When you love what you do, then it should come as no surprise that your work eventually evolves into a way of living. Looking back on my 30-year career in the hospitality field, I now recognize that service was not a job as much as a way of living. Hospitality is my lifestyle! It is waking up in the morning, taking time to choose the appropriate attire, adorning a smile to brighten everyone’s day.
Showing genuine, attentive care towards others without expecting recognition or reward is not only a fulfilling approach to life, but it brings purpose and balance. Allow me to share my story and perhaps it will resonate with you.
I can honestly say that never in a million years would I have charted my career path as it played out. Perhaps many of us can say that, in truth. But I was born with a drive that, now looking back, seems to have formed the shape of my life’s work. A predisposition that permeates every area of my life.
An Instinct for hospitality
This instinct to serve took root at an early age, grew throughout my entire life and was the fuel of my career. The reality of a young Indian girl, growing of age in the 60s and 70s, is a life destined for “duty” which affords little opportunity to contemplate having a “career.” Yet, in the most inhospitable of circumstances, the instinct continued to emerge until, at last, it evolved from sheer drive into an art form.
During my early years in Hong Kong, I was always the one called on to lead charity events, organize galas, prepare meals for family and friends. I was the go-to-gal when it came to curating a look, teaching friends and family to cook, or organizing the children’s dance recitals. I did it all with gladness. Although I never considered it at the time, I was a leader in my community for many years. Serving my community came naturally to me.
My friends would teasingly refer to me as the “queen” of Hong Kong. If there was a social event, I had a hand in it. If a project needed a special touch, I got a call. I never sought the limelight or dreamed of being well-known. I just wanted to keep feeding my passion to serve.
It is a special moment when the work we do can be called something. It wasn’t until years later, when I started my own catering business, that I began to get a sense of that something. From “Caterer”, I then created and branded our own line of Indian food that we packaged and sold to major stores in Hong Kong. Soon I began designing events, weddings and decorating the lobbies of 5-star hotels. I was a “Concept-Designer”, “Chef”, “Curator” and “Consultant.” I wore a lot of hats both literally and figuratively.
You are one of the blessed ones who can say that you got to do the sort of work that you always wanted to do; the sort of work you were meant to do. But to become the sort of person - through your work - that you always hoped to become is the stuff of which many only dream.
excellence in everything
I did my utmost to perform my work with excellence. The work itself was exhilarating and tiring. The good sort of tired when you know you’ve done something that won’t easily be replicated. That menu, those flavors, the plating, the lighting, flowers, colors, aromas – that one-of-a-kind work of art that was woven together like a tapestry. And then the satisfaction of seeing the look in your client’s eyes during the reveal.
My life and work in Hong Kong were one of sheer discovery. I was instinctively drawn to the best designs, the most exquisite arrangements, all of which laid a lasting foundation for a life in hospitality. The kind of experiences one doesn’t get from formal training. I wondered often whether my lack of formal training would be a setback for me.
It seemed my training came mostly from being attuned to the world around me – from observing. The premier hotels in Hong Kong were a playground of ideas. I could scarcely enter the Peninsula Hotel, Mandarin Oriental or Shangri-La without stopping to admire the foyer flower arrangements, critiquing the choice of flowers, admiring the forms and height. Then I would focus in on the Concierge to see whether he was on his game. Were the porters and servers well groomed? Did they see the napkin that someone had dropped in the lobby lounge? Did they notice the guest looking for help? Were they attentive? Do I see their smiles and pleasure in their work?
I was just as familiar with Hong Kong’s streets and alleys, teeming with produce and goods that lit my imagination. Always in search of hidden ‘gems’, I was comfortable talking to hawkers on the streets or hotel General Managers. It didn’t matter to me if I could soak in as much knowledge as I could.
Not long after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, our family relocated to the USA, where the something became a career. It was a re-start of sorts (one of many), as I attempted to establish myself in a new place. The Bay Area provided an ideal opportunity for me, and I began again by serving in my church community. For a time, I wavered between being an entrepreneur or finding a job in hospitality. Circumstances dictated the latter. So, relying on my experience alone, I moved forward and started working – from the ground up.
Anything was a good job if it meant I could feed my instinct. I organized and fed at church events, decorated during Christmas and Easter seasons, and even catered. I waited tables, was a server, restaurant manager, food consultant. Until eventually, by a very unlikely and indirect route, I ended up running Executive Dining and Food Services at a major healthcare provider. I would spend 16 years at this great hospital, getting to do things I loved.
the art of hospitality
You are one of the blessed ones who can say that you got to do the sort of work that you always wanted to do; the sort of work you were meant to do. But to become the sort of person – through your work – that you always hoped to become is the stuff of which many only dream.
Only now do I see that that something was not a career, and it was certainly not the titles or accomplishments. That something was about becoming who I was made to be. It was and is about adopting a lifestyle that elevates our guests, family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Whether by preparing a nutritious meal, planning a menu, customizing a one-of-kind recipe, designing a floral arrangement, organizing an event, creating a unique table-scape or looking “the part” for each occasion, hospitality is my life’s calling.
Hospitality is an art in any setting and in any workplace. My experience is one that was developed in and around the Hospitality Industry. But genuine hospitality can be displayed wherever you are and in whatever you do.
Henri Nouwen best described hospitality as “the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”
That is precisely what I hope to offer through this new chapter in my career. My desire is to encourage you towards a lifestyle transformation. To connect with those of you who love hospitality as much as I do, and with those of you who are seeking to gain a new outlook. The best way I can think to inspire future leaders is to provide a glimpse of my journey in the world hospitality, in my blog and in my upcoming book called “Seva: The Art of Hospitality.”