Brace yourselves, this is a long post I’ve been meaning to write. It outlines my background in food and why I want to pursue cooking as a career. Put simply: I love food. There, now you can skip the 1,000-word dissertation that follows. But please, if you would, read it anyway…
First, a photo of good food to whet your appetite (cioppino from Catch – Santa Monica)
From a very young age, I favored faux cooking sets over dolls. Once my parents felt confident I wasn’t one of those kids that eat toys (you know, the reason why they have those minimum age requirements and choking hazard notices), I graduated from the plastic fruit held together with velcro and packaged with small plastic knives. Anyone remember Kitchen Little? I had the whole set of miniaturized-to-scale kitchen pieces, down to the stove with “real” oven that would “roast” a mini plastic turkey, the double-door refrigerator that even had a “working” ice maker, and the kitchen island as if I did not have enough cabinets and counter space already to store my set of All-Clad-like pots and teeny tiny dinner service for 8 (seriously, the forks and spoons were no bigger than 1 inch long).
I grew up watching cooking shows on Food Network. Martin Yan was (and still is) my hero because after all, if Yan can cook, so can you! He brought to life many of the foods so common to our dinner table. Asian connection aside, I also hurried home from elementary school in time to catch Jacques and Julia, a show on PBS that featured two of the food world’s most well-known and respected personalities – Jacques Pepin and Julia Child. Little 8-year-old me would grab a snack and plant myself in front of the TV, clutching my favorite stuffed animal and trying to understand why one would blanch and shock English peas.
When my mom and I went on our shopping trips to the mall, I would spend hours in the book store, often paging through themed cookbooks with titles like “All About Pasta” or simply “Cupcakes.” I was fascinated by the dishes in these books, often quick and easy recipes geared toward working families. Chili con carne. Toad in a hole. Beef stroganoff made with canned cream of mushroom soup. To this day I haven’t actually made any of these recipes but I remember studiously reading through the ingredient lists and directions with fervor.
My duties in the kitchen started small. I was a latchkey kid of the 90s so that meant I was usually home to get a pot of rice going before my parents came home from work. Measure out the rice using the little clear plastic cup. Swirl in cold running water and drain carefully so as not to lose any grains. Repeat three times until the starches wash away and the water is somewhat clear. Add water and use a fingertip as a guide (it wasn’t until college that I realized what those numbered notches are for). Plug in the rice cooker and DON’T FORGET TO HIT THE COOK BUTTON.
Eventually I was given a plastic knife to help slice easy things like bananas, cucumbers, bagels. Most of my prep duties were relegated to tasks like picking the roots off bean sprouts. Periodically, I would have control of the ladle with stirring privileges while my mom cooked another dish to accompany the soup I was now in charge of. Handling of raw meats, chopping onions, and anything to do with fire were still off-limits.
When I moved out for college, I finally learned how to fend for myself. Luckily, I was armed with the technical knowledge — it just was a matter of application and experimentation. When I decided to try pescatarianism, I ended up staying in and cooking more often. Shrimp scampi pasta, yakisoba with tofu and spinach, and potato croquette sandwiches made regular appearances on my meal rotation. It was around this time when i started making recipe substitutions and tweaks — my favorite (to this day) being apple sauce for oil (1:1) for boxed cake mixes.
Though my childhood inclination toward food provided a solid foundation, I think it was moving to Los Angeles and being surrounded by the culture and amazing restaurants that really kicked the inspiration into high gear. Eating good food inspires me and I’d venture to say that LA is one of the best food cities in the nation.
About 2 years ago, my Honey Bunny and I decided to start our own food blog. By having an audience (however small) to hold me accountable, I found myself cooking more often and being more mindful of the food I eat when dining out (so I’ll be able to write thoughtfully about it later). Even though we had recently graduated and were making meager entry-level incomes, we squirreled away a good amount of money to splurge on tasting menus, wine pairings, and kitchen equipment.
Last Valentine’s Day, the thought crossed my mind that I would make something for my Honey Bunny. Something challenging, something rewarding, something we always order when given the opportunity but never dared to make ourselves. The perfect dessert — the souffle. A stunning chocolate souffle. I carefully nursed the custardy sabayon over a double-boiler. I chopped the dark Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate into fine shards. I painstakingly hand-beat the egg whites until they formed stiff peaks. And I anxiously, nervously, eagerly sat beside the oven watching like a hawk through the glass door. As the minutes ticked past, I decided to try practicing my Jedi mind tricks, willing the souffle to rise. Ding! went the timer. I remember gingerly opening the oven door and squealing with glee at the amazing height they had achieved. We dug into those souffles (after drizzling in a bit of homemade creme anglaise of course) right there in the kitchen. As I mulled over the pride and joy that I felt, I realized that that souffle brought me more personal satisfaction than anything else I had done in a very long time.
That was the turning point. From then on, I wrote blog posts with renewed passion, gained the confidence to experiment with recipes, sought out opportunities to eat exciting food (the dinner at Clio in Boston being among the top of that list), and for the first time in my life, seriously considered a career in food. I was looking back at older blog entries recently and since around that time (coupled with moving to our new place with a stunning kitchen) the quality of photos and writing have markedly improved.
Recently, I spoke with my closest friends about my ambitions. They recommended that I speak to friends who were in the industry. I learned about the challenges I would face, the stressful schedules and labor, the low pay, the repetition of mundane tasks during prep. But they also spoke of the skills and techniques they learned and the passion they have about working with food. I might be really bad at it. I might hate it. But most importantly, I know that I would always regret not trying.
So that’s what this blog is all about. I am determined to do my best and see where it takes me. I know I will find my place in the food world, and if it turns out to not be in the kitchen, I will find another way. But the kitchen is where I hope to start…