Back for a third run, this series of Day in a Life seeks to shine the light on the staff that make our lives in Tembusu smooth and without hitches. This week, the spotlight turns to the dining hall, as we speak to the supervisor of the dinner shift, Christine. Christine shares about her typical work shift, and how she feels about students’ expectations.

How is a typical day in the life for you? When do you start?

In terms of work? Very stressful. We start at 2pm and end at around 10pm. So 2pm, we come in and do whatever jobs we need to set up. They start setting up, preparing the salads, the drinks and the soups, and the chefs start cooking the food. I don’t manage the chefs directly, so they work on their own. At 5.30pm, we do the serving of food, and end at 9.30pm. At 9.30pm, we clean the whole place before the staff leave at 10pm. Their working hours is 2pm to 10pm, 8 hours. So after the dinner at 9.30, they rush to clean up the whole place.

The morning shift, they typically start their shift at around 6am and serve breakfast until 10.30am. For the part timers, they finish at around 12.30pm, the full timers leave at 2pm.

Is the food prepared here or from a central kitchen?

It’s prepared here! For those items that need more time to prepare, like coffee, which needs boiling water, they have to boil the water first, so they would start those at 4.30pm.

The food is not from a central kitchen. There are 2 sides – halal (from CAPT) and non halal (in Tembusu). Whatever is cooked here, is brought over to CAPT and RC4, and whatever is cooked over there is brought over to here.

We don’t deliver food in here from outside. The fresh ingredients come in here, and the staff do the cooking. The truck that people see is just to bring food from one dining hall to the other.

How are the menus decided?

By the management, NUS (Office of Housing Services) and the dining committee. They have a meeting, and it doesn’t have anything to do with my side. I went for the meeting in the past, once or twice, but not often. The committee often meets with my account manager and the sous chef.

How many people do you manage?

I’m not really sure about that altogether, but for my shift, there’s roughly around 15 to 16 people, including chefs. It varies depending on the manpower and who’s on leave etc.

Christine with some of the members of her shift

Christine with some of the members of her shift

How do you gauge demand for meals?

That is on my management’s end – they know how to judge it. They liaise with the chefs and tell them the quantity to prepare. We don’t actually predict or know what the precise actual amount is. Sometimes it could be more, sometimes it can be less. Most of the time my manager will go for surplus to accommodate in case there are additional students.

However, the management knows the estimated number of pax to prepare every day, down to the individual counter. Let’s say Western is the best for the day, and they will prepare 500, then Asian, maybe 400. From past years they have records of which counter is the bestseller, which are the food that you students will like, and which counter would be likely to have higher turnover. It’s like in business, you use the technology to predict. The management speaks directly to the chefs about how much to cook on each day.

How do you normally feel when you hear complaints from students about the food?

Oh, very sad! Very sad, very disappointed because we try to give our best! But as you know, not everyone will be completely pleased with everything, like how not everyone is completely satisfied with the Prime Minister. So I don’t really know how to gauge the sentiment, but we give the best we can. Sometimes it is hard, like on some days, some students will say “wah, Auntie, today the food very nice!”, but on the same day, someone else will say it’s lousy.

As for the food taste, different people have different tastes, like how some people say, in Chinese, they like heavy tasting food, but some want light tasting food. The management will engage the students and try to please as many people as possible, but it will be hard to get everyone to be 100% contented. If I can please majority of people, I’ll be happy. I can’t please 100% of people.

Do you have any weird requests from students, or things that you wish they didn’t do?

There are, but we have to play cool, because sometimes they think that they are always right. Just like the other day, someone asked my tapper (ticket counter auntie) a question, asking when the Yakult distribute until what time?

My staff said it was hard to say, if people come in early, it will finish earlier, as it’s first come first serve, if you come in late, then of course you won’t have it. Most of the students they like Yakult, they will come in and tap for another two bottles, so I normally tell the students, we will supply you when there is extra, but when you all come for the bottles at the same time, then those who finish their class late, will not have any Yakult left and then start complaining. It’s very hard to please everyone.

Sometimes we hope students understand that we try our best to please you, I’ve been here for what’s going to be 7 years, so I’ve seen the new students and old students. When the students come in, they have one taste, then when they graduate and a new student comes in, they have new tastes, and then they complain the food is not good again! My management does the food tasting with the committee, to update the menus.

How do you deal with surprises, like when food suddenly runs out?

Sometimes the food is so nice, that all of them patronise one stall only. If you are the boss of a company, you have 5 stalls, then the other stalls all become wasted. We still have to prepare every counter ultimately. If people come in at one shot, we do prepare for surpluses, but if the food does run short, we’ll need some time for people to prepare the extra.

Before the food does run out, my counter assistants will tell me, “Christine, this counter, the food is low”, if they’re cooking over at the other dining hall, we’ll ask them to prepare and bring over, and over here, they’ll call us and we’ll prepare and bring it over there. But the food does take time, the food doesn’t chop and come out, it’s not like photostating! (Laughs) It takes time, and it typically takes about 10-20 minutes, if it’s meats, it might even take 30 mins. So I tell the students, if it’s a veggie, it’s quite fast, but if it’s a meat, it will take time. So if you have no time to wait, you’ll need to go to other counters.

What’s the worst thing that you’ve seen a student do?

A lot! Specifically, the drinks machines. The drinks machines are meant for daily use, the students have to treat the machines like their babies, and take care of it. If they take better care of the machines, hopefully the machines will last longer. When the machines break down, it takes time to get the contractors down to repair.

How does it get damaged?

For the Milo machine, people take the cup out when the water is coming out, and they let it drip into the filter below. When it’s filled, the machine says that there’s a drip, and when the next student sees it, they’ll say “Auntie, no Milo”. Then when I come out, it’s actually the drip is full, and I have to drain it. And when that happens repeatedly, I need to call for servicing.

The drinks dispenser is new, it’s the second batch already, and for the ice machine, we have to frequently repair it, we’ve spoken to NUS about it. You see, instead of pressing it lightly against the dispenser, they push the cup hard until it hits the container.

Some people don’t tap and (points to the salad and drinks bar) help themselves to free flow. If I know that there is a place there is free, I would take a milo, salad and soup and I happy already. But later on, students will say there’s no salad, no soups etc. Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit too stern on hindsight, but I feel that I have to tell you guys to tap and help yourselves. Because if I don’t stop, people will start helping themselves for free.

What do you think is the most misunderstood trait about you?

They normally complain that I’m rude, or this auntie very strict. But, we won’t want to do that, because after all, we are all one family, we see each other, we get to know each other. Some students think that we are mean. We also understand that exams are coming and students are very stressed, and sometimes students do have a temper. I’ve seen before, two students were given the food, and when they ask for one more of a food item, and the auntie say that it’s already there, and then they’re unhappy and bang the tray on the counter. After all, maybe the friends talk to him, and he will apologise and present you with a card. It’s happened before, and we understand that you’re quite stressed.

I’ve told my team to be more pleasant especially since exams are coming. But at the same time, I hope students don’t take us for a ride, and I told my staff to be a bit more pleasant to them.

What’s a typical day for you outside of work?

It depends on the individual. We have to seek our own happiness everyday if we want to. If we don’t, then every day is a gloomy day. If you have a happy mind, you’ll have a happy day, but if you don’t have a happy mind, throughout the work day you’ll feel very lousy. So if they enjoy the work, the students, the atmosphere here, then they must be happy. Like me, I’ve been here for so long, what pushes me? I like you students, they are like my children, I’m already 70 years old, they’re all like my children and grandchildren, so I find that when coming to work, I feel very happy. I mix with you guys, makes me feel younger and happier (laughs). Outside, there’s a different life, I relax and stay happy.

There are staff who are not happy, sometimes even wherever they go. So far, my team are quite happy here, but sometimes they are a bit disappointed because what they give is not what they receive back, and it’s not appreciated. But there are a lot of students that appreciate us, we have thank you cards, we have happy day cards, especially when they graduate, and I have pictures with the students, and it’s the joy of life right?

What happens when we go on holiday? What happens here and what happens to the staff?

The staff will be on holiday as well! They don’t work, and this place will be closed. They typically get assigned to somewhere else, but they have the choice if they want to work or not. If they find that going to another place is too tedious, too far, or they are not happy with the place, they can ask to not be transferred, and take unpaid leave. I’m on the old agreement, so I’m paid every school holiday. I need not work during holiday.


Pictures by the author.

About the Author

One of many Ryans in Treehouse, Ryan Quek is a Year 2 Business and Economics Double Degree (Still Surviving!) Student. He loves photography and food, and likes to delve into socio-political issues, tech and sport. Also has a passion for trivia quizzes.