I was a late bloomer when it came to figuring out what I wanted to do professionally. Unlike some friends I had in high school who knew that they wanted to be doctors, nurses, engineers, and businesspeople at 17, I entered college without a major. Even when I finally decided to study English Literature, I still didn’t know what that would mean for me and my way of making a living. I just wanted to read. I didn’t have a plan, and often took the long way home. I didn’t always listen to my mother. I ignored opportunities. I didn’t take care of myself. I didn’t put enough value on friendships; I neglected my relationship with my sisters. I wasn’t a screw up; I just didn’t prioritize well, and I was selfish. I swayed with the wind. I enjoyed my freedom and not having responsibility. I suppose that in my youth, time was the least of my worries. But as carefree as I lived, I held many jobs successfully as I trekked through my twenties. Retail, restaurants, customer service, and banking. It turns out I could be good at many things when I applied myself. My bosses liked me and most saw growth potential in me. Still, no matter what job I held, it didn’t feel like enough.
It was the winter of 1998 when I knew that it was time to make a change. I had been living in Juneau, Alaska for about five years. I had a decent job. I was with my family. I had friends. I wasn’t unhappy. I wasn’t lost. Life was fine. I didn’t even know anything was missing until the very thing I was missing was in front of me. As most life’s revelations, this one came unexpectedly.
I was working in the loans department of Alaska Federal Bank for a couple of years. I liked it enough, and it paid for what I needed at the time. I collaborated with good people. My boss, Tammi, decided she wanted to invest in me. She sent me to a one-week training for Fanny Mae in Los Angeles. I had never been, and naturally, I was excited to go. While I was here, I explored the city every night after the day’s work. A week is too short to see Los Angeles, but I saw enough to know that it was the place I needed to be. The moment of my decision was profound. I remember standing on the patio of the Woodland Hills Marriot on my last night, with a Tanqueray on the rocks in one hand and a lit Marlboro Light in the other, looking up the starless sky and saying aloud, “I must move here, and I will be a chef.” I returned to Juneau after the training with transformed energy. I heard my calling, and I felt compelled to pursue it. I immediately told my mother that I would be moving to Los Angeles within a year.
That was almost 24 years ago. So many things have happened in my life since then. The move to L.A. and pursuing the culinary profession was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. It was the right move. A life’s realignment that I didn’t even know I needed. It was a shift that positioned me where I needed to be. And yes, the first few years were tough and lonely, but for the first time in my adult life, there was a clear path in front of me. For the first time in my life, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Culinary school taught me the foundation of cooking. But the real education came from being in the kitchen, understanding and recognizing the brigade and all it represents. Respect for the craft lead to the creamiest mashed potatoes, the perfect poached egg, stable hollandaise, rich stocks, refined plating, kitchen harmony, flawless service, and good leadership. The kitchen, with all its hazards, physical demands, emotional toll, and harshness, taught me discipline, resilience, humility, patience, organization, fluidity, teamwork, and perseverance. The true revelation was that hard work (lots and lots of hard work) could make me into a great chef. But it also showed me friendship, compassion, and kindness. And it gave me joy. The kitchen took me in and kept me safe. The kitchen provided little pilots of light during my darkest of days. It healed me when I was hurting. It fed me when I was hungry. The kitchen kept me busy and focused when I was homesick for family. I was home. I belonged.
My journey as a chef has taken me down many paths I could never have imagined when I was living in Alaska. I had two amazing mentors from my early years as a young chef. They were tough, honest, and kind. They pushed me hard and prepared me for many things, including a future too distant for my inexperienced eyes to see. Last year, I was presented with the opportunity to lead the entire food service team at Disney, in the role of Resident District Manager, overseeing all the aspects of the operation. FOH (“front of house”), BOH (“back of house”), financial performance, and client and employee relations. It was an intimidating undertaking. I knew it would be hard. I knew that if I wanted to do the job right, I would have so much to learn. But I also knew that I would be committed to learn it, and, with any luck, I would be good at it!
The job is different than my life as a Chef. There are more challenges, and those challenges are of larger scale. Many days I am succeeding. Some days I feel defeated. There are days when I must remind myself that as prepared as I am, I can’t control everything. I never know how my day is going to go. The day’s outcomes aren’t guaranteed. My promise is that I will always give my best, and I will trust the process. Each day presents an opportunity to be better. Just like in the kitchen, every day is a new day, and I get to decide how to face the joys and trials coming my way.
I finally hung up my chef’s coat…a decision that took months to do. For the first time in 23 years, the one big tangible representation of my dream was no longer part of my being. I still miss it and will for a long while. I will always be a chef, only now I am disguised in civilian clothes, overseeing a much larger community of food professionals. The utilitarian superhero coat will retire for a bit, as I embark on my new adventure. But I haven’t lost my superpower: I still cook, and I am still very good at it!
Whether I am in a white chef’s coat or casual business attire, and no matter what the day brings, I am ready. Ready to continue the dream…the dream I never even knew I had. And as I go on with my day, there is a familiar feeling inside me; a feeling that makes me not want to give up. A feeling that keeps me motivated. A feeling that makes me smile, and one that reminds me that I am exactly where I need to be. I know this feeling…it is called privilege. I recognize that it is an honor to be trusted with such responsibility. It is great privilege to be standing where I am. It is great privilege to lead this team. It is a true treasure to have a fulfilled dream.
When I left Alaska with a new hope, I had no idea that one bold, risky decision would take me to where I am right now. When I look around me and evaluate my life, I can’t help but feel grateful. My 28-year-old self would be shocked to see how far I’ve come, but I also think that she would be proud. I ended up exactly where I belong, doing the things I am meant to do. It feels good to be here, and it feels even better knowing what it is I want to do next.
Maybe because my days at work are mostly spent on operations, I find myself wanting to cook more at home. I make dinners every night and on weekends, my son and I have been cooking or baking together. Recently, when I wanted to be creative, I hosted an elaborate dinner party at home! Feeding 20 hungry friends reminded me of the reason I wanted to cook to begin with: sharing your food is sharing yourself.
Today, I am sharing a recipe from my most recent dinner party. It was a five-course all-Italian menu. The third course was eggplant caponata over creamy polenta. I added my Filipino touch on this Sicilian classic dish…slow braised pork belly in balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and onions. After braising the pork belly, I crisp them up on a skillet and topped the caponata with these rich crispy bits. The complete dish was perfect in every way, and it paired quite well with Chianti.
I hope you get a chance to make this dish and share it with someone special. I hope you are living your best life and are surrounded by people who support your dreams. I hope you remember that it is never too late to start anything that makes you happy. Now is the right time to find your place. Be bold!
Happy eating and happy dreaming!
*I didn’t attend my graduation, as I was already working, and I didn’t want to ask my new Chef for the day off!
CLICK HERE to download my recipe for eggplant caponata and bonus recipe for balsamic and soy sauce braised pork belly.