Menu planning is fun, especially when you collaborate with others who can understand you and vice versa.
“For humanity, the two most universal languages are music and cuisine. Every town in the world eats and every town has music.” ♥
I still have to tell myself that it has been a little over a year since I started this blog…a little over a year since I started to cook professionally and here I am…a little over a year later.
But, it wasn’t very long since I started to teach the group of kids at the Thrive house to cook. And it wasn’t very long that I had learned how awesome it is to cook for those who truly appreciate your presence and your food. I love those kids and this past Monday was my last class with them for 2009. Lets go through the past weeks of cooking.
Week 1- Introduction – 4 girls gave them a questionnaire, introduced myself, felt uncomfortable, continuous giggling. One girl stated that she watched Lydia Bastianich on PBS, “Lydia’s Kitchen is my favorite show along with Cooks Kitchen”. This got me so excited for the rest of the classes….
Week 2- Turkey meatballs and a home-made marinara sauce, Green Salad with carrots and red onions and a balsamic vin. Taught the kids the ratio of avinaigrette…an acid…an oil…seasoning (salt pepper). Taught the students to taste as they go, and let them season the all the food. Taught them to salt their pasta water that “it should taste like the sea”, taught them to chiffonade basil leaves. Let them roll the balls, brown the meatballs, they minced and diced and sliced and the meal was a complete success. Cleanup was a bummer for the coordinators.
week 3- Smoked Turkey and kale soup. Found out that There was NO BUDGET for the classes. Went to the SF Foodbank for the first time to pick out ingredients for the class that morning; Cabbage, potatoes, onions, kale, daikon, garlic, carrots, apples. That day boiled some water with the turkey wings 3 hours, added some chicken stock for more richness, roughly chopped the daikon and put it in the broth for extra warmth and body, 5:00 set up whiteboard with list of ingredients. Desert? Yes. Apple Crumble? Yes ! Apple crumble it is. taught the kids to slice, chop, dice, and grate. Took out the turkey wings cooled them and let them strip off the meat to put back into the soup. Sliced some apples, brown sugar and cinnamon flour and butter and a bit o salt 30 minutes for desert & 30-40 minutes of simmering the soup, some cheesy garlic bread and yes, dinner was served. Timing? Still not so good. Out of class at about 8:00.
Weel 4 – Still had the leftover turkey in a tube from the foodbank. Hmm....still had potatoes…hmmm…okay well lets do mashed potatoes and turkey gravy. OH AND BISCUITS! 3 weeks of turkey so far what to do next. Taught the kids to boil potatoes, mash potatoes, season, and how to make them creamy and delicious. Next, saute meat with onions and garlic and some sausage taken out of it’s casing. Carrots, celery, onions, bell peppers, cornstarch (other ingredients…I know I am forgetting a few)…soon changed to a variation of Shepherd’s pie with buttery flakey biscuits on top. NO TIME!! took the biscuit dough off the pie, but luckily had 14 mini biscuits already cooking. Oh no! Oven temp went down…Oh no! pans were too large for the oven! With some last minute improvisation and yes, dinner was finally done. Kids ended up leaving at around 8:30. I don’t remember making a desert for this class.
Week 5: Sloppy Joe’s with an apple and carrot coleslaw! This recipe is in a previous post titled “A MESSAGE TO YOU…) This was also a great hit with the kids, even the ones that thought that they would never eat this type of coleslaw. Desert: Candied pecans (with butter and brown sugar and cinnamon with a little bit of nutmeg), Vanilla ice-cream and warmed peaches. The kids were really loud so no one ended up having desert. This class nearly gave me a heart attack.
week 6: TACO MONDAY- Cumin Citrus and Soy marinated flank steak tacos with fresh guacamole and salsa fresca, fresh shucked corn saute with garlic and butter, and black beans. Dinner was done in exactly 1/2 an hour. Taught them to; sear, chop, cut, julliene, squeeze, toss, mash, how to use a bundt pan cake to shave corn, why tortillas should be warmed and kept in a towel, how by using some of the same basic ingredients such as onions, garlic, salt, pepper, lime juice, and cilantro can become guacamole or salsa, also showed them how easy it is to have fresh corn taste so good with just garlic, butter, salt and pepper. Best class yet. I felt so invigorated after this class.
Week 7- Taleya brought in a shrimp fried rice recipe from her grandmother. With some suggestions from the program coördinator Thuy, the class would consist of Shrimp fried rice, with a Chinese inspired cabbage salad with wonton crisps, and strawberry shortcake for desert with fresh whipped cream. Some peas, carrots, corn, garlic, onion, butter, soy sauce, cilantro, champagne vinegar, green onions, pepper, chinese sausage, cabbage, wonton chips, peanut butter (for the cabbage salad) and yes OHHH yes dinner was right on time!! The kids got home at 7:30. And cleanup was a breeeeeze.
One of my most memorable moments was when a young girl named Tatiana came up to me and told me “I like you…”. “So why do you like me?” I replied “because your nice” “well what didn’t you like about the other teacher” “she was mean”…. Can I mention she also played the kids world music? I doubt you can connect with young kids now a days with drowning sounds of world music from the Putamayo series when they have Lady Gaga or Jay Z on their Ipods. Another memorable moment had to be when Joanna exclaimed at the table “YO, this is HELLA GOOD.” I also get so excited when the kids go for 2nds and thirds.
And Oh yes…feel good song of the 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.
And a little song:
Searching high and low for my next recipe…
I fell in love with Italian cuisine when my father used to take me to this small family owned and operated restaurant in our hometown. Now granted I didn’t venture far from home at the time so my experience with Italian food was very limited. A saucy and tangy tomato sauce topped with 2 large and moist meatballs. Yum yum yum…
I endlessly watched Lydia Bastianich when I was growing up with all those old and classic PBS cooking series. I love love loved making pasta at home for my brothers, and experimented constantly with different ways to wrap flavor around and through strands of pasta. I dreamed of studying Italian food with an old Italian grandmother.
One day I discovered risotto and I slowly expanded my repertoire. What I definitely like about this recipe is its warm and rich characteristics. The root vegetables lends a wonderful sweetness and the butter and parmesan add another level of flavor and richness. I wanted to marry the idea of Italian and Vietnamese cooking. So on a cold and foggy San Francisco summer I decided to make an Aborio Rice Porridge. In Vietnamese we call it a Chao…Here is the rough recipe.
Root Vegetable Chao
For the Stock:1/2 Left Over Roasted chicken
1 Large yellow Onion 1 cup stalks of celery 1 cup carrots 1 cup rutabagas
1 cup turnips a good size rind of parmesan Cheese
olive oil, Salt & Pepper, 1 1/2 cup Aborio Rice 4 cloves Garlic The rest of the reserved Root Vegetables. 4 cups Chicken stock 1/2 cup White wine 1 T Marjoram 4 T butter olive oil, Salt & Pepper, Garnish-Cilantro, Scallions, limes.
Season chicken well and roast bones/scraps with salt and pepper, roast on high.
Dice: Onions, Carrots, rutabaga, turnip and celery (reserve 1/2 of each for later). Smash your Cloves Garlic.
Saute onions (sweat) add 2 cloves smashed garlic, add the diced rutabaga and carrots and add your rough minced marjoram as well as butter.
Add stock and a bit of water, now add the roasted chicken, and parm rind. Deglaze the pan with white wine to release the drippings add all the goodness to the stock pot. Season with salt. Simmer for 1-2 hours. Deeper flavors will form when you simmer for longer.
When the hour has past, and flavors have started to mingle, in a soup pot heat your olive oil, Add the 4 cloves of smashed garlic infuse the pan with garlic oil, now add the Aborio rice coat well with oil add a bit of oil and toast lightly. Add your vegetable medley that was saved from earlier and continue to stir cook till onions are slightly transluscent.
While that rice is toasting begin to strain your stock. Remove your chicken pieces and cool.
Add a good heaping amount of stock to your toasted (not burnt) Aborio rice. You want to add about triple the amount of water at once and let simmer. Remember you want a porridge not a risotto so add all liquids at once, but more stock can be added as the process thickens. I think it’s s
o pretty with those sweet root vegetables floating with the Aborio rice. Add more stock depending on how brothy you would like your porridge.
Season well with salt and pepper. When chicken bones are cooled pick apart the meat, and leave some ski
n for a nice richness. Add scraps of meat into the porridge. Stir and let simmer for another 30 minutes. Total give for take an hour or an hour plus+. What about those large chunks of garlic? By this time they have melted and can be smashed down some more to give the porridge a bit of a buttery soft & savory richness. It just adds to the all around wonderful quality of the dish.
By this time the broth has becomes rich and glutenous but still slightly brothy. Garnish with chopped cilantro, green onions, and a wedge of lime.
It’s the start of a New Year. Excitement is in the air and so is change and I am looking forward to new endeavors. With that being said, I am letting go of a $1200 studio apartment. I am finding it harder and harder committing to such a heavy workload with such little pay. I am going to go full force at this in hopes of learning more, without the stress and burdens that rain on me financially…we all know the kitchen is stressful enough.
So…Roommates. Everyone knows what a task it is to find a room. Particularly daunting is the thought of having somewhat crazy psychotic or worst a hippie vegan with staunch political views that won’t let me cook in the kitchen with animal products. Those people exists. Those people also wouldn’t want me as a roommate. Roommate postings can range from sane to completely outrageous. Vegans not wanting to share pots and pans, roommates wanting Taco TUESDAYS, must like this must like that must not do this must not do that. It gets too much. Viewings take on another rabid spirit. When opening a door into a new apartment, there is sometimes that scary screeches from a soundtrack of a horror movie. Think Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I don’t want to live with Normal Bates. Then again it’s San Francisco I also don’t want to live with a Cheech Marin who will wreak of Nag Champa and patchouli.
I will miss my large and new kitchen. I will miss the oven, where I have created shortbread, and cakes, and roasts, and toasts when I lacked a toaster.
On to a new journey. More twists more turns.
The other week I cried. I snorted and blubbered through a moist towel. I sighed and breathed and got choked up. I was watching Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. I don’t obsess over many things, or many humans, but I can sometimes obsess over food. While watching the episode on Spain, I had a bit of an intense reaction to the beautiful philosophy that a culture had on food. The innovation the soft beauty that was present in each family story. Adhering to their roots…their culture, and transforming culinary traditions to create new ones.
It got me to thinking. I wanted to travel. I yearned to. I ache to. I want to taste and savour the splendid tastes and aromas of regional cuisine. I’ve gone on interviews with various chefs and talked about food, and when asked, “WHY?…do you pursue this…do you want this…what is it about food that you like…”
I’ve stated before that I can get pretty emotional with food, as well with art. But I was not expecting it to suddenly overwhelm me when I was watching the show. It evokes so much emotion in me. A wonderful spirit. Maybe it’s my fathers spirit lighting new hope within me ,when at times I thought all there was to this world was making my mother happy, and making money.
I couldn’t stop crying. It wasn’t sadness, maybe it was envy maybe it was jealousy. I wasn’t there to smell the wood burning, I wasn’t there to taste the seasonal farm fresh ingredients, overwhelmed with the sights and sounds of a different country. The aromas, the language the sun all tied in a bundle around my heart. Squeeeezing it sooo tight, that I really thought that my heart was about to burst.
It was just so beautiful. And I want to experience that. I love love love that. The excitement the passion, and the tactile and sensory experiences.
I am exciting about this years change. With $1200 of rent away…with getting my deposit back. I am ready to move with no excuses. With no looking back, no regret. To be able to travel, catch that bug that my friends talk about. Focus on expanding my palate with travel. I can’t wait. It will be a bit till I am able to save up for my culinary journeys, but it’s definitely going to happen.
I hail a toast to 2009 and beyond. May the wine be bountiful and aromas be bright and warm.
I realize no matter where you’re at in life, what’s most important is your ability to adapt. In the kitchen I find it so important to do just that…adapt. As I had mentioned before, every kitchen is different…the staff…both front and back…managers…the ideology…the ethos…the menu…the attitudes etc. What’s important is that you find the right place that best suites you. I’ve come across so many kitchens within my college years as well as beyond. I have met so many facets of the business, as well as personalities. The clash, the warmth, the oh so many descriptions of what can go on as well as who you come across. The good the bad and the ugly of it all.
Tonight was my second night at this particular restaurant. Tonight I remembered why I continue to passionately pursue cooking. The way a simple pomegranate was being handled seemed completely different from any other restaurant I’ve worked at. ONE….just one fruit…is treated like a precious gem. This gem was cultivated by a front of house employees’ father who owns a farm. This gem was aesthetically unpleasing to the public eye but beneath that rough and beguiling exterior lay tiny morsels of juicy pops. Pops that resembled large popcorn kernels. Popcorn kernels that were bursting with a crimson red. No juices were lost.
Ohhhh, that look of excitement and the tiny giggle that came out of my pastry chef’s mouth. The bright childlike innocence from her eyes that shook with wonder as she described to me the marvel of this particular pomegranate. I loveeed it. I too giggled inside when I stood there picking through the seeds and membranes. I thought of her glasses and her rosy cheeks and the time she so happily charmed me with her love for that pomegranate.
Profit, consistency, whatever it is, it’s clear that the ones that really succeed do it mainly because the food always will be the stand out piece. Pleasing the palates of your customers. Imagine inviting someone into your house only to burn the turkey. There’s this beautiful satisfaction that one gets from watching their loved ones carefully and quickly savor each bite that you have so lovingly created.
But what makes something stand out? I don’t know yet. I’ll maybe figure it out one day. For right now my focus is on the now…with slight dreamy flickers of the future. I have to focus.
Tonight I realized that there was a distinctly different air when I walked into a kitchen filled with my own peers who spoke of their similar love and excitement for food, who have knowledge of much of the same experiences that I have. To be able to connect and converse with an open dialogue. To prove yourself in a different way. Not just with strength.
There is a bit of a brotherhood/sisterhood that is formed when one has that familiar work ethic. The hard work the sweat the toils of the kitchen. The smooth movements the terminology, the confidence that one gets when you enter that hustle mode. The crackle and buzz of the ticket machine, “OVEN!!” “HOT!!” BEHIND YOU!! HOT!!!” “TWO ALL DAY”….etc etc…
What I love most? Ordering anything off the menu…what customers would pay 28-32 dollars for? I get it…soup with soft roasted and simmered stocks? You got it…salads still so crisp they can resemble crisps? You got it…fresh from the farm greens with Banyuls vinaigrette and sharp white cheddar and golden raisins, roasted squab with an apple compote, lovely well seasoned roasted chicken with a bread salad and chicory, Devil’s Gulch rabbit with a mustard potato puree and braised garlic, bread soup with delicious imported Olivio Nuovo. It’s all there and it’s what I have for dinner. Fresh sushi from the 3 main fish markets in Japan? Never frozen and meticulously prepped? I got it. Spaghetti and savory yummy meatballs as large as the size of your clenched fists, fresh pastas, raviolis and all the charcuterie that I can eat…I once ate so much house made charcuterie on my first week of work that I got fever chills from overindulgence.
Never take this for granted. In the end food is an essential part of life and I realize how lucky I am to experience this. Even though I have not experienced a restaurant to the likes of El Bulli, I realize that if I ever did I would treat it like the most decadent meal. If I ever go to the French Laundry? I would tear up with enchantment. It’s a luxury and so are most forms of art; like theatre, or being able to purchase that Yinke Shoninbare piece, the symphony. The finer things in life. To which I think everyone should be exposed to. As integral as food is to many old world cultures, I can begin to promote it as marvelously as I can to my friends and loved ones.
Oh how wondrous would it be for one to be able to conjure up and cultivate your own larder, with exotic and mind boggling imported items, the freshest herbs, the freshest most delicate and full flavored stocks.
Flickers of my future…I can’t tell you. It’s really because I don’t know. Presently It’s a beautiful thing…its something that when you are deep in thought and concentration nothing can mess you up, unless it’s that time of the month, a nasty breakup etc…but in a kitchen when your gunnin’ whole heartedly at it, that bit of ADD that was there all your life has suddenly pushed a pause button. Your catapulted into your own realm of thought.
Here I stand with those that have been with this establishment for 10+ years. The newbies…2 years…7 months…9 months…every single person I spoke with had a similar story of why they stayed. Some culinary school grads, some not. Many came from a college past, and decided to forgo their B.A’s or MfA’s in order to be in a kitchen. Most of the chefs that I have had the brilliant time to work with did not come from culinary school. It was their patience that lead them to where they are now.
Patience and conscious decisions go a long way when it comes to developing a successful entrepreneurial establishment. Patience for someone who tears up from talking about food, patience for someone who hasn’t had much of schooling for the culinary arts. Patience for the newbie. Not many places can have or afford to do so. With that being said…this was the first time I ever heard this when asked about my job performance…
“It looks like you aren’t green behind the ear”
Is that just more kitchen speak?
Common sense and being able to work in an environment that isn’t micromanaged makes your mental challenge so much more fulfilling. An establishment that has the craft honed to a crisp from the years of paying attention in various kitchens. Seeing what could be improved. Using 4 plastic bins to shell through garlic? Why? There is a reason to why a restaurant exists and has stood the test of time. Ahhhh, but common sense also comes with experience. I hope to gain more.
“Hey Tina can you plate an anchovy plate”
As I sliced through that vegetables on my tiny cutting board and cut the four slices of cheese, plated the particular number of anchovies, the delicious green olive oil the cracked pepper the 5 nuggets of olives…there was an utter sense of pride and pleasure…
“That looks beautiful”.
I felt so giddy.
I’ve learned that an establishment that allows for questions is a prosperous one.
And as I savored that gooey bite of that mountainous thick rich gateau that layed there along that fresh and soft whipped cream…my tongue tingled with delight. It smoothly dissipated in my mouth and down throat. Not too sweet, but definitely a very skilful chocolate indulgence. Ohhh sighhhhh…
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.
Let’s 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.
This is new to me, the long hours on your feet, the concentration, and the chaos. Coming home smelling savory, cuticles dry.
Let’s 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 most importantly it’s my own. With that being said, it is also expensive. What I said earlier about being able to sustain myself.
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!