It takes at least ten years to become a chef – to master the ways of a knife, the inner life of ingredients and the vicissitudes of heat and then to hone this knowledge until it lives in the hands, like a musician’s response to notes on a page.
Molly O’Neil, The New Yorker, 2001
I often think about the designation “chef,” my job title for over 20 years now.
Actually, I think of myself as a professional cook rather than a chef; I reserve that honorific for people who can connect themselves to great masters—those who trained with the chef who trained with the chef who trained with the chef…. But that’s how I’ve earned my living and this is how I got started.
In 1980 I was living in New York City working as a psychotherapist. Seeing patients was a grim struggle. I found the sadness, the responsibility, frightening as well as overwhelming. This was also the year of my father’s losing battle with cancer. The combined preoccupation with his illness and the sinking feeling that I was on the wrong professional path made me jump at the chance offered by a friend to supply her with “extra hands” in the restaurant kitchen she managed. Although I’d always been happier cooking than doing anything else, I had never before even walked into a professional kitchen.
Day one. I was greeted by a cacophony of sounds and smells: stocks were simmering on the stove; you could hear the tap tap tap of the prep cooks’ knives on cutting boards; last night’s soccer game was hotly debated in Spanish; there was the sharp smell of garlic and the delicious aroma of roasting chicken. I was quickly introduced around and then took my place, assigned to peeling a 50-pound sack of carrots. I had never been happier.
Looking back on it now, I realize this was my first stage (unpaid internship), the proper way to begin what turned out to be my new life. From that very first day in the restaurant kitchen, even though it meant abandoning my formal education, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. It was the start of a long journey. Cooking will always be the unfinished education, the endless opportunity to learn.
Over the course of these last 36 years, I’ve met people at various points in their own kitchen journeys. Recently I met a young woman from Taiwan, Iu-Luen Jeng, Jeng as she prefers to be called. As we’ve gotten to know each other, it is easy to see the influence of both her parents on her choices. Her father made bao, selling his buns from a stand in the traditional market in Taipei. It’s in these markets that the soul of Taiwanese food resides. Her mother was an educator, a former high school principal and then an inspirational speaker. Jeng is the product of both her father’s free-wheeling life in the kitchen and her mother’s educational imperatives.
In 2007, she moved to the States for college and graduate school, getting her master’s degree in art therapy from the Art Institute. Today she works as an artist and psychotherapist in Chicago.
Jeng has also grown in a different direction. She’s developed an obsession with fine dining, often going alone to restaurants to better concentrate on the chef’s presentation and flavors. She continues to hone her skills in the kitchen. She haunts markets and the city’s ethnic restaurants to broaden her palette, to experience tastes that aren’t part of Taiwanese flavor profiles. She uses her blog, apartmentkitchenproject.com, to record her experiences and ideas.
I’ve tried to capture Iu-Luen Jeng on video. Here she shares her father’s recipes for bao. She also discusses her dream of a restaurant, Museum. Will she take the leap and fully embrace the life of a chef or will this be a road not taken?