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Emerging Chefs #3

by Various student-contributors

Personal Perspectives

Fall Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(4) page(s): 34 and 35

The following thoughts are from students in Chef Shirley Cheng's Asian food classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. Most in this set express their first experiences with Chinese food. We thank them for sharing. There were earlier items in Flavor and Fortune's Volume 12(1) on pages 29 and 30 and others in Volume 12(2) on page 26; and there is one by just one student in Volume 11(4) on pages 17 and 18.

We welcome these thoughts; and second and third experiences or beyond are welcome, too. They will not be returned, may be used in whole or part, and at the discretion of the editor. Every item used will acknowledge its author at the end. Recipes are also welcome, if original. They may not come from a cookbook or any other printed or web-based source. We look forward to your opinions and do hope you care to share, as the following student-chefs did.

"I was seventeen when I worked in Restaurante Buddha's Delight. That was in my home town of Ponce, in Puerto Rico. I wanted to learn about the foods of different cultures. I selected one that is very different from my own. On my first day at work, I was sent to the dishwasher station. I worked there until after two in the morning; and it was hell. After some days, I asked the owner if I could work on the line. Though rejected, after some days and much persistence, he gave me two weeks to watch and learn all cooking procedures of every menu item. Then I was to have a test on just the one that he selected. On the appointed day I was asked to cook Lobster Cantonese, start to finish, and to do it in one hour. The presentation in this restaurant was lobster topped with not only Cantonese sauce, but a big flame. I was very nervous. It was completed five minutes after my allotted time; and thankfully it was perfect. The owner sent me home. On the next day, he scheduled me to work the line with two experienced chefs. I was proud of myself and ready for the new experience."

"I am from the Year of the Ox. I gathered that looking at the calendar before me; clearly I was in a restaurant reading their paper place mat. Then the waiter arrived with menus and tea. My parents assured me I would enjoy the food; I was unsure. The tea was hot, mild, fresh tasting, and like nothing I ever had before. I was mesmerized in this place. While sipping, I stared at a jolly statue, and when I looked up was told to rub his belly. That, they said, would bring good luck. I did, then gaped at the fish tank. It was something like a movie and filled with things never seen before. The waiter still waiting, my parents suggested Sesame Beef and I selected Wonton Soup. My soup looked ordinary and like chicken noodle. However, the noodle was big and filled with some meat. I bit in and it literally exploded in my mouth. Tasting the beef dish made my taste buds explode. It was sweet, suddenly hot, and with seeds that were crunchy. Both dishes told me to respect the foods of this cuisine; and to love it."

"I remember the boxes, those perfectly white ones ends tucked in and looking like packages with tiny wire handles. When opened, steam poured out of them, the aromas were unfamiliar. It was Chinese take-out night in our house. This family moment holds strong when needed most and I look back with fondness at the Kung Pao and other Sichuan dishes for the grown-ups that were too spicy for a little tyke like me. I recall the first time dad showed me how to handle the Mu Shu dish. It was almost as delicate as a Chinese tea ceremony. This important lesson was from a man who knew how to fold the pancake correctly. It was an important lesson and an important time for father and daughter. He loved food and the experiences with sticks and boxes filled me with awe. He taught me to use chopsticks and not disperse my rice in all directions. And, after the meal, we lay back on the couch and read the fortunes loud enough and laughing enough, the whole neighborhood could hear us. For me, those boxes, chopsticks, soy sauce, food, and fortune cookies were times of magical momentous moments."

"After visiting my grandparents, we ate lunch as my father's favorite Chinese restaurant. It was in this small town of Piedras Negras, in Mexico. I was nine and disappointed because there was no McDonald's there. When the wonton soup arrived, I stared for a while at the lump of pasta within. After I finally tasted it, I found it my favorite part. OK, it was quesadilla, but the meal was a positive emotional experience; and a delicious one. It opened the world of food to me. Now I am able to make these and some other Chinese dishes. I now see outside the box. I realize that enchiladas and mole are not the only wonderful dishes on a menu. I have found many others in Chinese cuisine."

"My first Chinese experience occurred when I was taken out to celebrate an achievement. One of the dishes the host ordered was a oodle one. It looked like thick cellophane noodles but they were the chewiest ever. Someone asked the waiter for a menu. We wanted to know what we were eating, but could not figure it out, so we asked the waiter. He replied, that is jellyfish salad. Some were surprised but kept eating, others could not take another bite. I was proud of those who continued to eat this salad, as I did, relying on taste buds and not stigma or fear of eating something unknown."

"When I was a child, I was a picky eater. Chinese food was out of the question. When I was sixteen, I worked at Tasty Thai and my eyes were opened a tad to Asian food. It was not until I was eighteen that I truly enjoyed Chinese food. This course, called Cuisines of Asia, at the Culinary Institute of America, really opened my eyes and my taste buds to the differences between the foods of the many Asian cultures. It was a most informative course, and it raised me to a whole new level of appreciation about Chinese and other Asian foods."

"One of my earliest childhood memories was watching Saturday morning TV movies with my father. Each week we would huddle around the TV, watch kung-fu-type films and stuff our faces with Chinese food. There I would be, using chopsticks too big for my tiny five year old hands. Before the movies began, we went to Restaurant Aloha to pick the food up. Shortly before my eighth birthday Aloha announced they were closing. Harsh news to one with dreams to save Shaolin. We went for a last meal there and on the way home I told my four year old sister that the only good Chinese restaurant in the world had just closed. Fast forward many years past my eating mediocre take-out and lots of Kung Pao Tofu to feed my vegetarian beliefs. There I was, at another place, convincing them to teach me to stir-fry. That tip of the iceberg moment and every free one since, I spend in the kitchen. Today, when more than sixty percent of my diet is Chinese, I know the bounds of the cuisine because I met the most talented and influential chef ever. She taught me to say Aloha to past tastes. She taught me to use skills learned in her kitchen. They are a solid base for my future."

"My experience with ethnic food came at a Taco Bell. Then I learned more as we were off to the Golden Dragon. I was in a quandary. When many dishes arrived, my ten-year-old brain thought it was Thanksgiving or Christmas. But I had no idea what I was eating. I now know bean curd is malleable. I understand about ginger, scallions, garlic, peppers, and soy sauce. I wish I could go back to that Golden Dragon and recreate what I had there. The memories taste so good. I think of the fortune in my cookie that night which said: You will learn to enjoy new things. It was right on the money, and I have. I have learned that Chinese food is surely a favorite."
For this article, thanks are due to the following of Chef Professor Shirley Cheng's students at the Culinary Institue of America in Hyde Park NY. The thanks are to: Fernando Cruz, Graeme Ritchie, Amanda Rutledge, Dora Luz Ramirez, Amber Nishimoto, Randy Clough, Ted Gimian, and Matt Coleman.

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