I wasn’t always a pastry chef chasing that pastry goals and living the dream. Before I got my certifications, and before my bosses put me into an actual pastry chef position, I had to start from the very bottom. In 2016, I was a full-time food and travel writer for various magazines and websites. I had this mentality that being on the road every three weeks teaches me so much about independence. I felt like I can take on everything and conquer the world starting with baby steps. When I applied for my Australian Visa, I kept on telling myself that it would be easy peasy. The goal was to enter Australia hassle-free, apply for a Pastry Chef position while studying full-time, hope that my boss will sponsor me for a Permanent Resident Visa, and live life to the fullest. It sounded pretty straightforward. The plan was to stay at my cousin’s studio in Fairfield until I’m able to find my own place while working on my dream job. Well, it did happen, but it took longer than I expected. Life is not about set timelines anyway. In the last quarter of 2016, I packed my bags and flew to Sydney leaving everything behind. All I had with me was the courage to pursue my dreams and a few dollars to get me started. Two weeks after I arrived in Kingsford Smith International Airport, I was bound to make things happen. I searched for possible job openings warily and I did not stop until I got a call back.
I am an experienced pastry chef and have a rewarding Bachelor’s Degree in Food Technology back home, so I thought it would be uncomplicated for me to find a job. Apparently, that was not the case as being a pastry chef in Australia, or anything related to hospitality is a different game. Australia is a country that takes skills seriously. You have to meet the qualifications, licenses, and at least Level 4 certifications (which I didn’t have at that time yet, as I was still finishing my certification course) for you to hold a pastry chef position. Fine. Then I have to start all over again. I found a job listing and applied as a donut chef in Krispy Kreme Liverpool. I was confident enough for this role. I mean, donuts? It’s very basic. I’m pretty sure I can manage this. But then, my Krispy Kreme application taught me not to get my hopes up in every aspect of life. I got my first ever job rejection in Australia. I felt bad at first, but I told myself that rejections open new doors of opportunities. I moved on and applied at IKEA as a food attendant. The role was to assist in the kitchen and serve clients in line. Now, that’s simple! No sweat! I waited for three days, but then I got an e-mail that I wasn’t exactly the person they were looking for. I was in the verge of losing hope. Why won’t they hire an experienced chef? Is it me, my qualifications, my pastry portfolio? Or Australia just have a very high standard when it comes to human resource? Eventually, it came to a conclusion. Nope. It wasn’t me, nor my qualifications and experiences, nor my degree. It was my student visa dragging me down to the gates of hopelessness. I was only allowed 20 hours of work a week (legally) and most employers wanted more. I mean, who would hire an employee just to fill in for 20 hours, right? From my job hunts, I just got used to rejection that every time I would click the “Send Application” button, I would cross my fingers and tell myself, “here goes nothing…”
I stayed at my cousin’s pad for six months, and we were the best housemates anyone can imagine. We cooked, she took me on shopping sprees, we went on sale hunts, watched movies together, frequently visited the Filipino and Asian shops, and drove to places anytime we wanted. It was a bliss, but then eventually I knew I had to move out. Of course, I didn’t want to be a free-loader forever though she really wanted me to stay. I just thought that maybe this was my chance to step out of my comfort zone and experience life in a whole new level. Living in a country with a culture very much different from mine was a big adjustment for me. But, I assumed I adjusted well. So I started to build my dreams inside that bubble that I would get a job and live the life I have imagined for years.
First Job: Kitchen Hand and Breakfast Chef
After summer, it was autumn, and then winter. Two seasons have gone and yet my applications were still denied. I never stopped job hunting, at this point I was willing to take anything. I went out, went on numerous train rides, went to neighboring suburbs, and handed copies of my CVs to possible employers in person. I put myself out there with that fearless mentality that I can handle any job thrown at me. Finally, I got a call back from a Lebanese Café in Villawood and the interview went well. It was a weekend job, paying $15/hour AUD (Php 525/hour) for an 8-hour shift. It’s actually considered a low paying job in Sydney standards, but for starters like myself, I couldn’t complain. Work starts at 7 in the morning and finishes at 3 in the afternoon. I was able to balance my working student life, but back then I had to re-assess if I would be able to sustain myself with $15 an hour. For most people, “Thank God it’s weekend”, but for me it was time to hustle. I woke up at 5:30 AM on weekends, battling the cold fogs of winter mornings.
This job required me to clean and wash huge pots and heavy kitchen equipment, do the dishwashing for the in-house dining, and assist the head chef in whatever he needs. On top of it, I was assigned in the Breakfast Section where I do all the pancake and waffle orders, sandwiches, eggs, and salads. It sounded pretty easy. But if you’re a chef, you’ll know that “egg section” is never an easy task. There are more than a hundred ways to cook eggs, probably ten ways for breakfast. Most of the customers liked poached eggs and soft-boiled eggs, or when it’s not your lucky day, you’ll get fried eggs and poached eggs, and scrambled eggs, and boiled eggs all at once. Timing had to be really accurate. Imagine a timer going off, while you’re washing dishes, watching the waffles, and poaching eggs. Plus the fact that the kitchen is a one big rectangle, designed horizontally, where the sink is at the very end and the breakfast section on the other end. Do you imagine the struggle now? Now I know why they take skills seriously in this part of the globe.
Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Rent comes weekly and it is not the only expense to pay. There are a lot of things to be considered like utilities, wi-fi, transport, food allowances, and basic necessities. If I wanted to move out entirely and live an independent life, I would have to make more than $15 an hour. I didn’t think this café job was sustainable.
Second Job, Cleaner at a Logistics Company
While finishing my shifts in the morning until afternoon, I decided to accept a gig from a churchmate. The offer was pretty good. $100 AUD (Php 3500) for a four-hour job, and the best thing about it was… it’s a night job. Therefore, I can finish my café shifts at 3 in the afternoon and head straight at Leightonfield to be able to make it at the 5 PM shift. I spent my few hours gap to help prepare the kitchen and café for the following morning. It’s only a ten-minute train ride from Villawood to Leightonfield. I had two hours of time to spare.
The task was easy, except that I would have to do it alone, all by myself in this massive Logistics Office where they transport expensive cars like Lamborghini and Rolls Royce to all places in Australia. I had copies of the Master keys, so if anything goes wrong, I could be responsible for some reason. The office and the warehouse were huge. It was like the size of Puregold Supermarket in Shaw Blvd., except, it had three levels, plus another level for the lounge in the warehouse. I cleaned the toilets for all floors (both for male and female), including the toilets in the warehouse and lounge, wiped office desks, vacuumed three levels of carpeted floors, washed dirty dishes in two pantries, replenished toilet papers, soaps, and all the free kitchen stuff like coffee, tea, and biscuits. I emptied garbage bins for every desk, cleaned a dozen of cigarette ash trays, and had to dump all of the garbage in a huge dumpster, four times my size at the back of the warehouse. You know the dumpster where they hide dead bodies in thriller movies? Yes. That kind of dumpster.
There was one thing my Filipino boss taught me though. The cleaning agency doesn’t care if you finish the job early, they still pay you the same exact amount. They don’t exactly have time-keeping records. With that said, finishing in two hours for a four-hour job was the goal. That’s how you make the most out of the salary.
Cheat Sheet from my Filo Boss: If you see that the toilet bowl is clean, just flush it twice or three times and leave it. Why do you have to clean it again? If you see the toilet mirrors are clean, leave it. It saves you a lot of time.
You would think I didn’t do much, but everything doesn’t come out clean all the time. By the time I finished my shifts as a cleaner, it was already around 8 to 9 in the evening. Despite the schedule, I cooked my own meals, so I won’t be tempted to spend much on food. I was dead tired each time I went home. My soul felt like it was about to leave my body, I worked for more than 12 hours on weekends. It was physically draining. Plus the fact that Leightonfield can be really spine-chilling at night drove me nuts. Unlike most suburbs near the city, it was empty. It was mostly where factories and warehouses were situated. The workers leave at exactly 5 in the afternoon. By the time my shift starts, the whole building and the next 3 to 5 kilometers is deserted, with just me scrubbing the toilet tiles while listening to music on my iPod. I realized, if anything happens to me at Leightonfield, if ever I would cry for help, no one would be able to hear me or find me, as I am locked from the inside of the massive complex. They don’t have access from the outside as the keys are with me, unless they know the passcode of the security lock. The security office was outside the warehouse, so basically I was alone in a very huge complex where I had to turn off all lights and vents, and activate security alarms after I finish cleaning. I WAS BRAVE. VERY BRAVE. I didn’t care at that time, it never occurred to me that it was a dangerous job for a woman. Sydney is a safe city, and it has been that way in my mind the whole time. All I wanted was to save up and find a place for myself.
Let’s do a quick Math:
Lebanese Cafe at $15 x 16 hours every weekend = $240 (Php 8,400)
Cleaner at Leightonfield at $100 every weekend = $200 (Php 7,000)
Total: $440 on weekends (Php 15,400)
$440 on a weekend! Not bad! Back in the Philippines, you will earn this amount of money in a month’s work, plus all the hidden charges and taxes. This can go a long way to feed a family of three! But then, I’m not in the Philippines. I’m living in one of the most expensive cities in the world (yes, I said that twice already), $440 is just enough to rent a private room.
Errrrr… My goal was to rent an apartment, not a room. But I wasn’t in a hurry. Baby steps, right? So room it is… I settled for it.
Renting like a real Sydney-sider
In about a month, I was able to save up for a big private room which I rented while I was saving up for an apartment. It was a three-bedroom wooden house in a suburb called Canley Vale. My landlady was an Australian-Filipina flight attendant working for British Airways. She was in her forties, single but has a son and a daughter from an Italian Diplomat who both live in the city center, owns an old rickety red sedan, smokes a lot, and talks really loud. Let’s just call her “Rosie” (not her real name). Rosie and I went to church together. I found out she was subletting some of her rooms, so I took the biggest one which she rented out to me at $150 AUD (Php 5250) a week, with wi-fi and utilities included.
It wasn’t a bad deal, though it was one station further away from my school, it was a fifteen-minute train ride to work. The vicinity was nice. It had a supermarket, bakery, post office, and Vietnamese restaurants just ten steps away from the house. The bus-station was a two-minute walk. The fall-side was that it was an hour away from the city. That’s pretty far, considering Sydney train travel is very modern and fast.
The room includes a huge wooden built-in closet, my own door to the backyard, an electric fan, a double-sized bed, a broken TV, and a study desk. I did not have time to watch TV anyway, so I took it. I liked the house, it made me feel like I’m in an old grandma’s house in some province, with pink curtains, a living room, a kitchen inside the house, a dirty kitchen and grill in the granny flat, and laundry area (though it didn’t have a dryer so drying my chef’s uniforms in winter days was a struggle).
I finally moved out of my cousin’s pad. This was it. I was ultimately “adulting”, working side jobs and paying my dues while I was studying full-time. My room was my safe-haven. I was finally able to buy my own stuff like a heater for winter, thermal jackets (I never prepared for Sydney winter), blankets, shoe racks, and everything else to complete my room. It was just like living in a studio, except it was in a three-bedroom house. It felt like I was closer to home, having the entire house designed like a true Filipino home.
I’ve had the greatest sky views in that room. I kept my door open to let winter breeze in. The fresh air cooled my room down in sunny afternoons. This was where I worked on my school case studies and prepared for my exams while working two jobs.
Rosie was supportive. She would ask for my schedule and cooked hot meals for me when my schedule was too tight. She wasn’t the best cook, she would put potatoes and carrots in “Sinigang” or eggplants in “Nilaga”. But still, I was thankful. She was like a second mom to me even if there were times she would suddenly yell at me for some reason I never knew about. She has a temper, so I would always have to weigh the climate of the house before I engage in long conversations. Rosie handed me heaps of nice clothes she bought from London. It was her habit to shop on her “break time” windows as a flight attendant, but because her time was very limited on land, she never tried the clothes on. They often come too small for her built, so the nice brand new dresses and shirts from London all landed in my closet.
I’ve had happy and depressing memories in Canley Vale. Like the cliché goes, all good things come to an end.
My cleaner side gig ended. The cleaning agency was looking for someone who could do it full-time, six days a week. It was very much tempted to accept the offer, but my school schedule was a hindrance. My last pastry class ends at 8 PM, Leightonfield requires me to be there at 5 PM. They had to let me go. After all, I came to Australia to master patisserie, not to spend my days chasing on high-paying side jobs.
I kept my café job, but not having a side gig was a huge blow for my budget, especially that I have invested a lot for my Canley Vale room. I still wrote articles for Philippine travel magazines while working on my weekend shifts and they paid me well in peso and it stretched my budget by a bit. However, I needed AUD to cover all of my expenses, because essentially I am spending in Australian Dollars not in Philippine Peso. It’s a dramatically huge difference. I had to find another job. Probably, a single sustainable job that would pay for my dues and that I wouldn’t have to get a side hustle.
To be continued…
TRANSPARENCY: Thank you to my cousin, Sheryl for opening your home and for adopting me each time I’m homeless. Thank you to my family in Canberra, my understanding but very temperamental land lady, my Filipino churchmate who gave me the cleaning side gig (it was a very humbling experience).
Have you experienced working abroad while balancing school life?
How was your experience?
I’d love to hear from you!