How it is: Chapter 13

Spring break was finally over, and tensions were still awkward between the three. “Hey, there’s this cool promo for the upcoming Kingdom Hearts game! Want to go?” Tarou looked at Timmy hopefully. “Sorry, I have an Asian Awareness Event for ACU.” Timmy shook his head. They were going to have an event with all of the Asian organizations, and the logistics behind it were incredibly difficult to manage. Timmy himself was in charge of coordinating with all of the freshmen and sophomore representatives from the other clubs on how to advertise to underclassmen. Even the Japanese Business Association was involved, but Tarou himself did not need to go, because he was the treasurer, not a representative; the club only required presidents, vice presidents, and representatives to be at their events. This was their club’s expectations when it came to event attendance. As for their norm as roommates, it was Tarou excitedly inviting Timmy to things, and Timmy rejecting him in favor of ACU. At least, that’s how Tarou felt. Timmy did feel bad that he could not make time for Tarou, but he also wanted a chance to grow as an individual himself. But how could he get that across to Tarou? Tarou only cared about spending time together.

“Hey, do you have time to talk?” Valerie texted Timmy. The pastry chef was in her room, sitting at her desk. No response. Again. She had been trying to reach out to him during the break, but the Taiwanese boy kept on ignoring her. She felt like he saw her as this freak for her previous attempt at killing herself. Feeling deflated and offended by his attitude towards her, she put down her phone and tossed it onto her bed. She tried to get him off of her mind. Grabbing out her sketchbook, she started doodling. Janice wanted her to create a new dessert menu for April to capture the spring, so she had to start sketching out what she wanted the plating for each dish to look like. With it being April, she definitely wanted something that was a nod to cherry blossoms, while another dish needed something Easter-themed. Blood oranges, meyer lemons, fresh fruits that represent that spring has finally arrived! Just thinking about it, Valerie could not suppress a grin of excitement. With the ideas rolling, she chuckled to herself. At that point, Nothing else beyond conceptualizing these different desserts was even on her mind. She was slowly easing back into her one true love: having the creative freedom of being a pastry chef.

Feeling rather lonely, Tarou decided to take a walk through the city. Misaki was out with Justin in Brooklyn on a date, so that left him with limited options. He would not even entertain the notion of spending time with Timmy, Enya, Sarah, or Melissa. The former was being the source of his frustration, while the latter three would probably try to date rape him. Passing by a restaurant, he noticed the familiar blue shooting star logo printed on the window. “Wish.” He read aloud. “Oh wait, Valerie!” Tarou was immediately reminded of his friend. The restaurant was closed since it was still early in the afternoon, but he figured why not try to meet up with the pastry chef before she had to go to work? He excitedly gave the girl a text. “Hey, are you down to hang sometime?” The model was starting to realize how much he missed her; the girl was usually so consumed with work that she had little to no time for things like a social life, but to Tarou, it was still worth a shot. Within minutes, he got a reply. “Hey, yeah! Want to grab dinner tonight?” She offered. “Sure thing! Where did you want to meet up?” “Come to the restaurant! I’ll prepare something for you! I’m looking to practice some of my new desserts.” Tarou chuckled to himself. This was going to be a great day ahead of him.

In her room, Valerie was excited to receive that text from Tarou. She was sitting alone, watching cat videos on YouTube when her phone buzzed. “Finally, something different than my normal, boring routine.” She sighed in relief, getting up and getting changed. It was almost 2, which meant that she had to get ready for work. “Hm, well Tarou can be my taste tester for the day.” She smiled. Janice wanted her to plan that new menu for the spring, and she figured, why not have Tarou try the dishes along with her normal staff, just so that she can have something to do with her friend. That, and having Tarou, such a positive influence, at the workplace, it would help get her mind off of whatever residual insecurities she had from being a runner-up. Racking through her brains, she recalled the different items she had in mind. “Alright, so I should probably get the ice cream done first, and then after that, the chiffon cake batter.” She listed off, walking out the door. She had a lot of things she needed to prepare, but she had a general idea of what she needed to do and in what order. Being a seasoned pastry chef has taught her how to multitask and delegate well. That was the exact reason why Janice had promoted Valerie to the executive pastry chef position in the first place.

It was at the end of her first semester, when Namie had already announced that she was leaving. It came as a huge shock to Valerie and Jacky, who were just line-level cooks at that point. After a very stressful dinner service, Janice pulled aside Valerie to speak in private. The girl had no idea what to expect. “You wanted to see me?” She was nervous. Being the youngest and most recent hire in the kitchen, Valerie was half-expecting to be fired for some reason. Just thinking about what Janice could possibly want from her, it made her incredibly uneasy throughout the entire night. “Yeah.” The executive chef wore a stoic expression when she looked at the 18 year-old. “How would you like to be promoted to executive pastry chef?” “Huh?” Valerie’s jaw almost dropped at the proposal. “I gave it a lot of thought, and it was not a decision I took lightly. But looking at how you performed on the line, every night, in every service, you have skills far beyond any of the other pastry cooks. On top of that, Namie herself, I asked her who she wanted to succeed her. She said that you could carry out the vision of Wish the best. I trust her judgement as much as I would my own in this regard.” Janice explained. “Oh wow. I’m still in awe right now. This… it’s definitely not what I expected.” Valerie stuttered. She thought she was going to lose her job, not get a promotion. “Will you take the promotion, Valerie?” “Yes!” The girl beamed. “I will be your next executive pastry chef!”

“Alright, so here’s my first new item. It’s a cherry sorbet with yogurt panna cotta, cherry kanten jelly, and yogurt crumble.” Valerie presented the white and red dessert to an impressed Tarou, Mako, and Joseph. “What do you think?” “Presentation-wise, it looks really modern. I like how you used the liquid nitrogen to crumble up the yogurt. It reminds me weirdly of Snow White. Here, I’ll go in for a taste.” He scooped some of the dessert into a spoon and into his mouth. “It’s a bit on the tart side, not going to lie. Maybe just do a vanilla panna cotta instead of the yogurt? I think that the yogurt and cherry, having so much of it across the board is a bit overkill.” He sighed. Tarou is a dessert lover, as evidenced by photos of his childhood, where he was not only overweight, but also pictured wit some sort of pastry or dessert in hand. “Alright, I’ll be sure to change that.” “I have to agree with Tarou there. I thought it was too sour.” Mako and Joseph chimed in. Valerie rolled her eyes.  “Uh, don’t go turning into Butch Valerie, okay? We don’t want to die tonight.” Mako whimpered, hiding behind Joseph comedically. “Or at least kill Joseph so I can take his job.” Valerie just ignored his joke. “Okay, well here’s my next dessert. It’s a blueberry chiffon cake with lemon curd-coconut oil gelato and coconut-blueberry-ginger mousse.” Each of them took a bite. “Okay, that was amazing. The cake was perfect, the gelato, I did not expect to love it, but I loved it. The mousse added moisture back to the cake.” Tarou grinned. “I think maybe more texture, so a coconut crumble, but aside from that, I agree. Everything you put up here, it does not need improvement.” Joseph nodded in agreement. “Thanks.” Valerie smiled. It was a high praise, coming from Janice’s own chef de cuisine.

“Thank you so much for coming over to work and helping me, Tarou. It was a lot of fun.” Valerie beamed. It was the first time in a while that being at work made her so happy. And she owed it all to Tarou. “No problem. I’m honored to be your guinea pig in this case.” The model chuckled graciously. The two were sitting with the rest of the restaurant’s staff, enjoying their family meal together before the dinner service began. Both of them felt like they had a friend in the first time in a while. But this feeling of camaraderie was cut short with time. “Dinner service is starting soon, and as much as I’d love for you to stick around, I’d rather you not see me as a complete bitch. I’ll talk to you later?” She looked at him. “Yeah, for sure! Thanks again for inviting me.” Tarou waved as he left the restaurant. “Well, you better snatch him up. He’s a major hottie.” Daphne giggled. “Yup!” Megan agreed. “I didn’t know you were friends with a model, Val!” Jacky teased. “Well, I never felt the need to mention him to you.” She fought off the urge to blush. “I’m glad that he came over though. I felt like I needed that.” She sighed. “I haven’t seen you smile in the workplace before today. since the whole Warrior Chef debacle. I think this was good for you.” Daphne agreed.

It was late at night, and Tarou had finally made his way back to the dorm. “Hey, is your event planning coming along?” Tarou yawned, stepping into his room. Timmy was in bed, almost ready to go to bed. “It went alright. What did you do today?” He looked over. The model tensed up nervously. “Valerie invited me over to Wish to taste her upcoming dessert menu.” He confessed. “What?” Timmy looked at him, bewildered at his statement. He had this murderous look in his eyes. “What?” Tarou returned, unable to say anything else at this point. He did not want to escalate the situation. “Why would you talk about her in front of me?” “I did not want to lie about what I did today.” Tarou frowned. “I’m sure you’d be more pissed thinking that I went behind your back to see her.” He shrugged. Timmy was not saying anything at that point. “Why are you even mad at me? You’re the one who refused to talk to her! So it’s only obvious that she’d come to me!” Tarou growled angrily. “You know I have a crush on her, and you still go behind my back? Why didn’t you just say no?” Timmy glared at his roommate. “Why do I have to sacrifice my social life to make you happy? That makes zero sense!” Tarou frowned. “It’s not like you were able to hang out with me either!” The Japanese boy had a point. Timmy had been pushing him away with his ACU duties. That retort left Timmy dumbstruck. “Good night. I guess I’ll sleep in the hallway.” Tarou rolled his eyes, grabbing his sheets and pillow.

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.

a flash of lightning: dream 32

When I woke up in the woods after attempting to stab myself, I started to realize how much more to life there really was. The sky was cloudy and I remembered hearing the roaring thunder and a flash of lightning. I got up, and kept on running. Even though it hurt, I did not stop. I doubted myself. I got too complacent with being just a baker that when a non-dessert related cooking challenge arose, I felt helpless. My main support, my rock at that time, abandoned me. So, I made the mistake of trying to take my own life, because I felt like my existence had so little to offer. How wrong I was. I had an entire life ahead of me, left to be lived. That was senior year of high school. Seeing the clouds almost part when I woke up from that bizarre limbo, it was what inspired me to continue working hard to improve myself. I wanted everyone to know me for my love of cooking. At that point, I had 2 years of baking experience; I prided myself on being an excellent pastry cook. But I could not hold a knife. I did not have any basic skills needed to operate in a savory kitchen. So that became my goal.

When I cook savory food, I feel like a soldier in a war zone. Holding a knife in my hand, it feels like a saber, carving into the flesh of my enemies. Gruesome, yes, but accurately detailing how dark my start in regular cooking was. I needed to learn so much more. How to butcher, how to make sauces, how to cook fish and meat. I needed to prove to myself and the people who doubted me that I was the capable and talented cook I knew I could become. That warrior-like resolve and need to learn more, it allows me to continue to evolve in the kitchen. Ironically, the style of savory cooking I employ tends to be on the humble and charming side. Despite my focused and relentless approach, my dishes tend to come out like food that would be served in a bistro or a cafe. Not necessarily fine-dining.

Ironically, my experience with desserts and my approach with them is a complete contrast. I started with pastry, I loved baking because it makes other people happy. That sort of happiness is why I have been dubbed a “sweet angel” more times than once. I am much more energetic, friendly, child-like, and somehow, my desserts come out more sophisticated, elegant, and refined. I cannot really explain how that happens. It is almost paradoxical. One would think that my focused mentality would produce fine-dining, while my enthusiastic mindset would inspire the rustic comfort food. Sometimes, life enjoys working in unusual and unexpected ways.

A flash of lightning is what set me forward on this journey. I continued to Hospitality school, I worked for some of the best chefs in America, I continued to grow to the point where I was teaching cooking courses for my own college. I was able to carve my own path. Nobody could stop me from becoming the person I was meant to be. Even now, I continue to learn and grow. I want to absorb as much knowledge as I possible can when it comes to food. Continuing to learn different techniques, cuisines, ingredients. Being completely fearless. I want to know that, no matter what task I am given, I can continue to improve myself. In a world of my feather-light dreams, each accomplishment will be like a flash of lightning. It will shine brightly within the moment, and fade away. Never lingering. Never remaining for me to rest on.

 

What I want to do: dream 1

I think it’s important to establish your goals in life, just something to aspire towards. For me, I hope to become an accounting manager or director of finance in a hotel (mostly because of the money) and then move to Japan and open up my own bakery. The reason for the bakery is because I love making desserts, and with food, sugar and chocolate are the best story-telling mediums out there. You can make basically any tangible object out of either of them.

But let’s break it down even further with the “Why? Game.” It’s a little trick where you ask “why” and respond to that five times. Why accounting? Because I need money. Why do you need money? Because I want to be financially stable to open my own business. Why do I want to open my own business? Because I want to be working for myself for a change. Why do I want to eventually work for myself? Because I like being able to be in charge of my own vision. Why do I need to be in charge? Because I would like to share what it is that I believe in, without needing the adulteration of business partners or other people.

Now I could break down why Japan and owning a bakery there, but that’ll just take too long. You get the idea. By breaking down what it is that I want to do with all of these questions, you are left with the purest reason as to why I am doing the things I am doing. I want to open up my own bakery and it must be my own, because I do not want to keep working for somebody else, and make their visions come true for the rest of my life. I need to be able to do something that will be true to me. I need to let my voice and my stories be expressed, either in words or pastries.

For my pastry experience, I have been baking for about 6 years (I started in 2010). It started with vegan cakes. I was raised by an organic-forward, lactose-intolerant, Buddhist mother who banned all things butter and sugar from our pantry. I love you, Mom, if you are somehow reading this and you realize that this is me. But anyways, I only could cook vegan because of that. And then I managed to sneak butter and heavy cream into our pantry, and then we got the ball rolling. Even though we didn’t have whisks, I managed to make due with what we had, and I made meringues using my strainer. When it came down to it, I was able to bake despite the obstacles presented before me, and it just showed that my determination to make desserts with next to no real equipment or ingredients.

While baking is one of my loves, I needed to have an umbrella passion that covers everything. Like I said, desserts are one of the best ways for me to tell my stories. While my writing skills are basically lukewarm one a good day, I know my love and understanding of pastry makes me capable of properly expressing my story and my journey from an immigrant child to an adult. Desserts just make me smile.