In May I wrote a guest blog post on Charlotte Druckman’s Tumblr. Charlotte is an accomplished writer/journalist living and working out in New York who regularly contributes to the WSJ.Com and New York Times T Mag Blog. She is also writing a book on women chef’s called Skirt Steak: Woman Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen due out Fall, 2012 on Chronicle books. During this time I felt ill with loss and separation from my accomplishments and felt much disappointment, but there was also rediscovery and rebirth which I continue to do. In response to that post there were some great chefs that contacted me and told me to keep on looking actually MOVE forward. I needed that, I yearned for the voice and participation of other women in my field that have stuck through it. Here is the link (finally) to those who haven’t read it…
During that time I kept busy and not so busy passing the time by questioning my motives. It was too hard to try to forget that moment when I looked in the mirror with utter despair, and told myself everything was going to be okay. The images of other chefs telling me to not give up, and with Charlotte’s help I was able to speak to different chefs, and some allowed me into their kitchens, because this is what they do.
Happier times ahead… fruitful ones realizing that I have put just too much on my shoulders. Giving myself a bit of time to inhale and exhale.
In the past couple of months I have found a new ally. I’ve been working with yeast and have grown and fond attachment to the living organisms that dissolve, dwell, and swell up within some of my baked goods. Pastry who knew? It came as a surprise, but again I find myself within the confines of a basement, in the pastry department.
The other month someone contacted me and wanted to do an interview on working line cooks, the reporter had a hard time finding female line cooks to speak with. Clearly saddened to hear that I was now working in the pastry department, she said that this wouldn’t work out. And even though I had worked as a line cook for the past 4 years, this 1st week as a pastry assistant was offering me complete displacement from the other side of the kitchen. So I posed a question her, “If you are finding it hard to find women line cooks then you should consider why that is happening…” because the problem is not about finding women line cooks but asking where are they…why is it that they are so much harder to find. Working with the many women cooks that I have been so fortunately connected with I know that this shouldn’t be too hard to find. Maybe we aren’t tatted up enough, maybe we aren’t glamorized enough. I felt that whatever she was looking for, whatever this article was about, as a woman reporter there was a bigger question amongst many – pastry surely emasculated the idea of cooking. So I continue…
A couple of months ago I was asked if I wanted assist in pastry for a bit, and while having mostly a savory background I thought WHY NOT? Another question was asked, “What do you want out of this” my shameless answer was “I just want to learn“, anything and everything about the craft of cooking. Call it stupid, but at this point in my career that’s what I can only offer. I can offer you that I will be a student, to compress as much information as I can from one cook to another, from one chef to another through osmosis. Listening and learning- hands on- trial and hopefully no errors.
However, I messed up a tart the other day at work. I overcooked the tart in the oven and I felt like a complete moron, it felt horrible and I was completely disgusted with the outcome. But that reminded me of something; one day working a busy brunch shift at NOPA, I was faced with multiple calls and multiple dishes that needed to come out, I was sweating and agitated, worked up and BUSY- the wood in the oven was hot, the sauce in my cazuelas molten and bubbly, eggs on the brink of becming overcooked and the line of salads other dishes growing. If one dish wasn’t turning out right then the fire times for the others would have to suffer. Frustration clearly seen from the shine on my forehead. My chef came up to me and told me, “Look Tina, a chef once told me the only thing that separates a cook and a chef is the ability to leave those mistakes behind.” So I did and next week was a better shift and so on…
Like yeast, I feel like I need to be active. A line cook that is now displaced into a whole new world. Even though this is temporary, I feel as if it is a chance to grow, to rise and proof. Never having been a person that fancied sweets and desserts I have become fond of the process. About an inch gained on the waistline and a palate that is getting sweeter, I have to say that I honestly enjoy working with the many malleable products that come out of the pastry department.
Having been once denied for one interview I became part of another…
I received an email asking me to be one of the women featured on a blog for the Max Mara group and their sister company SportMax. Way of Women is their blog and it is all about empowering women and I am very honored to be a part of this blog. Thank you Studio Blanco and SportMax Code. You can view the interview here:
Before you know it I’ll be 30…I had a lot to think about when I was away this week, like coming to terms with growing older and the frailty of life. I can try to escape the external influences in my life but that won’t help and well, I just have to face them. Last week I found out that my dear mom had surgery on her knee and I knew I wanted to be by her side.
To this day even with brooms and mops she still gets on her knees and uses her elbow grease to scrub the floors. It’s definitely the good old fashion way but it’s also a very slippery one. It only took one misstep, a loud yelp, and a few screws later… Thank the heavens to bits and pieces that my brother was home to take her to the hospital. It broke my heart to see the iodine that still stained her skin…not to mention the staples but I was happy to be near her.
I left San Francisco as it welcomed winds and a very strong storm.
As you enter into the world of the vast unknown you realize that to gain momentum you MUST keep your head high, your goals gleaming like bright beams of light and your inspiration tickling you, wherever you are. GO. I’ve said it before…just go. I’ve managed to keep my sights set on my family and my future…I just have to keep on cooking.
I thought I could be a private chef and work in a kitchen part-time. I thought…
I was wrong. I have struggled since I left Zuni Cafe to pursue my personal chef duties and made the mistake of trying to work at another restaurant part-time, whilst maintaining a relationship. Wrong. So as my client list grows so does my anxiety, and it looks like there is no half-steppin’ over here. Maybe toddler steps. No, Maybe teenage steps…No taking grandiose steps into the world with a machete to hack through those bushes…with slight trepidation but also with the vigor and curiosity of youth. I imagine myself wearing a cool flowy blouse, wedges, and cargo style capris while doing so. Freelance isn’t gonna be easy.
I felt panic, and uncertainty to having a job when I got back to San Francisco…an uncertainty and imbalance with myself and my career. Did I just jeopardize my livelihood by asking for time off so early with this new line cook position? I assume anyone with a new job would hesitate to ask for the time off, but I just had to. There was a communication error down the management line and now I must say Au Revoir.
I can’t panic I can’t shake I can’t wiggle out of this and I certainly won’t allow anger and resentment to creep its lowly head into my thoughts.
But I’ll tell you what was easy; seeing my nieces. This really made me realize that maybe just maybe certain things happen for a reason. Timing… I am a firm believer in the signs that the universe gives…it will give…and it also will take. It’s like a pointer finger going “You hey you yes you, I’m talking to you”. It was really great back in Southern California…hearing my nieces giggle with excitement, making cookies and pancakes; playing board games, acting silly, and just talking. Yet always it goes back to cooking and one of the greatest moments this past week was actually cooking Vietnamese food for my healing mom. As she slowly hobbled over to the kitchen island she smiled a bit when she saw that I was cooking her chicken and rice porridge. “Oh wow Bery gud…”
The times when I laid sickly in bed she would heal me with her chicken porridge w/ginger and I now also cook it for Daniel when he is sick. She looks at the scars on my arms and clicks her tongue with disagreement, and if it was up to her I would be a doctor by now. My mom small but oh so resilient. Her hair a bit disheveled her skin soft, her frame petite and her demeanor inquisitive. It still surprises me that she still has to ask me why I cook…sort of like a broken record she insists on luring me away from the fire. Actually, it’s just her asking question after question trying to understand why I love cooking so much. I kept on chopping garlic, smile and began to tell her my stories…
I tell her stories… stories of the times that I spent cooking at home by myself, and how much experimentation was going on at home during Elementary, Jr. High through High School. It was in college that I really started to cook. She knows about the joys I had with my dad when we went to our weekly lunches, she knew about my obsessions with cooking shows on PBS, she knew how much I loved to eat. Yet she decided that it was only a phase. She still doesn’t understand why a girl like me cooks for a living. My hope is that she is equally excited for me as she is proud.
So…I never tell her how hard it is to work in a restaurant kitchen. I never tell her about the rushes, when I am in the weeds, I never tell her about the anxiety, the cuts, the burns, the fire, the late nights, and sometimes the people…
I just tell her how wonderful it is to cook and how it makes me feel to cook for her after all those years of her cooking for me. I show her with her recipe/my chicken porridge, or with her recipe/my Ginger Lemon grass Chicken. In her small Vietnamese mom voice she says, “Ngon wah”. But with this change, it once again brings me to a happier tale of confidence lost (maybe in limbo) and re-found. Clutching onto this thing called life…I loosely release the pressure of my grip and with my Red Ben Simons on I gingerly walk to more personal chef challenges.
I left Southern California to a windy and horrible storm…and came back to a calmer San Francisco.
I should say I am happy but it seems like I might jinx things by saying so. All is good and great until there is another detour… Until then I will rejoice in the glories and the pains that enrich and enlivens me every day.
Wedding cakes. Never did I ever think that I would be the go to person when it comes to wedding cakes, but so far I’ve been lucky enough to experience what its like be able to sweeten up two couples weddings. My first attempt came about in May of 2009 when a statuesque blonde with bands of tattoos asked me to make her wedding cupcakes. 70 cupcakes, and a 4 tiered cake and a broken KitchenAid later the first special occasion cake was introduced to the world. The cake would be a fluffy Meyer Lemon cake with a lemon and orange blossom glaze slathered with whipped cream and garnished with slices of strawberries and candied kumquat. FIRST TIME! With some excellent help from my good friend Danielle, my roommate’s KitchenAid Appliance, and tips from my Pastry Chef Jen along with some last-minute necessities I was off for a bit of an adventure!
Armed and ready with butter, flour, sugar, eggs, honey, and garnishes within 3 hours I was able to whip out those lovely delicate cakes. But of course something had to happen. Dee (Danielle) dropped the kitchen aid on the LAST batch! Whew I thought, it’s okay because that was the last batch, but what about the frosting??? Mixer = Broken. Fell to its death. “Ohhh no I don’t have the money to pay for another kitchen aid” said Dee. “STOP! We’ll worry about that later”. With two whisk, A sunny San Francisco day, a back yard and some stairs we began to whisk the honeyed whipped cream into the light and airy frosting. The cake came out beautifully for a Spring Wedding! And of course delicious!
Second came about early June 2009. A couple overheard that I did a wedding cake and they asked me if I would want to do theirs? Suuurree I thought…later I received an email from the grooms mother asking me to make a grooms cake. With some handy-dandy research tools I was able to find out that a groom’s cake was a very southern tradition. Usually a very decadent or whimsical cake that is used to represent the groom.
Karl and Halo had a beautiful wedding on their family’s ranch July 4th 2009. Needless to say there were insufficient modern-day tools to help me with this one. I baked the vanilla cakes a day ahead and was able to pack everything in neat little containers so that the next day all I would need to do was assemble the 5 tiered cake. The cake would consist of Vanilla cake, with layers of whipped cream, strawberries and a milk and honey concoction. The outer would be slathered with whipped cream, bits of pecan praline, and shavings of chocolate. IT WAS A SUCCESS!!! But of course mishaps occurred.
No…absolutely no kitchen aid, no whisk, and no bowls present at the ranch. The local convenience store, and grocery store had only 2 1/2 pint containers of whipping cream. We had to drive 30-45 minutes away to two different locations to buy 10 1/2 pint containers of heavy
whipping cream. Daniel who was also photographing the wedding ended up also being my knight in shining armor and my driver. The local breakfast joint/lunch and dinner spot was kind enough to let me borrow a giant whisk and a very large bowl to whisk the cream, a bowl that Paul Bunion must have used himself. Assembling the cake was easssssssssy. 4- 8 inch round tiers of cake moistened with a milk and honey syrup (which I found was a symbol of long-lasting love in Persian culture), slices of fresh strawberries, hand whipped honey cream and a top-tier about 5 inches in circumference was the cherry on top. assembled 1.5 hours ahead of schedule I went off to take a shower and ready myself for the wedding.
“Y’all better head back to the house I think something’s happened to the cake!!” So with whipped cream still in my hair, my eyes bulged, and I took a gulp. WHAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED!!! I ran into the house. It felt like I had just walked into a bad hospital scene. All the nurses inside just bowed their heads down in silence as I walked through the archaic kitchen, walking through the sea of women in the kitchen to see my patient on its side 1/2 the body torn. The tiny fridge which held the large cake was pretty much at room temp. I faintly opened the refrigerator door only to find that half the cake had disastrously plunged to its sweet death. WHAT WAS I TO DO? the chocolate shavings the praline, the cake!!! THE CAKE!!! The electricity on the ranch was not up to par with modern-day standards. Daniel who by now was running around like a mad man shooting odds and ends of the wedding came to my side and offered me a suggestion as I went completely numb from shock. 1 hour till the wedding, no working oven, no supplies, no extra ANYTHING!
“JUSTICE LEAGUE” said Daniel “Lets just…do this…and that…and we’ll…and then…VOILA” the HALL OF JUSTICE was born. Karl the groom wanted a cake that would show his love for comic books, so he presented me with a few Justice League characters in the form of Lego figurines. This was to be the whimsical and decorative element of the cake. The tippy top of the cake was salvaged from the wreck. Somehow we jimmied the two leftover portions of the cake together. I can’t really explain how we did it but we d
id. With all the separate components now becoming one as the frosting suddenly the HALL OF JUSTICE appeared! No one was the wiser. The cake was better than the original and in fact matched perfectly what a grooms cake was all about.
“Are you the young woman who made the cake?” asked the grooms mother. An angelic woman of magnificent grace and beauty. “Yes…but I have to admit the cake didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to so I won’t charge you anything for it.” I braced her with what had happened, held her warm hand and led her into the kitchen. Her eyes lit up and she seemed completely shocked. I almost had to lift up her lower jaw from the floor!
She loved it, and she didn’t understand what was wrong with it in the first place! It was such a long SIGHHHHHHHHHHHHH of relief.
Both occasions I learned how important it is to roll with the punches and with downs always there is an upside to things. Nothin’ beats a little positive thinking, quick thinking and ingenuity. Nothing beats teamwork.
Its been a while since my fingers felt the erratic taps of the keyboard. There is something that I miss when I can’t find my inspiration to write. I always have the urge…searching and seeking for another experience to write about. Maybe, like much of my thoughts I should focus. Something will come…
The rain has erupted a bit of silence…and so has this bit of stability, but as new change slowly veers it’s shy head around the corner I find my heart beating again. Beating to an exciting new beat. A serious one.
Look…it isn’t glamorous who said it ever was. Today I sliced my finger. In an earlier post I had wrote about the beauty of a Berkel slicer and how the fat was “glistening” as I was slicing Salamis—Well today my finger felt what it was like to be a salami. Not as tantalizing as a savory piece of salami eh? But, I knew it would be for a good story.
Artistically I can say that the red was a deep red…a very deep concentrated berry red that dribbled down my finger–a deep blood red–almost like concentrated pomegranate. My chef whites acted like a blank canvas for the crimson red. Like a Jackson Pollock it unconsciously splattered all over my apron.
It all started with a hum. A Lykke Li song. When I slice I like to get into a rhythm and condense my thoughts into my own world, so that could immerse myself and concentrate on my immediate task. Happily humming along I was witness to my first finger slice! Something must have happened, another random thought must have weaved it’s way through my concentration. So I fumbled.
Oddly enough I HEARD the cut before I even felt it. It was like…well it sounded more like–Remember wood shop? It sounded like wood with a bit of pressure against the viciously moving saw blade . “HOLY (something)” — I proclaimed, as I grabbed my thumb and scrunched my face.. I think the cut was on a 1.5…so that means it was moderate. But, give me 2-3 more centimeters an it could have been a doooozy. Oh when I think of that sound it immediately takes me back to wood shop–at least there I never cut anything off. I did however, make a very beautifully detailed bird clock with a charming little heart.
I sqeeeeeeazed my precious thumb as if I were saying “I LOVE YOU DONT LEAVE ME!” My adrenaline was pumping…I had not felt the pain yet…and I remember the pressure.
My sous chef ran over and automatically knew what had happened…luckily “it wasn’t that bad”. Sure it wasn’t thaaaat bad but I would say I sliced a good portion of the end of my thumb almost off. The adrenaline lead me to a dark laugh that lead to a twisted joke to make everyone around me laugh. My sous (bless her heart) grabbed a kitchen rag and told me to “Go and sit in the dry storage…hold your hand above your head…apply pressure and don’t stop till the blood has lessened”… Chef came down and told me that he thought I was surely crying. “Your a strong girl”…and tried to calm my nerves. I was okay–I think. OH was my adrenaline pumping, my heart was beating and my leg was shaking. I just kept thinking about the rapidly turning slicer…and how much more could have been taken off. I kept on humming that song in my head.
I also noticed a bin of Romano beans. I also remember on the menu “Slow cooked Romano Beans”. I asked Chef, “how are those cooked?”. Two ibuprofens, 4 band-aids and one of those latex glove finger things and I was set. I went back to slicing and finishing up the prep for my station.
You know when I first stated I was hesitant to become a cook, I hesitated because of my mother. She cautioned me of the knicks, the cuts, the burns, the everything. My first burns came from baking cakes, or turkeys in the ovens, and, I still have the scars on my arms to prove it. I’ve splattered oil in my eye, frying eggrolls, or just being nosey–while watching my mother cook I would try to peak through the lids of a bubbling pot and burn my fingers. All this hurt…It’s intensified now. It’s no longer Mamma’s Kitchen.
This incident tonight reminded me of a few moments from my past. Like when I had my first wisdom teeth pulled. By the way, I was fully awake and conscious for the event . A couple of numbing shots of Novocaine and a few moments (more like hours) later I would experience my first traumatizing blood splatter–right ALL OVER the dentist’s pristine whites; that same bright red on his jacket was on my apron tonight. It also reminded me of PACO the parrot. Michelle, my hometown friend told me not to pet this bird…”harmless”, I thought. WRONG. That thing bit off a slice of my middle finger, and a straight line of splotches and splatters ran down those white mini blinds. It was as if I had taken a paint brush–dipped it heavily in paint–raised it behind my head and with momentum and a thrust whipping it onto the white blinds.
Apples slice differently than oranges. Sometimes you do not, need a sharp knife to cut through the crisp skin of an apple…but when cutting through the rough exterior into the flesh of an orange you need a sharper knife…well lets say a tomato. Sometimes it takes an extremely sharp blade to cut through something so delicate even though it’s skin is so thin, because any unnecessary pressure would bruise your produce. When you cut a finger it’s always better to cut with a sharp blade to lessen the pain. Well a sharp knife in general is ALWAYS a good thing to have. Just moments before I cut my finger I sharpened the Berkel.