'I believed I had made the gravest error of my life'
Anna Healy Fenton talks to people from all walks of life about the learning route they have taken to further their careers
NAME: Richard Feldman
JOB: Entrepreneur and chairman of Mimosa restaurant group, including Lan Kwai Fong eateries such as Al's Diner, and Celebrate Macau's many Fisherman's Wharf outlets.
Was it always your ambition to be a restaurateur?
No. My father was a physician and growing up I was hugely interested in medicine, which is why I ended up initially studying pre-med at university.
What subjects did you study in secondary school?
I left St George's in Montreal in 1982 aged 16. I was strong in maths and sciences and weak in languages and literature, related to my dyslexia. From the age of six I had coaching in reading to train my eye-mind co-ordination.
How did dyslexia affect you?
It slowed my reading because one eye read one line and the other the one below it. There's a lot of self-doubt that goes with that diagnosis. I wasn't teased because I was still an A student and I had no problem with numbers. What I lacked in ability I made up for in determination. I learned that you either face your challenges or run from them.
What guided your choice of university?
Initially I had been accepted by Bates College on a full scholarship to study medicine and I was under pressure to go, because it was in the US and free and the weak Canadian dollar made American university fees very high.
But you were unconvinced?
I really wanted to go to Vassar College to study medicine instead. I loved the campus, the focus on academics and being so close to New York City.
Was there a defining moment in your education?
It's unheard of to do this in August. I wrote an outrageous letter to Vassar's dean of freshmen, Janet Andrews. I was only 17 but I said I believed I had made the gravest error of my life - such a drama queen! But that altered my career more than anything I did afterwards.
I heard nothing, so three days before term began, I called Janet Andrews. Guess I need to know, I said, should I take Interstate 87 (to Bates) or the New York throughway (to Vassar) for my future? She chuckled. The throughway, she replied, see you in a few days.
Why did you switch to drama after three years of medicine?
Being a liberal arts college, Vassar encouraged students to sow their educational wild oats and explore their calling. I switched because I discovered my love of language, having learned to develop a certain skill of writing. Suddenly what had been my terrible weakness became a unifying strength: I'd found a vehicle of expression.
How did you end up running restaurants?
With no scholarship, I worked up from campus dishwasher to personal assistant to the director of food services, running outlets serving 3,000 meals three times a day. I experienced all aspects of the catering business. To me restaurants are similar to the theatre, it's about lighting, colour and set design, energy levels and uniting the senses.
What do you enjoy most?
Watching each business blossom and grow. I love costings, systems, stock inventories: all the backroom stuff.
What skills are required?
I'm like a theatre director: I work out the back, but with a keen eye on the front of house. I'm making sure it happens but you don't see me, I'm not the star.
How important is education when you recruit?
As important as flair and genuine enthusiasm for the job.
What should students look for in a further education course?
A college that helps them explore, decide and develop their true calling: you can always specialise later.
Any jobs going?
Yes, for the Macau Fisherman's Wharf restaurants and the commercial kitchen here.