A Real Rock Star

 Mother Nature is a true rock star; it never ceases to inspire and teaches humility

With prominent leaders and chefs accused of sexual harassment, our restaurant industry is confronted with harsh reality of sexism and discrimination. To the chefs who have committed and condoned such wrongful behaviors (to that extent, what were you thinking?), you guys have got it all wrong when you became rock stars; a rock star’s got perspective, a rock star’s got respect for his craft and would do anything to protect it, last but not least, a rock star’s got to inspire the future generation, and you guys have failed in each of the category.

I worked in The Spotted Pig at the very early stage of my career. My culinary path was rather unusual in the beginning; I am a self-taught cook and I was trained in English and Italian cuisine, a somewhat overlooked style of schooling compared to the more popular French haute cuisine training. I consider myself to be fortunate to have worked with Chef April Bloomfield; she held high standard and her work ethic inspired me to work relentlessly; she was one of the rare celebrities who devoted herself to the restaurant entirely even after reaching stardom status. Unfortunately, The Spotted Pig has become a brewing ground for male industry leaders to harass female workers, as was told by several news articles.

Chef April’s apology for wrongful behaviors occurred in her restaurant have received wide range of responses; some accused her lack compassion and insincere in her statement, and some stood by her and showed sympathy for the unwanted attention that came with Ken Friendman’s negligence and abusive behaviors. As I took a hard look at myself in the mirror and reflected on being on the receiving end of scolding and humiliation in the kitchen, I realized that Chef April might have been blindsided and desensitized by the supposed rock star chef culture when she was cooking her way to the top. The culture of rock star chef stemmed from the 80’s when Marco Pierre White, arguably the very first celebrity chef, stormed the culinary scene as the youngest British chef to achieve 3-Michelin Stars. Marco’s style of leadership was often the center of the controversy because he was brutal and ruthless towards his cooks. His abrasive style of leadership was adapted throughout the industry. However, most of the chefs have failed to interpret and reflect on his legacy; Marco Pierre White did not condone sexism. Marco’s militaristic style of coaching was to push to refine dining experiences, and his trailblazing kitchen had no room for amateur bullying culture. Marco paved the way for future chefs to get inspired and work hard, and we have failed as a group to preserve his legacy of a rock star chef.

After working at The Spotted Pig, I got a job at the renown WD~50, where great female leadership further shaped my way of becoming a chef. Great leader shows courage. Great leader is responsible and accountable. Great leader also shows great humility. Great leader is as focused as a rock star to further refine his or her craft. Samantha Henderson, our Chef de Cuisine, was a WD~50 rock star. Sam’s food was an extension of herself, the perfect marriage of wit and grace. With a string of wrongful behaviors brought to the eyes of public, we chefs, as a group, have failed to inspire others as Chef Sam had inspired me. Working towards becoming a chef is no longer frowned upon as it was few decades ago. Number of people working in hospitality soared and businesses flourished because of the rise of mainstream rock star chef culture. However, with the money and fame, chefs often lose sight of what is truly important in becoming a rock star chef – nurturing young talents, pushing to be innovative, and continuously create jobs and opportunities for the next generations. To abuse stardom status and suppress others, rock star chefs have only become a bunch of narcissists and not leaders, and lastly, those rock stars have betrayed mother nature, who has been blindly faithful in giving us the resource to be creative.

From working under female chefs, I have witnessed resilience, compassion, and great intelligence. We should embrace our differences in gender, and to also mutually understand our strengths to support each other. Being a chef is a privilege; we often start our journey because of our love for food, and through the long and winding journey of grind and tear, we often meet incredible people and develop long lasting friendship. We are resilient, compassionate, and smart as a group, or how else could we have justified the time and energy spent on refining our craft. We are also rock stars; we enjoy entertaining our customers. But let’s not forget rock stars need to inspire and have perspective, and most importantly, real rock stars have humility and respect humanity.

Through a chef’s lenses

I was a bit distracted when I read a heartfelt news article about a bigot who made racist postcards and distributed them around in my hometown, Edison, New Jersey, before the state-wide election this week.

My first reaction was filled with anger and the need for vengeance. However, knowing my own shortcoming as an emotional person, I calmed myself and analyzed the situation, and decided to reflect on racism through the lenses of a chef, and a proud Asian American, made in Edison, New Jersey.

My first encounter with racism was during my first couple years in America. I was often picked on and ridiculed because I didn’t speak any English. Reflecting on those years, I realize that racism is an issue that is often neglected in school or at home. Teaching who Dr. King is and what he stood for is merely a lesson about American history, but not a thorough teaching on how racism shapes people’s behavior and causes of domestic terrorism, which you…can hardly deny. Racism is often taught in the manner of “you against the world, vice versa”. Therefore, violent and abusive behaviors and retaliation have become norm when it comes to race disparity. I am grateful that all the ridicules, stemmed from my lack of English proficiency, were an act of childishness and not hostility; some of the kids who laughed at me had become my friends or acquaintances. However, the thought of lacking adults encouraging kids or each other to embrace cultural differences irks me every so often.

When I wanted to become a chef ten years ago, i thought nothing but to be the fastest at chopping onions and butchering pigs. And boys…was I totally wrong about the full responsibility of being a chef. As I moved up the rank, my cooks looked up to me for advice and creativity, and on many occasions, my cooks and I shared our fond memories of eating a grand meal to slurping a 5-dollar Pho in Chinatown (I miss that kind of camaraderie very much). My creative process often involves reflecting on my experiences of eating ethnic cuisines and reinterpreting the flavors to tailor to my customers’ palate. Needless to say, being open minded and curious have helped me grow as a chef, and most importantly, as a person. I often tell my cooks to travel and eat different varieties of food; accepting the unfamiliar is yet the best way to have a beautiful mind.

In closing paragraph, I thought I’d share couple quotes that could help us reflect on humanity.

“In a very gentle way, you can shake the world” – Mahatma Gandhi

I truly believe to rid of racism (I am not entirely being realistic here), all grown ups are responsible for showing compassion and understanding in the public eye. Only through practice and willingness to adapt will we ever be able to embrace our differences.

“When it comes to love, compassion, and other feelings of the heart, I am rich.” – Muhammad Ali

Wealth is often spoken in terms of monetary possession because money is the main medium in all trades. Not only should we be responsible with our own money, but we also ought to enrich humanity with empathy.

With the above, I can only ask myself to be more patient and understanding of others.

President Obama’s Love Letter for All

My last love letter was written in 1999, and I don’t remember it to have any perspective or meaningful gestures; the letter was rather a wasteland of cringing words (here’s where you roll your eyes at me). After reading an NPR article on Obama’s love letter to his ex-girlfriend, Alexandra McNear, I was struck by his tenacity to survive living in New York, and his perseverance to pursue his goals when he felt left alone. President Obama’s words reminded me, and hopefully you after you read it, that life should be filled with ups and downs; struggles are omnipresent, and we have the choice to conquer them.

I have been a chef in New York City for over a decade. My struggle with finance often exhaust my mental capacity to be creative and positive. I often wonder if these struggles are self-inflicted or attached to my jobs. For many years, my first two (weekly) paychecks helped me pay my rent, and the next two paychecks were divided among student loans, utilities, NYC Metro Card, gym membership, obligatory dining expenses (chefs don’t cook at home), and cereal and milk (as much home-cooking as it gets). If I could write a love letter to a girlfriend from afar, I’d write,

“one week I have to bring home as many slices of stale bread for the weekend, and the next I have to hope C-town has a massive sales on milk and cereal. But I have saved enough to get a us a bottle of red, or white, when you visit”.

Photo Credit: Eric Medsker
Source: HarperCollins Publisher

I also have struggled with self-image for many years. My insecurity comes from measuring my own success against others, and my own expectation for myself when I set out to be in restaurant business 10 years ago. Most of my friends have already, if not in the process of, settled down. Their ability to be responsible for another (or multiple) human being often becomes a measurement for my own success. President Obama wrote,

“I must admit large dollops of envy for both groups, my American friends consuming their life in the comfortable mainstream, the foreign friends in the international business world. Caught without a class, a structure, or a tradition to support me, in a sense the choice to take a different path is made for me. The only way to assuage my feelings of isolation are to absorb all the traditions, classes, make them mine, me theirs. Taken separately, they’re unacceptable and untenable”.

If I need to rephrase that for an imaginary girlfriend, I’d write,

“I wish our Sunday breakfast could be us competing for the last cup of coffee and fighting over just whose turn is it to walk the dog (of course I’d lose). Caught without a clear future of the current restaurant, and having to constantly live from paycheck to paycheck, the only way to ease my anxiety is to be as open minded and compassionate, and grateful, as I could possibly be. Without understanding and compassion, my food and career will suffer.”

I have made two trips back to my country, Taiwan, recently. I suddenly found myself lost in a place where I thought was home. I wasn’t caught up on its pop culture, and I had trouble having small-talks since I could hardly finish a sentence in Mandarin without reserving back to English. President Obama wrote,

“ I can’t speak the language well anymore. I’m treated with a mixture of puzzlement, deference and scorn because I’m American, my money and my plane ticket back to the U.S. overriding my blackness. I see old dim roads, rickety homes winding back towards the fields, old routes of mine, routes I no longer have access to.”

Luckily, I didn’t have to deal with the prejudice when I went back to Taiwan. If I really needed to express my loneliness that came with the trip, I’d write,

“ It sucks I didn’t know where to get a well made martini without paying the price of a tourist. I mean…I am a Taiwanese! I just happen to speak some English, and it’s not even remotely good. I met up with couple childhood friends, and I miss them dearly already because I don’t do well when it comes to farewells.”

President Obama’s love letter drew a rare smile out of me. I admire his courage to keep living while almost everything was, or still, working against him. Although President Obama never intended to have his love letters made public (or do you think he was already making a move to the White House at the very young age?), I am glad to have read some beautifully written passages that help me reflect on my mind and maturity. I’d only hope to be fraction as articulate and tenacious as President Obama as I march onward to make Weekday Herbivore viable.