“I’ll be happy with whatever you do as long it’s not working in a restaurant.”
Those were the words my mom pounded into my sub-conscious growing up - completely ironic, seeing as how both she and my dad ran arguably one of the most famous Vietnamese restaurants in our area. What’s even more ironic is that last month I did exactly the opposite of what she told me to do for the past twenty two years.
I don’t recall exactly how and when my fascination with the kitchen started, but I do have these vivid childhood memories of standing next to my mother when she was cooking dinner for the family every night. My duties ranged from yelling at her if the water came to a boil (imagine how annoying that must've been for a 7 year old to start yelling at you while you were making dinner for your family), to stirring the pot of rice to make sure that it wouldn’t boil over. There was something so entrancing about being able to take a set of things and then transform them into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Being over 6 years younger than my siblings meant that often times while they were at school the restaurant served as my daycare. Taking a first grader and telling him to sit quietly for hours in a dining booth was too much to handle for my overactive and near ADD-like mindset at the time, so I begged my mom to put me to work. Drying chopsticks became monotonous, and so did trying to work the cash register using my broken and white-washed Vietnamese. I thus returned to my mom’s side once more, this time in the restaurant kitchen, either filling and pinching together wontons for soup, or rolling up dozens of egg rolls. I had become obsessed with what went on in front of the stove, and yet was still told that it was not a lifestyle or career I should ever pursue, and that I was to instead pursue more noble, hackneyed Asian-American endeavors, such as becoming either a surgeon, pharmacist, or any other derivative of a career involving the initials “M.D.”
Me being the alleged golden child I was, blindly believed for a short while I would become a doctor and pursued cooking as a side hobby. And boy what a hobby. While kids were busy watching Spongebob Squarepants, I was watching Ina Garten laughing in her kitchen in the Hamptons on Saturday mornings. I blocked off 5PM every weekday to watch Food Network’s early evening programming, and on weekends instead of doing what normal kids do, I would wonder why my cheese sauce was grainy and researched the pros and cons of asking for a KitchenAid for my birthday (Hint: they were all pros).
Being in the kitchen was this single constant that I could confidently say that I was becoming good at. Everyone in my high school class were becoming the track stars and varsity football players who got invited onto the cool bus during Homecoming, and here I was on Friday nights - this kid cooking food in the kitchen. I figured out that the lack of fat in the skim milk I was using was making my mac and cheese unpleasantly grainy, along with all of the other information one could find by only binge watching Alton Brown.
During this period of culinary development however, I also received my first ever “C” in my academic life (This is big for an Asian, mind you). Honors chemistry quickly showed me how much I wasn’t good at any form of science, let alone the brutal prerequisites required for a medical career. Thus, I switched gears, and entered college as a business major, otherwise known as the politically correct way to say you don’t know what the hell you want to do with your life. Actually, I did know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, but I had convinced myself that what I really wanted to do deep down would never secure a mortgage, pension, or 401k. I was still looking for that easy way out.
I kicked ass in college. Got involved all over campus, achieved decently good grades, and even scored an internship in London. I had all the things necessary for the perfect, corporate, cookie cutter life. But I also soon figured out that any form of entry level business career left me lifeless at the end of the day. Also, trying to feign that I was interested was something I sucked at even more than chemistry- throughout the entire day during my internships and work the only thing I would ever think about was food and cooking. People would have killed to get paid to go to London, and the only thing ravaging my head during that period was still food, this time in Nigella Lawson’s sultry anglo candor.
My hunt for a full time job post grad was nothing more than half assed- nothing appealed to me, and the only career I could ever truly see myself in had to do with the creation, exploration, and sharing of food, because for the past four years the one thing I did more than studying was cook. Cook for friends, cook for myself, cook for others. (On a side note, reason #1 why I never achieved a six pack while in college, despite my best efforts). Upon leaving university, I was essentially back at square one: on the outside unsure of what I really wanted to do in life, but on the inside still intensely passionate about food and cooking. I mean, if a mommy blogger can make thousands a month by sharing yet another damn pinterest post about cookies made with coconut oil, then I sure as hell can make some sort of impact writing about the food I like to cook. I know a lot about fundamentals of home cookery - I’ve been doing it at this point for more than a decade; I even wrote an embarrassingly bad food blog while in high school. But I also had this earnest craving to learn more than what was available to me. After a certain point there is only so much you can learn as a home cook from online media and re-runs of Gordon Ramsey.
So in the spirit of Ruhlman and Bourdain in their explorational stints at the Culinary Institute of America, I thought the only thing that could propel me further was to take a bite out of the forbidden fruit looming over my head for the past couple of years. I wanted to see what happens when you’re suddenly thrust into an environment where the comfort of a home kitchen is replaced by the ingredients and techniques you’re too scared to try while in your Saturday morning pajamas. I wanted to work in a restaurant.
I should probably speak a bit about the city where I went to college and currently reside- San Luis Obispo. Located on the central coast of California, it barely meets the definition of a city to this Orange County suburban native, with around 40,000 people sandwiched between green hills and the Pacific Ocean. I’ll be honest, we’re also a bunch of health conscious tree-huggers as well: we banned public smoking, plastic grocery bags, and drive thru restaurants. People actually go to Whole Foods here, and are the type you’d expect to eat acai bowls after their morning bikram yoga.
Surprisingly, SLO (you’ll know a native when they refer to the city as SLO) in general is pretty self conscious about and aware of modern day food. While there are fast food joints, for the most part they cater to the hoards of drunken college kids during the school year, and are few and far between, in comparison to the dozens of mom and pop kind of restaurants on every corner. People actually care about the shit they put in their stomach and make a semi-decent attempt to be concerned about where it comes from, unlike what I feel seems like the rest of America. If there are two downsides about SLO’s food though is this: we’re secluded and mostly white. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but when Panda Express is rated as the best Asian food in the city (I wish I was kidding), you know you have a problem. You also know you have a problem when you actually like Panda Express. We’re a white city, with white people food. As a result most of the restaurants here strike a peculiar dichotomy - you have either hoards of casual tri-tip barbecue pushing restaurants (for which our region is known for), or uptight, white table cloth “wine country” establishments that seem to attract strictly geriatric clientele. Then again seeing the lack of big industry in our area, you’re either a broke college student or a wealthy republican retiree - not too many options for someone seeking to get lost exploring in a culinary ocean versus a lake.
There is one new restaurant however, trying to make a perceivable dent in how people interact with food in the area. Opened for a little over a year, it makes no secret of the idea of sustainable eating, along with bringing peculiar and unusual ingredients such as halibut cheeks, octopus tentacles, and bottarga to a beef eating city. I never technically have eaten there per se, partly because of how out of reach their food is on a college budget (and partly because Taco Bell is a corruptive virus for a palate like mine that causes insatiable addictions). If I was going to spend another year in this city after graduation unemployed, I might as well try to work at a place breaking my stereotypes of what food could really be like.
A couple weeks before I was going to graduate, I shot a cold email to the chef of one of the most celebrated up and coming restaurants in the area:
My name is Andrew, and I'm going to be graduating from Cal Poly in a couple of weeks. While I'm leaving school with a degree in business, I've decided that I want to stay in SLO for a year and follow a dream of mine to write about the food and wine culture in the area; my goal is to spread awareness of how special and unique the cuisine and food of our region is to the rest of California (and who knows, maybe the rest of the country!)
While I do want to focus on writing about food, I think it would be great if I got more in depth and hands on experience about what influences the cuisine in our area, and if I can expand my own personal style of cooking. I grew up working in my family's restaurant kitchen, and food as a medium for storytelling and connecting people has been a major influence on my life ever since. I'm writing to see if you happen to have any part time prep cook opportunities available? If there are none, I would love to even just shadow the kitchen for a few days and give a helping hand on my own time for free.
Apologies for the lengthy email, and if you were able to make it to this point then a huge thanks is in order on my part. I greatly appreciate your time and consideration.
I’m cringing reading this email over again as I reflect back on it. It reeks of desperation and shit stains on my nose, so looking back I’m not surprised that I didn't get a response. But with just a few weeks left before I entered the official stages of post-graduate unemployment, I shot a follow up the next week.
Hi __________ Team,
I’m following up to see if there is any interest or opportunities available on your end to help out in your kitchen at all. Please let me know if there are any!
All the Best,
Well, I thought, it was worth a shot. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll just have to get a job slicing tri-tip, or some sort of soul sucking sales job. Later that day as I was commiserating about life over a binge watching session of Orange is the New Black, I got a response from the general manager:
“Do you have time to come interview this week anytime after 2pm?"
"Holy shit," I thought.
When you’ve been in business school for the past four years, anything that’s labeled as an “interview” strikes fear in the depths of your stomach. If anything, I think the one thing business schools will for sure ingrain in your mind more than any accounting acronym or financial ratio is how to prepare and panic for whatever over-dramatic & hypothetical scenario could come your way.
I had class that ended at 4:00PM, so I hightailed it out of the parking lot for a 4:30 interview, ready with a change of clothes in my trunk. Business professional would come off as way too pretentious, so I quickly found the nicer pair of jeans I had and a lilac colored button up that hopefully didn’t convey the panic I had of balancing “I know how to dress nicely” and “I’m not an arrogant prick.” I was already running late navigating afternoon traffic, and barely parked by the front door of the restaurant by 4:05 - I was already blowing this opportunity. I expected to walk in and see him impatiently sitting in an oversized, leather wing-back chair tapping his pointer finger on the armrest. I made my way up to the hostess table where a server was getting ready and asked for the manager, who apparently had stepped out and would be back in ten minutes, and that I should take a seat in the lounge. What the hell kind of world was this? I learned for so long that showing up on time was equivalent to showing up late for an interview, and here I was, my interviewer not even here. My life was already being turned upside down.
Fifteen minutes later the manager walked back in. He seemed to be a decently amicable man in his mid thirties, with a rounded face and graying hair (From what I had researched beforehand, his organic farm provided the restaurant with many of its produce). It was a brief interview- I was preparing myself for the half hour to forty five minute stress tests I was so accustomed to for my internships, with a heavy amount of preparation for the trite, overplayed questions of “What are your greatest strengths?”, and “Tell me about a time that you have failed.” Instead, the only question I got was "Tell me about yourself and why you want to work here." I told him how I gave up a job in London to instead pursue my dream of writing about food, starting with the Central Coast, and that my restaurant experience included taking part in child labor at my mom's restaurant. After a brief five minutes chat he said, “We just need to get this approved by the chef. Can you come in this Friday to go talk to her?”
When you say that you’re going in for an interview with the executive chef, this kind of pit just drops into your stomach. It's like asking for a job in the mailroom but having to get grilled by the CEO before you can start sorting envelopes, so naturally the only other reaction I had when I got home was "Holy shit." Again, I went into business major panic mode and spent the next few days writing interview guides at how I was going to impress the toque off of the executive chef.
I walked in two days later, again in nice jeans and a different colored button up. She was just about wrapping up an interview with someone who was trying to become her next sous chef. As I sat waiting in the hallway I could hear him from the lounge talking about how he had worked at a multitude of fine dining restaurants throughout the Central Coast, and how this one seemed to breathe new life into the area.
"Well shit, it looks like I'll have to come up with new answers on the fly," I thought to myself. I thanked the stars that I decided to wear an undershirt today to mask the steadily growing sweat stains cultivating around my armpits, and distracted myself by taking a look around the restaurant. This place belongs in Seattle or New York- not a town like San Luis Obispo. Exposed beams of dark mahogany wood contrasted with hand lettered signage pointing towards more wooden tables set with antiqued silverware and mason jar water glasses. I felt like if Carrie Bradshaw suddenly moved to the Pacific Northwest, this is where she and her posse would walk in at any minute.
The sous chef candidate walked out after bidding the chef a good day, causing my heart palpitations to increase ten fold. I walked over and introduced myself over to her, slightly taken aback - one couldn’t help but notice how strikingly young and pretty she was. When I think of someone who spends their life in a restaurant, I think back to my parents after a holiday getting slammed by tickets: someone tired and wrinkled from the exhaustive life of being in the kitchen. Instead her heavy french accent seemed to highlight how vibrant and full of life she seemed to be from being in the kitchen, despite her diminutive height. As opposed to having sore feet and fatigue, she made it seem like the kitchen was the futuristic recharge pod that made her more sprightly and youthful - she couldn't have been older than her late twenties, with jet black hair, bright eyes, and slightly rosy cheeks. As I prepared to boast about all of the techniques I learned from years of home cooking and research, the only question she proceeded to ask was why I wanted to work here. She called me crazy for giving up a job in London, and congratulations on graduating college before nodding as I said that I wanted to become a writer, and that I wanted to work part time to widen my experience in the kitchen. Apparently that was a good enough answer for her.
“I think I will have you work the charcuterie bar and the pantry station. I can tell that you have an artistic mind”, she said brightly, gesturing her hands in circles above her clipboard. “Here’s my number. I'm sure your busy with graduation, so you can come in the Thursday after you graduate. Just remind me that you’re coming in that week, because I have terrible fucking memory,” she laughed. I have visions of restaurant chefs being a brusque, chain smoking group who get annoyed having to deal with all of the logistics outside of cooking, so to be honest I was taken aback by how cheerful and warm she seemed, and equally confused at how readily she just tossed me a job. I did my best to utter a "thank you" and "have a nice day" before dumbfoundedly strolling out of the front door.
I remember very vividly when I was first in love getting an unsolicited, random text from the object of my infatuation, and then dropping everything I was doing so I could reply, followed by wearing a huge shit-eating grin on my face for the rest of the day. As I walked out of the door of the restaurant that afternoon, that same shit-eating grin that hadn’t been on my face for so long finally came back, except I had something way better than a person to flirt with.