For cabin crew members Wong Chek Leng, Giolyn Lee and Joshua Kalinan S/O Sinnathamby , their jobs have given them the opportunity to learn more about wines and spirits through sommelier courses. These courses have in turn lead their careers down more interesting paths.
“Before I joined Singapore Airlines, I was actually a teetotaler,” says Chek, who now trains younger crew members in spirits. “When I joined the company, I thought, since we serve spirits and beverages on board, I should learn a little bit about what goes on in the planning, so I signed up for a Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course.” As part of the overall cabin crew training and self-development programme, crew are encouraged to take up courses relevant to improving themselves.
Chek excelled in his job and was promoted to Chief Steward. His success has also led him to some interesting opportunities, like creating a cocktail for Singapore’s 50th birthday. He recalls, “It was a mixture that included Baileys and milo. Milo is quite uniquely Singaporean, so I wanted to incorporate that into the cocktail.”
Naturally, crafting cocktails in the air is not the same as working behind a well-stocked bar on the ground. “There are some challenges [on board a flight], such as [not having] knives to cut up fresh fruit onboard, but we do what we can,” says Chek. “I think that creativity is the common thread, [regardless of where you are working].”
Leading Stewardess Giolyn Lee, who has been with the airline for 18 years, felt her knowledge in wine and spirits was lacking when she first started flying with Singapore Airlines. It was for this reason she decided to enroll in courses that would give her more experience. In 2006, while undergoing her sommelier training, she participated in and won the World Gourmet Summit competition for new sommeliers. “[My batch mate and I] represented Singapore Airlines,” she says. “We competed against hotels and restaurants in the industry as well as students from Shatec.”
Beyond this accolade, Giolyn appreciates how her knowledge affords her greater opportunities to interact with passengers. “I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I can share my passion for wines with like-minded people. Wine is our common language, and it lets me relate to passengers from all over the world.”
When it comes to pairing wines on Singapore Airlines, Giolyn is passionate about finding what works best. “For Economy Class, I would recommend the new Sauvignon Blanc. It’s a new wine trend right now and it’s a good starter and whets the appetite with its acidity in the fruit. It’s easy with food, as it cuts the fat off anything oily.”
Inflight Manager Joshua Kalinan S/O Sinnathamby has been with the airline for 26 years, and was led into the world of wines by a fellow colleague. “At that time, the sommelier programme hadn’t started yet,” he explains. “But we would go to places to buy wines and drinks, which got me interested in Australian and New Zealand wine… and wanting to be a sommelier.”
Over the years, Joshua’s passion for wine has led him to constantly study the topic, having done the WSET levels Two and Three, as well as the Certified Wine Education (CWE) which was held in Japan in 2014. It was during this time that he became fascinated by sake and decided to enroll in the sake sommelier course by the Sake Sommelier Association (SSA) in the UK.
“[Learning about sake] is tough,” says Joshua. “First of all, I had to study in Japanese, and secondly, it’s a very mystical drink. It’s an ancient drink with lots of history behind it. In the past, it was offered to the gods and the monks in monasteries and temples.”
In 2014, Joshua decided to compete in the Sake Sommelier of the Year competition held by the SSA. He proceeded to get into the semi-finals and the following year, became the first person in Singapore to get the Level 3 Sake WSET qualification. For Joshua, all this knowledge has come in useful onboard when it comes to suggesting suitable sakes for the premium class passengers.
For Joshua, Giolyn and Chek, there’s no doubt that being an Air Sommelier has added an interesting dimension to their jobs. Besides the qualifications and the experience, at the end of the day, it’s all about the customers.
As Chek puts it, “If you were dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant, you would expect the staff to be able to describe the wine and food in detail and to be able to demonstrate impeccable service to ensure that everything is perfect. And you would expect them to be able to make certain recommendations. It’s the same for us crew. This training allows not just me, but all our sommeliers to meet the ever-increasing expectations of our customers.”
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