As a little girl, while other little girls played with Barbie, I played barbecue - assigned to help collect "leña," or dried firewood bits, that had fallen from the almond trees in our yard or help dig up earth for the gaucho-style open-fire spit roast of entire goat carcasses, a-la Francis Mallman, that would pay their sacrificial dues in a sort of suburban pagan solstice ritual. More frequently, I played sous chef to my overzealous, oenophilic, epicurean, father. Unlike most traditional Hispanic households, my father carried the weight of the planning and execution of all family meals. I grew up in the type of home where my father would survey the table as we were wrapping up breakfast - "what should we have for dinner?"
To describe my family, namely my father, as food-obsessed would have been a massive understatement. Although never classically trained, my father prided himself on his culinary skills - often writing his own recipes or modifying ones from our vast collection of cookbooks and recipes gleaned from Netscape or AltaVista. There was no such thing as a "simple meal" at my house. I didn't realize until I had left for university that not everyone was having duck l'orange, squid ink linguine, or veal scaloppine with calvados cream for a weekday dinner. We were not wealthy by any means - far from it - however, my father had a special gift of being able to inventory the fridge and pantry to instantly conjure up a meal from on-hand ingredients or modify the library of recipes stored in his head to substitute key or supporting elements with what we did have. No ground beef for a Spaghetti Bolognese? No problem - a can each of anchovies and olives from the cupboard and we were having Spaghetti Puttanesca for dinner.
As with the case of most children of immigrants, fervorous to assimilate to American culture in the late 80s and early 90s, my sister and I envied our friend's Lunchables, Snack Packs, Kid Cuisines, and Kool-Aid Bursts over our seemingly foreign baguette sandwiches filled with muenster, ham, and butter. Always paired with fresh fruit, which would end up rotting in the bottom of my backpack or locker, because fruit, ironically, seemed ersatz and plebeian in comparison to the Fruit Rollups my friends would proudly display like ancestral offerings at the lunch table.
All meals were elaborate events, requiring all-hands-on-deck to help with the prep. Peeling potatoes, mincing parsley and garlic, and dicing onions were a part of my me and my sister's standard set of dinner prep chores as soon as we were old and strong enough to hold a chef's knife - the ones from the set my father's father had, as we were constantly reminded, hand-forged himself in Chile. My mother filled the role of garde manger, whose job was always to prepare the accompanying salad for our dinners. To this day, she still makes the most incredible salads from the remains of whatever vegetables are on the counter or fridge - because nothing goes to waste in our family. My father, of course, served as the executive chef, striving for perfection in every component of every meal, going as far as to throw a less than par dish in the garbage and starting over if it failed to meet his standards.
Since then, I'd done what so many first-generation American children of immigrants are supposed to do: work hard and be successful. By successful, this means more successful than your parents, as they "sacrificed so much for you to just waste it all away watching MTV all day." I went to college, then I worked, first in international freight forwarding and customs brokerage, trying to prove myself day by day, until I reached a ceiling and transferred my esoteric skill set to the tech world. I wound up on the corporate ladder, at various technology companies, for nearly nine years after leaving that small logistics firm. I fought tenaciously for every rung, clocking in 80-90 hour work weeks, including weekends. All along, I'd been rewarded, Pavlov style, with incremental rewards of a raise here, a promotion there. It had all been enough, until a year ago when the pressures of managing a 32+ person global team on an average of three hours of sleep per night started to take a toll on my health, relationship, integrity, and self-esteem. I'm a woman; in so many ways I've been programmed to please - spending countless hours over documents, figures, charts, budgets and annual operating plans - only to make no one, myself and family included, but my boss happy. On the inside, I was miserable and lonely, and I felt as if I was losing myself. I felt like a sellout and, worse, a fraud.
So, what did I do? I quit.
With the support of my loving and incredibly supportive partner, Caroline, I finally decided to do something for me. Being in the kitchen, working with my hands, was the only place where I seemed to find true happiness, away from the pressures of the corporate world, where I always felt there was "something missing" - that no amount of RSUs, bonuses, or a cush six-figure salary could ever compensate. To fill the void, I'd often satiate my culinary curiosity by enrolling in weekend short courses at a local community kitchen in butchery, sausage making, and a variety of international cuisines. I would come home energized and full of life - a far contrast from when I'd return home from the office on a daily basis feeling defeated and morose.
"I could see myself doing this full-time one day," I told Caroline, after completing a two-day beef butchery class.
"So quit your job and do it," she replied. "Why not? You're not married, you don't have kids. Do you want to be on your deathbed, wondering why you never followed your dreams and opened your restaurant?"
Like my mother, I was blessed with a strong work ethic. I'm not afraid to dig into the weeds, get my hands dirty, and get things done. On the advice and encouragement of my partner, I had vacillated between jumping right into opening up a food truck or small kitchen and enrolling in culinary school. Having zero restaurant experience, bar a summer waiting tables while at university, I wanted to do things the right way and decided to enroll in the six-quarter long Culinary Arts program at the Seattle Culinary Academy where I would learn technique, how to cook in mass quantities, how to keep food hot for extended periods of time, how to keep food safe, as well as new trends in gastronomy, farm-to-table, sustainability, and hospitality.
So here I am, after having completed my first quarter at SCA. Already, I can taste the vast improvement in my everyday cooking, after having picked up new knowledge and fundamental skills. I am excited to share my learnings from the past quarter as well as my culinary journey going forward in upcoming quarters and beyond - when I open up my own kitchen.
Although it may sound trite - it is really never too late to get out of that rut and follow your dreams. I'm probably old and expired by culinary standards (read: "So You Wanna Be a Chef" by Anthony Bourdain) - but I say fuck that. Trajectories aren't linear and life is too short to be remain in a miserable stasis.
I leave you with a quote that can be applied to any passion, not just cooking:
"Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon, or not at all." - Harriet Van Horne, Vogue (1956)
Until next time!