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Domestic Helper Advice Ask Mel: How to Find a Helper with Cooking Skills

Ask Mel - advice for Domestic helpers in Hong Kong
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Penne for your thoughts

In this edition of Ask Mel, our expert from Helpwise goes into the kitchen and helps prospective employers ask the right questions when it comes to cooking skills. More than just finding someone who will be the next Master Chef, Mel advises on finding someone who is familiar with the kitchen but is also willing to learn and adapt.

Question: We’re trying to find a new helper and we really want to hire someone who is a good cook. Is it ok for us to ask interviewees to do a “cooking trial” for us, so we can have a better understanding of their skill level?

Most employers who are looking to hire a helper are hoping to find someone with good cooking skills, but the tricky thing can be trying to discern her cooking skills in a brief interview!

Employers often ask me if it’s acceptable to ask helpers to do a “cooking trial” for them during the interview, where the worker would cook a dish or meal for the interviewing employer as part of the interviewing process. Although it seems like an attractive way to “test” a helper’s cooking skills, I wouldn’t recommend it for a couple of reasons.

Unfortunately, a “cooking trial” is not permissible in the government’s eyes. Asking a foreign domestic worker to perform any type of duties for you, without you being her contracted employer, is considered illegal regardless of the frequency or amount of work.

But even if it were legal, having someone cook a meal under such circumstances doesn’t normally give a true impression of their cooking skills. For instance, the helper may either be great in the kitchen but too nervous to perform well; or, she may be able to make one particular dish well, but then be unable to adapt her cooking style to your preferences later.

From our experience, since it’s very hard to determine someone’s cooking/cleaning skills in an interview (or even during a “cooking trial”), we encourage employers to instead ask questions that reveal the helper’s kitchen familiarity and willingness to adapt/learn.

We’ve learned that it’s often more important to find a helper that has familiarity in the kitchen and a teachable attitude than to find a worker who is already an “excellent cook,” because even the term “excellent cook” is only a subjective assessment based on the helper’s or her previous employer’s impression or opinion of her cooking, which will always vary from person to person.

But here’s some good news!

  1. There are many cooking classes available to send your helper to – including baking, healthy, Italian, Indian, Western, and Asian, among endless other possibilities, so you can hire a helper you feel good about and invest in her training to get her the skills you’d like her to have.
  2. Asking detailed interview questions can help you get closer to identifying someone who may be familiar in the kitchen and have a willingness to improve and adapt her cooking skills.

Here’s a few interview ideas to get you started:

You could start this part of the interview by saying to the helper, “Since cooking is really important to our family, and one of the main reasons we are hiring a helper, we want to ask you some questions about that.”

  • How many meals a day did you cook for your previous employer? (Frequency may reveal a level of familiarity in the kitchen.)
  • What did you make them for breakfast? What did they like to eat for dinner? (This reveals the skills they used at their previous employer’s home. For instance, it may make a difference if she was just cutting some fruit or making home-made omelettes for breakfast)
  • Have you ever made spaghetti/Chinese soup (pick a common Asian or Western dish that your family enjoys) before? Can you tell me how you would make that?
  • Have you ever cooked for an employer who had a special diet?
  • What did your previous employers think about your cooking? Did they think it was: OK, not very good, or did they think you were a very good cook?
  • Have you been to any cooking classes before? If we paid for you to go to a cooking class, is that something you would like to do?
  • You could also show them a simple cookbook with photos and then ask them: “Have you ever made anything like this (pointing to a simple recipe like baked potatoes or bok choy)? Or: “Can you show me the pictures of things that look familiar to you?”
  • If you wanted to, you could even make up a quiz with photos of common kitchen appliances (toaster, mixer, etc) and methods (pan-frying, boiling water, etc) and show your interviewee the photos and ask her if she can identify them.
  • We are looking for someone who doesn’t mind doing a lot of cooking and is willing to learn how to cook things that we like. Is that something that you’d like to do, or do you think it would be better for us to interview other helpers? (Their natural response and facial expression may reveal their willingness.)
  • How good are you at following recipes? How comfortable are you with trying new recipes or cooking dishes that you are unfamiliar with?

Read more: A Helping Hand: English/Tagalog Cookbook

Interviewing Tip: When asking these questions, you aren’t necessarily listening for the “right answers”; you are looking for someone who has a fair amount of familiarity in the kitchen, isn’t intimidated by your questions, and seems happy to take the job.

Keep in mind that even with the most thorough interview, it will always be hard to assess someone perfectly before you actually start living and working with them. So, we encourage employers to look for candidates who have the most potential to succeed in their household, and then train and manage them in a way that helps them to grow in the particular skills that you want them to focus on.

Good luck, mamas!

Featured image via Dreamstime, image 2 via Pexels

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