Leather…

You know I’m not 21 anymore…I find that my hustle to get by day by day is getting harder and harder.   My track record right now since my layoff isn’t the greatest as said by one of my close friends, but the catalyst to my breaking into cooking was my layoff; from a great and consistent 9-5 w/ health insurance. Le sigh…ahhhhhhhhh.  Just when I thought that my college education gave me a great job with room for growth–once again I was thrown back to becoming a waitress “just got for a little bit”… so now the journey into the kitchen…

It still affects me–that layoff.  Lately it’s been such a struggle to keep up with finances and bills. But I just have to keep on moving.  The second job? The Third job?  I think of the frivolous spending amidst a couple of months ago, I think of the holidays to come, I think of the new job that will be starting in December the working nights and the weekends.  It’s gonna be quite the transition. 

I’m not writing about anything bad, but in this journey to becoming a “chef” I am currently starting at the bottom when once I was steady stable and often times longing to cook.  Whether I am prepping squash, pears, beets, garlic, pizza dough or frozen calamari, or whether I’m on the line; I enjoy these moments…I just don’t enjoy the bills that come along–and a beginning kitchen staffs wage.   Never do I begin to question if I am happy doing what it is that I am doing.    

In general life is complex: finding yourself, a career, and working alongside that dang passion that I so often talk about is also hard.   Add that together and you got yourself quite the puzzle.  Student loans are also a reality.  

Is it possible to do both, hustle at both. Pursue a longing and long term desire, and to maintain that professional self.  It can happen it just takes time and right now is a great time for change. And of course a perfect example of that change was Tuesday nights Presidential Election.

OBAMA 08!

Lets step away from food for just a second…Hope-Change-Pride

Can we talk about how electric this new change is? Obama IS our President elect.  Our votes counted and in record numbers we proved that we as a nation of immigrants, nationalists, socialists, democrats, republicans…yadda yadda you get my gist.  WE DID IT and the whole world was watching!

You know what this feels like??? It feels like sunshine.  The soundtrack to this day is some beautiful Rocksteady soundtrack. Can you actually feel it? How beautiful was it to see him hold his daughters sweet little hand-Right behind him,  his wife alongside his eldest’.  Lights flickering–walking down that blue isle–and that deep deep breath…

Now thats lightning.  What an awe inspiring reaction…I got tingles I got chills I got this feeling of pride and love deep inside and all over me that night.  Total goosebumps.  It was so o just be in a room full of such different and progressive individuals that all applauded and believed in this momentous day.

As a minority, as the child of immigrant parents–I too am am immigrant, I definitely can’t forget that. Ohh can you see just how lovely this is!?  Can you feel the sunshine and the glee in the air. Oh the rush of those tremendously loyal believers in Chicago last night. This morning I woke up and typed in “President Obama”, it was then it really hit and I started to tear up   The air today is THICK with excitement, but also there is a total buzz of relaxation.  

Can you imagine how rad it would be to cook for this family? Im thinking about what I would make–what his daughters would like to eat and probably the access to food that I would have if I could cook for that family.  I would make something warm, hearty, delicious, comforting, new, and very Tina.  See I stepped away from food for just a second. It’s a very bright day.


83306963CC398_Barack_Obama_

Apples and Oranges.

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.

Muy Facile…

There is so much that I am usually passionate about but nothing compares to my love for food taste and flavor. The whole plethora of taste and the wonderful senses that sometimes nearly levitates you.

It’s like love.

I find that passion with each kitchen that I have had the opportunity to come across. The sometimes stoney high that you can get from smelling the sweet wood smoke from the brick oven that turns out rich and moist roasted chickens, with their white linen table clothes and jazz fillng the air. The clean and casual smell of fresh fish that mimics the smells of the ocean only to be found in a very small boutique sushi restaurant. The loud ambiance and rush of smells that rush at you when you enter one of san francisco’s punk rock urban Italian ghetto dining spots. The corporate streamlined chaos of a kitchen filled with every South American male within reach, the white linen clothes, and the loud crowds. The RUSH THE RUSH THE RUSH!

Every kitchen has its different rush and I am excited and maybe a bit hesitant to see whats to come. I remember reading one of Anthony Bourdain’s books when he explains the kitchen like a beautiful dance, and well at the salad stations when things can get slow and the saute guys are sweating profusely, the grill guys are supposed to cook the meat Justttt right the pasta guy, to the guy that has to plate alll of the salumis ( thats me sometimes) hey…so far the salad kids have it easy. I’m learning every second that I’m there.

Sometimes when I get off of work I smell like salumis. I spend my days at this Italian restaurant slicing various salami’s and salumis. Difference? A salami is a dried sausage stick, salumis are really all cold cuts and cured meats! That’s how I get it. Sometimes my fingers are blackened from picking and choppin cured black olives, sometimes they take on the bright red qualities from the roasted beets that I peel and slice.  Sometimes unattractively they smell like vinegar when I continuously toss salads with my hands all day, and all of this I truly find invigorating.   When I am at the station–It’s a total sensory experience.  That beautiful tactile experience you get when you make a simple crudo plate or when you can feel the glistening fat off a piece of mortadella. The gentle touch to a salad, being careful not to bruise the leaves.

The other day I learned that my first investment in a kitchen knife wasn’t sharp enough, after I sharpened the knife the sound of slicing a scallion was completely different. This is what I mean by sensory. You adapt to so many things in the kitchen…once you experience the good you never want to go back. Now I want to sharpen my knife whenever my ears tell me to.

My ears also allow me to listen to the tunes that are playing, swimming through my mind with whatever task  that’s in the kitchen.  I will hum the tune of Julieta Vinegas in one kitchen,  while another it could be the buzz of Stereolab, and while slicing salumis I could be using that Berkel to the catchy rythym of the Ramones. The other day I couldn’t get this particular Spits song out of my head.  My mornings breakfast and baking cravings and dinner nights could be played alongside a soundtrack of Nirvana, The Smiths, or a streaming Podcast of lovely classical music.

I am passionate about food because words cannot simply express what it is that I feel deep inside when I adapt to my kitchen environment. I am passionate about food because when I first came into contact with my favorite pasta maker we connected through broken Spanish, and mainly body language.

No No…Muy Facile” he told me when I became to rough with the pasta… Gentle Gentle...

He was a kind kind man with who reminded me of a Latin American Luigi.  He had a bit of a belly, slightly curly dark hair and that signature upper mustache of the Mario Brothers clan.  “PARP-PARR-DEHL-LEH!” He would explain…“RAH-VEE-OHH-LOH” it was as if an Italian soul was locked inside him. From him I learned the gentle hand of a not so rough man. We barely could comprehend one another but eye contact smiles and simple words, we forged a silent bond that was inspiring to me.

Sweetness and Desire.

 

picking herbs

My father passed ( GOD I miss him) a few years ago and I have so many beautiful memories of him. He would laugh tirelessly to the three stooges, Gilligan’s Island, and to I love Lucy.  I often will replay that boisterous and roaring laugh over and over, in good times and bad.  His laugh would shake a room and to this day rivet my heart. He was also a man of great mystery who failed to say many words, but when he did I would often listen intently to the fables and sweet folklores of my Vietnamese heritage.
From him I gained patience. He stood tall beneath that 5’6 frame and I was proud to have him as my jolly father.  I wasn’t always proud of his car though. He drove a 1979 Toyota Celica, and then a 1981 Toyota Celica–both hatchbacks. He had a black head full of voluminous hair, ears that protruded from his kind face. His smile could still bring to me such a feeling of pride, that it aches my heart to think he ever left.

He was tanned from the natural melamine that ran through his Cambodian bloodline. He had the cheeks of a wisest elder, and the smile of that Jolly good luck Buddha. There are so many memories of him–

My mother would get mad at him if he slept in the same clothes after work, and it was worst if he didn’t shower.  He would marinate the sheets and blankets with the sweet and savory smells of the donut fryer. He was a baker through the later parts of his life. He did so tirelessly and sometimes it seems endlessly.   I never knew how hard he worked. We owned a bakery– DONUTLAND.  I spent most of my early childhood behind the counter of the shop, still sometimes hearing the ding ding ding of the cash register.   Whenever I pass by a donut shop (not just any bakery) I am often reminded of the sweet and melting shortening smell of the deep fryer.   The wonderful hints of cinnamon from the donut crumbles, the saccharine sweetness of the frosting that was ladled onto the glaze donuts.

Nowadays I look forward to walking pass a donut shop peering inside to find an Asian American immigrant behind the counter. The sunlit warmth of the smell becomes somewhat aroma-therapeutic and the visual images let me imagine their immigrant story.  No no NO! my mom would not allow my father to take a nap in the bed because of the strong odors that would sew themselves through the threads of his clothing and skin crocheting themselves with the delightful smells of the bakery.  And of course the sometimes not so delightful smells of the exhaust fumes filling the 1979 Toyota hatchback

“PROOFING” my first lesson from my dad the baker. “That’s when the dough rises–” Yeast water flour and time in the very humid proofer…wait…actually he would usually have to proof the dough overnight on the bakers table. I lovvvvvvvved tippy toeing up to the bakers table peeking at that oversized lump of dough that almost resembles a very yeasty bready smelling blob. It usually formed an outer crust when not kept under a moist towel…that gave me an excuse to pick at the scablike crust. Oh and of course POPPING the dough. Punching it in and releasing its air. I never realized just how much i remembered about the Donut making process.

Imagine this—suburban town that was mainly blue-collar, Latinos and Caucasians. We were one of the very few South East Asian families in the area. A donut shop tucked away on a corner hidden behind a major freeway vein. Hot dry days, and the next town over sprinkled with empty fields once smothered with cows and farmland.  There a little donut shop DONUT LAND was sandwiched between Victors Cleaners and Clover Insurance. Before you walk in there is a little girl feeding the birds, a woman who steps out of a 1981 white Buick Skylark with Tupperware bins filled with food, and a smiling husband opening the door to welcome her. So sweet, so cute. This is something that still visually haunts me

Pink interior…bad pink…pink donut boxes (your standard), a 5 column/ 4 tiered display of various donuts—pink ones, blueberry ones, brown ones, croissants, muffins, the works! A standard 6 burning coffee maker, a two sliding door fridge, and an ice-cream fridge that held about 8+ barrels of ice-cream.  I was surrounded by sweets!   The whole operation was fairly spacious. Spacious enough to let me rollarskate around.  My father worked a lot and I fear that it was what lead him to an early goodbye. I can’t even say if I ever heard him complain.   Sometimes when I feel like I’ve worked endlessly for hours I usually compare the work time with what my father had to deal with, and it helps me with gaining a different perspective to a career.

When I work in a kitchen it is not only to satisfy my daily desire to hone a craft but to pay homage to a man that has given me so much strength. He was the one that taught me to sauté and what a stir fry was, that if you put cornstarch into beef then it makes for a moist and succulent beef stir-fry. Steak with A-1 was “Ngong wa”….Soooo good. He loved my cooking, he would say “No body makes a turkey like Tina” he loved my pastas he loved my roasted chickens and he loved all the cakes I made. He was able to let me experiment in the bakery with various fillings for the donuts. I could fry, form, and glaze anything I wanted to. He taught me how to unroll a frozen croissant to stretch it out lightly, then roll cheddar and ham into it, he taught me how to scoop a good ice cream cone, how to ring someone up, how to plop a donut into the fryer, and of course how hot a donut gets when you don’t let it cool off.

With this I learned that those simple virtues have also embedded themselves through myself, and as I look back without too much holding on I hope those key moments will enable me to become the woman who my children will someday admire.

The patience and intelligence and nurture that is available in the kitchen can become a meditative process.  A process that has been instilled within me since my early days listening and watching my father work. I want to be wonderful and classic just like him. Just like my mother. I want my laughter to ring through a room and shatter darkness.

When I chop garlic, I think of how he would chop garlic. When I was at Zuni the other day chopping garlic I could feel him behind me guiding my knife. The last dream I had of my father, we were being chased by Karl Lagerfield, hopping fences and running through rounds of ammunition, and like superheroes we kicked jumped rolled and ran through the tireless night. I never wanted that night to end. But the night before I had a  dream that we were in a small kitchen my hand touching his cheek telling myself that this must be a dream and him just affectionately smiling at me. I woke up.

I love you DAD!

The Egg and the Scissors

It has been planned for nearly 3 decades that this day would come that inevitably I would be pursuing cooking FULLY.

Of course its more than fate that lead me to this day.

I remember hearing stories of when my father and mother would tell me that I picked an egg and a pair of scissors. I loved hearing this story because I was always a creative child who excelled in the arts.

So that you can further comprehend, there is this old Buddhist tradition, that in your first year of birth you are allowed to pick up two items from a table that would later determine your destiny. Consider it like self handpicked clue to the rest of your life.

Creativity and Food, I took it as Creativity and Life…

You can look at it either way.

Of course my brothers and sisters picked up, a calculator, pair of glasses, a pencil, a pen and a book. I don’t remember the rest but my sister ended up a driven business woman and dotting mother of 4, my brother a writer/ philosopher and a fireman, and my other brother into sales and marketing, all admirable in their rank, all graduated with degrees and some. Then there was me, the egg and the scissors. While I decided at 18 I wanted to dive into food.

“No” my mother would say. Girls are meant to stay clean and pretty and the kitchen is tough work and long hours. My daughter will never be doing that”

My mother in a nutshell. Actually no, my mother was a manicurist, to expand on this she was quite the workhorse. When she passes she will be a martyr because she lived for her children, she worked and breathed for her children. She was a lowly paid immigrant mother who never wanted her children to struggle like she did. But as long and strenuous and she worked she would come home and there would ALWAYS be fresh hot food on the table. Fresh stocks in the freezer, fresh herbs, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit. And of course always on a budget.

“Mom don’t you remember that I picked an egg and a pair of scissors? Don’t you think that meant something?”

“Don’t you realize that this was all superstition? It’s just a fun tradition”

“Well then why do you always say that it rang true for everybody else?” Everybody else meaning my brothers and sister.

I was always pretty spiritual and admired the idea that someone out there was looking out for me and that there was something mystical in the air that would lead me to my path. I liked this idea because from an early age I began to cook. I was fascinated by flavors and textures and how food felt in my mouth. I savored every last morsel of my mothers cooking and when my father took me out to “other” restaurants I would sometimes go into a daze about the food I was cherishing down.

My first true experience and my FIRST experience with being in a kitchen was at a spaghetti shack. When I went here for the first time I fell in love with the ambiance but most importantly I fell in love with the tangy and thick marinara sauce that blanketed the strands of spaghetti. The meatballs that were served with plate were large and beautifully savory. This took me back…it took me back to a time when my father would take me to this dingy Italian restaurant in our hometown and my favortite thing to get was the spaghetti and meatballs, that tangy sauce resonated through my memory and for years I never found something comparable to the sauce.

I bugged the chef endlessy for months to let me behind from just being a customer to becoming his apprentice. “For Free” I said. Well months later he called me out on it and I finally had my first training. On and off for a few months I came back into the kitchen. The haunting smells that would linger on me for hours even after leaving “the shack”, this was a safe warmth to me that holds dear to me because it was like a hug from my father.

My delight came from Saturdays with my father when he would come home from work and bring me home “American FOOD”

From Chinese takeout, In and Out Burgers, Fried Chicken, to Spaghetti and meatballs.

To me these were all considered American FOOD because all I had experienced really was my mother delicious Vietnamese home meals.

Her dinners were always abundant, there was always a soup to accompany a rice dish with a luscious table full of cucumbers to freshen the palate from the salty and savory spiced proteins that were served alongside fresh herbs. Her porridge was a homage to her mother and all the mothers and grandmothers who came before her and was like soft cushion of warmth in the cold winter months. Her soups and stocks were elegant and refined with delicate flavors that were bright and vibrant. I can’t say enough about my mothers cooking and there will never be someone who I feel would ever be able to mimic her clean style of cooking. I remember going to the markets with my mother, her 5’1 frame would coyly ask the produce man “Sir would you happen to have anything special back there or fresher??” of course he would run back to her with fresher basil, mint, sprouts anything. I was sometimes embarrassed by how much she would torture the fish mongers and butchers with the same question when they would say no she would argue with them and complain about the quality of meats that were present.

“Look woman if you don’t want it don’t buy it”

to that my mother would reply “YOUR MOM” and elegantly walk away annoyed because she didn’t get her way.

“No no not that one…the one next to it…no the bigger piece…less fat less fat, no no not that one…the eyes are too grey…yeah that one its plump!” From her I learned quality.

My father was the juggernaught of force in my early culinary discovery. I remember a time when he was a cook at a Chinese restaurant. He wore many hats, he was once a school bus driver, a mailman, a line cook at a Chinese restaurant, a line cook at a bowling alley, a gardener, a migrant worker, a janitor, and of course my favorite a baker. He was an educated man who immigrated to his country because he was in love with my mother and in love with his children and wanted a better life for them. So BOTH did whatever they could in order to raise us very well.

One day dad brought home an EEL! I had never seen one before and was curious to what I was about to see. He plopped the thing in the bathtub filled with water and said that it was still alive. It slithered through the water still alive and whipping.

I watched him butcher the writhing creature till it was just bits. Cleaned of all innards and blood it did it cleanly with a cleaver and a wooden cutting board, with his feet flat on the floor and squatting down. Raising that cleaver like it was an axe and he was the cowboy. He made the most delicious curried stew in that electric wok, with lemongrass, garlic, onions, curry powder, carrots and potatoes with of course that one floating bay leaf hidden within. The eel fell off the bone and we gladly ate the fish sauce infused stew with bread.

Both were gifted in the culinary arts, and both were sticklers for freshness and flavors.

My mother would have to work early in the mornings but my favorite day to wake up were Saturdays. I would get a light kiss on the forehead, slowly wake up from my slumber and make a trek to the living room…pulling my heavy blanket through the hallway. Sleep till about 9:00. Do you remember cooking shows before there was even the Food Network? Do you remember these beautiful classic and just straightforward cooking shows that would elevate and inspire so many other future chefs? I do. And I remember Jacques Pepin, and The Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child, Martin Wong, Lydia Bastianich, YES I remember allllll of these and I remember that watching them cook was like learning about the most profound things that I have ever come across. SO within my nearly 3 decades I was talked out of a cooking career. What was the catalyst? What was the last straw? What was it that made me get into cooking now? I remember yearning to try what fresh homemade pasta wasted like, I remember learning important vernacular that I still use to this day. Julienne, slice, dice, mirapoise, bechamel, to butterfly, to pound…I remember it all.

Please read over this post again…Just because I was talked out of it before never made it impossible to pursue.

I have so many fond memories of food and how they have enveloped my thoughts and how much I find passion within flavors and producing awe inspiring cuisine. Learning and working around it alone, I feel that I have been privileged to be around and have such great mentors past and present. I hope this will be an interesting journey.

WELCOME – The beginning Oct 2008

Lets start off by admitting that I was hesitant to enter the world of food partly due to fear.

I was fearing losing my femininity, I was fearful of the long hours, I was also fearful of the financial burden and questioned whether I would be able to sustain myself.

We’ll see.

This is new to me, the long hours on your feet, the concentration, and the chaos. Coming home smelling savory, cuticles dry.

Photo 23

Lets get it straight…all those things aren’t really new to me, more or less I have been witness to the long hours on my feet as a waitress, the concentration (fairly new) and well the chaos. I’ve always liked chaos, but what I like in a kitchen in the organized chaos. The dry cuticles on the other hand have intensified.

I currently live in San Francisco in a small studio with a very large kitchen and a separate bathroom. It’s pretty cute and its my own. With that being said, it is also expensive. What I said earlier about being able to sustain myself, I also neglected to mention that I have to admit I have a shopping habit.  I have a certain lifestyle that I find comfortable but never high maintenance. I like my Jo Malone Mandarine and Honey Blossom cologne, and I am probably one of the only cooks you know that will carry her knives in a Marc (by marc) Jacobs bag.

So far It has been 8 months since my official layoff from a 9-5 and 7 into my attempt at this cooking career. And so far I’ve accomplished much. Yesterday I was passing through a couple of waiters counting their tips as my 5’2 small framed self was carrying stacks of hotel pans through them.  I thought to myself “Damnit what am I doing?” seconds later as I headed over to my station I realized NO REGRETS! This was something that took 27 years in the making and now I have a chance to pursue it!