Working at the Sydney Night Noodle Markets

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Photo by Robert Newey

I didn’t really get to experience the customer component of the Sydney Noodle Markets but here are some good recaps on food blogs featuring the highlights of the market. For those who don’t already know I was working at a stall that specialized in Malaysian cuisine. I haven’t been private about it on social media so if you did some digging you’d know which one. I don’t claim this post to be representative of everyone in the industry or even everyone who worked the markets, this is just what I think.

I’m sure many of us have worked in the food and beverage industry at some point. Whether it’s at McDonalds, waiter-ing at your local café or doing the late night shifts at the bar, it’s a rite of passage for most of us before we move into whatever field we actually want to specialize in. This of course isn’t to exclude the proportion of people who continue to work in food as their professional career such as chefs, restaurant proprietors, bakers and so forth. I believe the common theme between all of these roles is the strive for customer satisfaction. No matter what level you are, no one goes into this field with the intention to ruin someone’s day with bad food or bad service. That’s how personal food is to both sides. A chef offers his soul on a plate, a customer trusting that chef ingests the offering into their body.

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Photo by Robert Newey

The Sydney Night Noodle Markets was at its biggest yet this year. With 50 stalls offering such a variety – some of which no longer even lie on the Asian food spectrum – it was bound to attract tens of thousands of people in its two week stint. On the odd chance that I did find time to visit the front face of the market I had to admit, it was stunning. The festive mood is infectious, everyone seemed to be quite happy. Even if they happened to be in queue for some popular stall or other, they were doing it in the company of friends, family and other like-minded strangers craving a good meal. The inflatable lucky cat was never left alone without someone taking a selfie, and the excitement that filled the air during the lion dance meant that I was probably the only one irritated by the clanging of the gong and bashing of the drums (after hearing it all at every, single, shift). The atmosphere isn’t quite so harmonious on the other side of the metal barricade.

In previous years I scorned people who spent money at the markets simply because I’d written off each and every single vendor that raised their prices for the sake of being at a chic outdoor venue. I since realized how erroneous I had been in blaming the vendors, as it turns out they not only had to pay organisers for a stall, but a percentage of their profit/revenue is often taken by the organisers as well. So obviously in an attempt to protect their pre-existing profit margins, vendors must also increase the price. It was only through working here that I realized how difficult it was for some stalls just to breakeven, something which seemed incredulous to me considering how much working was being put in only for the owner to be back at square one.

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Photo by Robert Newey

Working at the markets also made me realize how difficult it is to be preparing and cooking food in a place that is not a kitchen. It’s little more than a tent and a couple of tables with vendors being responsible for bringing in all their own equipment, taking note that things like stoves need to be portable plus constant changing of gas fluid to ensure food is kept at optimal temperature. Malaysian food in particular requires very hot temperatures, many woks, a giant hot plate to cook roti on, it was scorching on the inside. We only had a few menu items up for sale but the sheer amount of preparation needed was staggering, it all also had to be done in such a cramped space as the organisers had a very strict policy that food prep had to be done inside the tent. The work itself isn’t so bad because you’re always busy and on your feet so time passes very quickly. Every night that I did take a shift, I would come home and shower immediately, scrubbing my skin hard. Despite this the aroma of char kuay teow never truly went away or perhaps the smells were permanently embedded in my olfactory senses. After showering I would pass out on my bed straightaway and wake up incredibly sore. This I know to be a sign of how extremely soft and unseasoned I am for hospitality, I wasn’t even coming close to working the crazy hours the way my boss did every single day.

One time a customer approached the stall stating that she wanted a roti canai (she pronounced it as ka-nai). I brought her a plain roti in a bag and she insisted that I was wrong, that roti ka-nai meant roti with ‘a little bit of sauce’. There isn’t anything on our menu called ‘a little bit of sauce’ and she flat out refused to buy our roti+dahl combination. Most Malaysians will tell you that dahl in a minute amount is what typically comes served with roti, this could have been the sauce she was talking about, we just happened to be selling it as a whole meal. Not all customers are difficult, a lot of them I found were very appreciative. But as I did more and more shifts, I became increasingly aware of how much my esteem was being tied to the popularity of food. People turning away from our stall made me unhappy while high sales of food that I helped cook or prepare made me swell with pride. This is all with the knowledge that I was paid a per hourly rate, the actual amount of profit the stall made had no actual relevance to me. I have no idea how my boss felt but I have a feeling that to survive in this industry meant truly believing in the value of your food and taking all opinions with a pinch of salt.

Perhaps it was my Malaysian upbringing that created my misconception of the noodle markets to begin with. When I think of markets, I think of wet markets, of pasar malam, of loud energy generators powering fluorescent tube lighting, South East Asian humidity and the no-nonsense behaviour of the stall owners. A market wasn’t something to be romanticized about, it was a place to get fruit and vegetable shopping done, pirated DVDs (before the rise of torrenting) and cheap hawker food to takeaway home because there wasn’t anywhere comfortable that you could sit down and eat it. The customer expectation of a market in Australia is very different, but I believe the work is just as tireless.

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Photo by Robert Newey

I don’t have a true ‘moral of the story’ to this post. I just wanted to share a perspective that not many people consider. Prior to working at the markets I definitely didn’t. I hope this also creates greater public awareness and maybe a bit of empathy for the people in the food and beverage industry. In those few short weeks I have learnt a hell of a lot about them, which I think has dramatically altered my disposition as a ‘food blogger’ and someone who really enjoys what she eats. Working in food is an arduous path with so much emotion and self-worth tied into keeping a large, diverse and eclectic community of people as happy as possible. The dedication of my boss and every other chef and restaurant owner I have met has and continues to blow my mind. My hat is off to anyone working in this field. You guys must really, really, really love what you do.

samanthawxlow

14 Comments

  1. This is a fantastic post Samantha – very enlightening to read what it’s like to be behind the kitchen/register.

    I’ve heard that bigger stalls at NNM get charged up to $2000 a DAY in rent. With such exuberant prices, it’s no wonder why a cup of chips could cost $10!

    I’ve always known a little of this, deep down – which is why I never really openly criticised NNM stalls for their pricing, or for their often sub-par food compared to an actual restaurant setting. What do people expect? You’re cooking food in a tent – it’s not the same at all!

    I guess in the end, the naysayers never win – this year’s NNM was apparently more successful than ever, with record attendance. Here’s hoping to reach even greater heights in 2015!

    • Thanks Michael!

      Yes exactly, prior to working here I definitely did not have the self awareness you did regarding how much money and effort went into working at the markets. Was definitely an eye-opening experience to be behind the food for once and not just in front of it.

      I imagine it’ll be even bigger next year, looking forward to it. Hopefully I’ll be eating more then. Thanks again for the comment!

  2. brilliant post! i agree with everything you said, it was such hard work but it was just so rewarding!

    • Yep it was great, especially when customer’s were equally as excited to receive their food! Wonderbao must have been crazily busy but also how many happy customers you must have had. So much love for that tofu bun Suze!

  3. Agreed that the hospitality industry is definitely one of blood, sweat and tears. Props to you for surviving the NMM. It was chaotic whenever I was there! And yes, too often people think the price of their meal is the sum of the ingredients, but overheads and labour are so much more!

    • Thank you so much for commenting Helen! I survived, but the amount of work is nothing compared to my co-workers who took on more shifts, or workers/proprietors in the stalls around us who I’m pretty sure worked the markets every single day for those few weeks. I’m glad I was able to bring some insight to this and that most people seem to agree as well.

    • Thank you so much for reading! Hahaha it really wasn’t that hard at all compared to everyone else at the market. I hope I wasn’t whining too much!

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