How it is: Chapter 2

“Where are we with the beignets?” A dark skinned young woman, sporting a blue-denim apron looked over towards the pastry section of her kitchen. “Chef, they’re on their way.” A slim Asian girl with pale skin and long dark hair, tied in a ponytail replied. The girl was Valerie Ang, a freshman in NYU studying hospitality and the executive pastry chef of the restaurant. At this moment, she was dusting some freshly prepared doughnuts with a black sesame infused sugar, and gently placing them in a bowl with a miso infused butterscotch and deep fried red beans. “Here, chef.” She walked down, past the mob of line cooks, and handed her three bowls of the beignets at once. “Thank you! Service please!” The chef called as servers took the bowls off of the smooth metal pass. Valerie worked under celebrity chef, Janice Arrington, at her restaurant, Wish. The concept of Wish takes from Janice’s African American as well as Korean heritages: the restaurant was wildly successful, earning a Michelin star within it’s second year of opening. Therefore, the pressure was on Valerie, as well as her pastry cooks, to deliver desserts that met the standard every single time. “Four panna cottas all day!” Janice read aloud. “Got it, chef! Daphne, can you grab those for me?” She looked over at one of her pastry cooks. “Four, chef? Understood!” The pastry cook ducked through the crowd of moving line cooks, and went into the walk-in refrigerator, where Valerie was storing these desserts on a speed rack. Placing them on a small sheet tray, Daphne made her way back to the pastry station, and handed them off to Valerie, who began garnishing them with freshly sliced mangos, compressed mandarin peel, some Thai basil blossoms, and finally, a rocher of honey-almond milk sorbet. “Behind, behind!” Valerie shouted, making her way back to the pass. “Alright, four panna cottas, chef.” She presented them to Janice, who nodded approvingly. “Good job! Keep it up!”

“Hey, Val! The finale is on tomorrow, right?” Dinner service was finally over, and Valerie was sitting with Janice, as well as some of her co-workers, Megan, one of the pastry cooks, Jacky, a line cook, Mako, the dinner service sous-chef, and Joseph, Janice’s chef de cuisine. In this group, Valerie was still the youngest person, having been recently promoted to executive pastry chef when the previous one, Namie, had left to open her own bakery. The finale Jacky was referring to was the finale of Warrior Chef, a televised cooking competition that Janice and Namie had both previously won, and Valerie had recently competed in, during her senior year of high school. While the episodes were being broadcasted now, Valerie herself already knew the outcome of the competition, but had to keep it a secret. As of the most recent broadcast, Valerie was competing with another two contestants for the title of Warrior Chef, and the grand prize of $100,000. “Hey, if you win, don’t you quit on me now.” Janice laughed, referring to her previous pastry chef. Despite being her boss, Janice was only 25 years old, so not that much older than the 18 year-old Valerie. “Well, that’s hypocritical! Didn’t you win when you competed?” Mako frowned at the executive chef. “Yeah, and you managed to open up Wish in a year after you won the title.” Joseph also pointed out. “Opening a restaurant at the age of 19 was stressful as hell.” Janice frowned at her staff. “And you wound up being one of the youngest chefs to ever earn a Michelin star at the age of 22.” Megan pointed out. More accurately, Janice tied with the record holder, Aiden Byrne, who had earned his first star at the same age. Needless to say, Janice was an incredibly ambitious and talented young woman, and Valerie greatly looked up to her for that.

Walking out of the restaurant and back to campus, Valerie sighed to herself. She was currently a hospitality student at NYU, focusing on the culinary arts. She always knew that she wanted to be a chef. There was something about crafting food, specifically pastry and baking, as an artistic form of expression that greatly satisfied her. Even though she was working for Janice at the moment, Valerie was no stranger to the kitchen. She had previously interned for Stephanie Izard at her restaurant, The Girl and the Goat in Chicago, as well as Mario Batali in his restaurants, ESCA and Del Posto in New York, during high school. The idea of doing sports or being a cheerleader or partying sounded idiotic to her. She would rather not waste her time doing that. It was being that focused on her career that helped her land a pastry cook, now chef position, and also get her into the finale of Warrior Chef. Looking back on her experience in the competition, she wondered how the friends she made on the show were doing. Esme, Austin, and Joey lived nearby, but her closest friends were Claire and Coco, both of whom lived in the West Coast. A quick look on social media showed that Austin was in the process of opening his first restaurant. Joey moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in acting. Esme, she was at France, working part-time under a 2-star Michelin chef while also doing a career in fashion. They were all off doing interesting things.

“I’m back.” Valerie stretched in relief. Luckily for her, she got a room to herself for her freshman year. Her room was tiny, as expected of a single room, but she did not mind that. It was not like she had a lot of friends over or anything. Her only real friends were her co-workers, as well as Timmy and Tarou. Nobody else really mattered to her at this point. Oh, Tarou. She felt herself blush even thinking about him. He was always so sweet and sensitive when he was that chubby little cherub. Then he slimmed down, and grew taller, and finally ditched the glasses and braces, basically, a complete overhaul on his appearance. He stayed the same on the inside for the most part, but he basically became Valerie’s dream man. He gained a lot more confidence and ambition, because a lot less sensitive, but still remained sweet, kind, and caring. Seeing him accomplish so much in just his first semester of college, it made her want to push herself that much more, which was how she got promoted to executive pastry chef in less than a year of working at Wish. She cringed to herself, remembering how she had to cook a dish inspired by love on the competition, and how it almost sent her home. She did not want to confess that she liked Tarou on national television, but she did attempt a Japanese dish of miso cod, despite having no experience with Japanese food, as a small nod to that. Luckily, she was able to cover up her story, saying that the shape of the cod, she was trying to make it resemble a heart, so nobody really questioned her reasoning beyond that.

“Hey, Val, do you need any help?” It was senior year of high school, right before Valerie had to leave for Warrior Chef. She was with Timmy and Tarou, cooking together. “What did you want to eat, Tarou?” “Hmm… I would love to cook miso cod, but that’s expensive and takes a lot of time to prepare. So how about croquettes?” “Croquettes sound good. Are you okay with those, Timmy?” She looked at him. “Yeah. Sounds good.” He quietly nodded in agreement. “Alright, so croquettes it is!” She smiled at them, grabbing potatoes, eggs, and panko bread crumbs. Ever since elementary school, Timmy and Tarou were the only two people she would ever talk to. The other girls thought she was weird for not being interested in anything other than cooking or baking, but Timmy and Tarou did not care. In Timmy’s case, very little would ever affect or bother him. In Tarou’s case, he enjoyed having a friend who could feed him, and Valerie enjoyed cooking for people. Either way, it worked out for Valerie, because she was a relatively shy and withdrawn person who loved to cook. It was not until competing on Warrior Chef that she started to make friends other than those two. She started to realize that even though cooking was her predominant interest, Valerie enjoyed a good laugh, she loved making others happy, and by continually working in the culinary industry, she was able to do that.

Being on the competition did open a lot of doors for her, but at the same time, she could not go one step in the Jonathan M. Tisch Center for Hospitality and Tourism without somebody quoting her or referencing the fact that she was a finalist. It got annoying quickly, because Valerie was not used to people applauding or praising her on a daily basis, nor did she like that. She wanted to earn compliments within the moment, not on things that she had done in the past. It made no sense. It was like being congratulated on completing middle school when she was in college. Holding onto past achievements like that was just counterproductive to growing up. Regardless, it was hard to ignore how others thought of her. In this industry, your reputation and how others perceive you was everything. And knowing how the finale played out from her perspective, Valerie was slightly nervous. She knew that she did something extremely controversial in that final challenge, and she did not know how others would react to it. She felt squeamish and uneasy, because her gut was telling her that she was an idiot for doing what she did, and to brace herself for months of ridicule and mockery.

“This is going to be a safe place for you to practice your skills. We know that you are skilled, based on your resume, but I want to see what you can do.” A beautiful young woman, Namie Bethany-Amai, then the executive pastry chef at Wish, was training Valerie. She had just been hired at Wish, and it was just weeks after she finished her experience in Warrior Chef. “Thank you, chef. I will try my best.” She nodded, excited. This sort of kitchen, she was in her element. She knew how to work on the line, and she just wanted to throw herself back into work. Even though she knew what happened in the competition, she was not going to let it affect her current state of mind. Nobody knew the results of the competition except for a select few, including her. “That’s the spirit. So for your first task, let’s get 500 eggs separated, and then we want to also make some macarons for the petit fours, so you’ll be using most of the egg whites for that. I’ll check up on your progress from time to time, and if you manage to finish that, then I’ll move you onto the next task.” She smiled, walking off to give Megan and Daphne further instruction.  Being able to work under two previous winners was incredible, but just doing this work on its own, it helped her get her mind back to reality. This is what it meant to be in the industry. You had to work long hours, doing a variety of taxing tasks, but the end result is seeing the customer excited and happy when you are crafting somebody’s vision. For her, even though she wanted to one day be her own boss, Valerie did not mind being a line level employee, therefore an extension of Namie. While she was Namie’s cook, she was able to learn as much as she possibly could from her. Valerie saw this as an opportunity to keep moving forward.

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