-months-old. The couple tied the knot in November 2015.
“The toll it takes on your life to have a kid is not something you can explain in words!” says the first-time dad who is also a judge on Channel 5’s upcoming MasterChef Singapore cooking competition.
His biggest parenting pet peeve so far? Changing his daughter’s diapers. “Never in my life have I ever had to touch and clean so much human excrement,” notes Bjorn. “It’s like unwrapping a packet of rotten Nasi Lemak!”
And don’t even get Bjorn started on the amount of laundry you have to do once a baby comes along. He recalls an incident when he got through four different shirts in one day. “The first time Gemma vomited I thought: Yes! Lucky I have a couple of shirts in my car. So, I changed and she puked again five minutes later and I changed again. I walked into the restaurant — 15 minutes later — she vomited again.”
Add to that having to wake up all night, Bjorn notes, “It’s like your life just got turned inside out."
“Never in my life have I ever had to touch and clean so much human excrement.”
But hard work is second nature to this seasoned chef. He may have more than 14 years of experience under his belt, but he started out with zero qualifications and culinary experience. In fact, Bjorn’s first restaurant gig was as a part-time dishwasher at a café in Tanglin Mall, working a 16-hour shift for $4.50 an hour, six days a week. After a couple of months on the job, he was promoted to prepping ingredients (chopping garlic, chilli and onions) and soon progressed to cooking simple dishes.
His love for cooking eventually took him to Australia to study at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Sydney. He ended up dropping out a couple of months later, but stayed on to work at various restaurants and cafes, on minimum wage, to hone his skills.
Seven and half years later, Bjorn decided it was time to come home. Using his hard-earned money, he started Middle-Eastern Artichoke in 2010.
Reflecting on the long and arduous journey to get to where he is today, Bjorn points out he wouldn’t want his little girl to follow in his professional footsteps. The MasterChef Judge tells us why and gets candid about parenting and life as a chef…
So Bjorn, did you always know you wanted to be a father?
No, I’m not a kid guy. I don’t know how to talk to kids and I’ve never been that kind of guy who wants to carry other people’s kids.
Has that changed now that you have Gemma?
No, I’m still an awkward dad. I don’t know how to sing to her, I don’t know what to say to her, I don’t know how to talk to her. I just make stupid faces. My wife on the other hand can have conversations with her, but of course my daughter’s response is babbling sounds. But for me I don’t know how. So, we’ll be watching the news and I’ll turn to her and ask what she thinks about the Syrian conflict. [Laughs] I don’t know what to say to her. I don’t know what’s going to work, I have zero chemistry with kids.
Who does Gemma remind you most of, yourself or your wife?
She is quite self-entertained so in that respect I can see some of me in her. I was always very self-absorbed and self-entertained. I can be easily entertained by just bouncing a ball off the wall for like three hours, literally. I can sit and lie on the bed and throw a ball in the air and not get bored. She seems to be able to do that. So, I like that she doesn’t require all that excessive mental stimulation.
A Chef’s life is not his own, so how do you juggle work and family?
My working schedule doesn’t allow me to be very hands-on as I get home every night anytime between 11:30pm and sleep at around 3 to 4am. So, I’ve taken on the role of just taking care of work and finances and letting my wife take care of the home and the kid. She works for the restaurant from home but whenever she has pockets of time, she’s always taking care of our daughter.
So when you do get time, how do you spend it with Gemma?
My “weekends” are Monday. Before I had a child all I wanted to do on a Monday was sleep. Now, we’ll take our daughter out. We’ve brought her to the bird park, the zoo and the aquarium. She’s infatuated with birds. She can spot birds from a mile away. We actually went to some little café and she kept pointing in the direction of some shelves and kept saying “bird, bird”. It’s only after a while that we realised there were some trinkets with bird shapes on them but they were so tiny and far away. She even knows what shapes birds come in — tall, lanky ones and short, fat ones!
“Just one meal and the entire living room will look like a war zone. And you wonder how any one is supposed to live their adult life in a functional way!”
What’s Gemma’s favourite foods?
She’s a bread girl. She loves any kind of bread. We brought her out to a pizza place and gave her the crust and she totally loved it. She also loves eating anything that she can hold in her two hands.
How does she handle meal times?
It’s a messy affair! Half the food we feed her ends up on the floor. We have a dog so she’ll start taking food out of her mouth and feed it to the dog. Just one meal and the entire living room will look like a war zone. And you wonder how any one is supposed to live their adult life in a functional way [Laughs]!
Newborn vs toddler — which stage is more challenging?
I think each phase comes with its own set of challenges. Now that she’s started to walk and run, I yearn for the days when she was just crawling. When she was crawling, I yearn for the days when she was literally on her back just rolling left and right. And when she was on her back rolling left and right, you wished that she wasn’t rolling because if she manages to roll over she might suffocate or fall to her death. Having a child is like giving you a little kitten and asking you to keep it alive. You can’t take your eyes off them because they can die anytime. Drop her? Die. Press her head too hard? She’ll die. Blanket travels too high on her head? Die. [Laughs] You just cannot rest.
Who’s the disciplinarian at home?
My wife for sure. I’m the good-time dad. I’m the one who sneaks her sweets. Like when I’m eating McDonald’s I’ll sneak her a French fry or something. Mummy is always about no this, no that, no phone, no sugar. [laughs]
Is becoming a chef still a popular career choice amongst our youngsters?
A lot of young people don’t want to get into the industry but a lot of people who have worked for a couple of years in other industries, want to. As a judge on MasterChef I’ve spoken to contestants who want to leave their corporate jobs to work in the kitchen. I would ask them, what their current salary is and they will tell me about $8,000 (per month) then I’ll ask them if they want to sacrifice that kind of salary at their age, come into the restaurant and earn the market rate of $1,600 a month as a cook who has no culinary experience. By the way, that’s a real beginner’s salary.
What advice would you give budding chefs?
Although I am very tempted to do so, I won’t stop them because I know that if I do, when they are 45-years-old they will leave a career where they are earning $15,000 a month and channel that money into opening a restaurant and potentially lose their savings in six months. So, I’d rather tell them if they want to do it, then do it early and get it out of their system. And if you last long enough and you become ‘one of us’, then good on you! But if you did it for one year and couldn’t handle it, I’m glad you did it. Now, drop the idea for eternity and do something else!
Complete these sentences:
If there’s one invention I can come up with to make parenting easier, it would be… I do not know why humans haven’t created this – an automatic baby washer. You just put the baby from her arm pit down into a fishbowl-type contraption and all the jets come on, spray some water and soap and water again then dry them out.
My go-to comfort food is… Indo-mee, fried egg and sliced or shaved parmesan cheese. The best!
My last meal will be… I’ll say a three-piece meal at KFC with extra coleslaw and mash potatoes with extra gravy. A can of vanilla coke and a can of Mountain Dew.
Looking to spend a memorable Father’s Day with the fam? Head down to Dad’s Day Out, happening on 17 June 2018, from 8.30am to 6pm for lots of run and a chance to get a free goodie bag worth $250! Be amongst the first 300 families to register online and you’ll receive a breakfast set and a chance to enter an Early Dad’s lucky draw. Click here for more details!
Catch Bjorn Shen on MasterChef Singapore, premiering 2nd September, 8.30pm on Channel 5.
Photos: Bjorn Shen
In case you missed these celeb dad interviews…