She’s The Boss

Last Fall I attended a Culinary Summit in San Jose to watch a panel of authority in the hospitality and tech industries discuss the importance of data, technology, and diversity in food service. The future of food has many movements, including plant-forward, root to stem, robotics, and virtual cafes. The evolution of eating is undeniable. Between curiosity, culinary evolution, and technology, progress is inevitable. Technological developments making service flow efficient and food delivered faster will keep coming. It is almost impossible to keep up with all the trends. I have always wondered how the “next big thing” in food comes around. Who decides it and how do they know it will be a hit?

I learned during this summit that women hold only about 6% of executive chef roles in the U.S. I have had many female mentors in my 20-year culinary career, so this statistic surprised me. That said, I am aware of the gender gap. Men dominated many culinary trainings and professional kitchens I have attended and worked. During my visit to Beijing in 2008 to work for Daniel Boulud’s French-American outpost, Maison Boulud, I was a bit stunned seeing that every single kitchen employee was male, except for a young woman who was a pastry cook in training. As expected, she clung to me right away and was quite surprised that I was a chef. I think it gave her a glimmer of hope. If I could become a chef, so could she. She was very talented and had the fortitude and patience to be a beast in culinary, given the right training. In China, though, one can assume that the doors to diversity evolution may be heavier and could take longer to fully open.

I was interested to find out that two women founded the Culinary Institute of America, the first and most prestigious culinary school in the country. It opened in 1946, but the school did not permit women to attend general classes until 1971. The school was built as a vocational school for returning veterans, and did not have appropriate housing for women until the 70’s. Things have changed a lot since then. In a recent Food and Wine article, I read that, for the first time ever, the 73-year old institution’s current enrollment is majority female.

I have had many women bosses, mentors, and inspirations. Women ran both of my very first kitchen jobs in college, when I was a server. When I finally took to cooking as a profession, my very first chef was a woman. In that same kitchen, the chef de cuisine, sous chef, and pastry chef were women too. Many female cooks who showed me the ropes of “prep cook 101,” ended up being my loyal and confident workforce years later.

During my birthday last month, my husband and I decided to celebrate at Hollywood’s Chi Spacca for dinner. We had considered other places, but in the end, we decided that it was the right place. Chi Spacca is a Nancy Silverton restaurant. She has been a Los Angeles culinary icon since the 80’s. I did not get to eat at her restaurant, Campanile, which she operated with (then-husband) Mark Peel until 2005. Back then, my entire paycheck went to rent and bills, leaving very little for exploring the food in the city. Her Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza have always provided us with consistent food of impeccable quality. The several times we have dined at her restaurants, we have always left the place happy. It is also not uncommon to see Chef Silverton working at the mozzarella bar at the Osteria.

Having read much about Chef Silverton’s background, I am at awe at her determination and guts to start over a couple of times and that she continues to be successful in the business. She is an accomplished chef and a mother of three. Our visit to Chi Spacca was quite inspiring. The food spoke for itself…no fuss. It exemplified simplicity, beauty, and control. As a chef, I sometimes find it difficult to not overdo the plating, but Chef Silverton does it just right. Her dishes focus on quality ingredients, techniques, precise preparation, perfect seasoning, and just the right combination of flavors. I own most of her cookbooks, which provide me with inspiration when curating menus at work.

As a child in my humble home in the Bulacan province of the Philippines, women have always dominated the home kitchens. My uncles were great cooks, but my grandmothers nourished us daily. Both of my grandmothers planned, shopped for, and prepared family meals. Most meals were modest, but we never went hungry. The weekly menus were always well thought out. Grilled or fried pork was paired up with a fish dish in sour broth or some sort of ceviche. Most vegetables were sautéed with salted dried shrimp. The sweet with the salty is a common pairing. Steamed rice cakes were eaten with pork blood stew known as dinuguan. Champorado, a Filipino chocolate rice porridge, is often served with salted dried fish. These combinations might sound weird, but somehow they work! The perfect sauces always accompanied the dishes; fish sauce, shrimp paste, and chili palm vinegar to name a few. Without a doubt, and unbeknownst to them, my grandparents knew how to “chef it.”

The first real chef in my life was my great aunt. Her name was Eugenia but we called her Ate Genia. She was a petite woman who lived to be 103. She was a single mother of two boys. She was strong, kind, and a real boss in the kitchen. She would be the hired chef for family weddings back then. I remember her remote kitchens in the backyard, set with makeshift stoves of bricks and wood, decked with bigger-than-life woks. She had an ensemble of volunteered prep cooks, mostly consisting of my grandmothers and aunts, who were probably inspired and scared at the same time. I remember spending time in this backyard kitchen watching them expertly use their cleavers, pluck feathers from boiled whole chickens, and braise all kinds of meats. The dish I remember the most from Ate Genia was pineapple chicken. It was a dish of bone-in chicken pieces, slow braised in a sweet and salty broth of pineapple juice and soy sauce. This dish was a recurring item on her menus. She was a powerhouse, and grander than any chefs I know now. She exuded confidence, pride, and looked happy while cooking.  Ate Genia butchered whole cows and pigs on her own, and she would use every bit of the animal from nose to tail in different applications.

In the 70’s and early 80’s, weddings in our town were a spectacle. There were no real invitations…families just showed up. The guest count could rise up to 300, easily. The wedding receptions were held in the enormous backyards the families owned. The feast would consists of at least a dozen types of elaborate savory dishes and one or two whole roasted pigs. As a professional chef who has been spoiled with top-of-the-line cooking equipment, it is unfathomable to me how Ate Genia executed the food for these huge weddings in makeshift outdoor kitchens. It makes my heart pound when I think about it. She did not have sheet pans, bun racks, or an oven! My great-aunt is a solid proof that real talent in the kitchen does not require a chef’s toque, a bright white coat, or a Le Cordon Bleu diploma. Passion and dedication can command respect and bring inspiration. When I look back at the women in my life who inspired me, my great-aunt is definitely near the top of the list. My overpriced culinary education is no match to her strength and self-taught culinary prowess. Nonetheless, I think she would have been proud to see me as an accomplished chef.

March is Women’s History Month. I am thankful for all the strong and powerful women in my life. My great-grandmother, my grandmothers, and my great-aunt were great source of strength. My mother is an endless resource for advice, support, and encouragement. They were the homemakers who fueled our family structure. They had great survival skills, and their unfailing instincts prevailed over many adversities. Most of all, they were kind, brave, and persistent.

I have lived a charmed life. It could be some sort of an intangible talisman that came with birth. This charm did not lead me to a ton of material wealth, legs for miles, or long curly lashes. Nor did it give me immunity to seasonal head colds, chocolate cravings, broken hearts, and the need to exercise. It did however give me a life balanced with love, hope, opportunities, disappointments, regrets, losses, and encouragements.

Whether it’s kismet or just plain luck, I am never short of female inspirations. Some of whom I have not met in person, some of whom I work with on a daily basis. Two of them are my sisters, a few of them were previous bosses, and several of them raised me as the woman I am now. What matters is that they are with me in person and in spirit. They taught me to be humble and to work hard. They taught me that anything is possible. For all that, I am forever grateful.

I attempted to make my great aunt’s Pineapple Chicken last week. I do not have her recipe but my mother was able to give me some guidance with how she thought Ate Genia made this dish. I gave it a spin of my own by adding ginger and finishing the broth with coconut milk. I hope that my variation does not make her turn in her grave. It turned out great but nowhere near the flavor of the dish in my childhood memory. It could be that her presence was the ingredient I was missing.

Please enjoy this Pineapple Chicken inspired by my great-aunt. Bon Appétit!