A Brief Moment Of Divinity
I honestly want to take someone to a sort of divinity for a brief moment in their day, make a bad day good or a good day better. Like they say, food is medicine. I've never really been one to hope for or look to receive compliments. It's something I'm working on, because I do get compliments. I work in an open kitchen, so I like to watch a plate I made go to the table, and I love to see whoever is eating the dish's first reaction — whether it's good or bad.
Growing up around food, my mom raised three kids and she had her work cut out for her. Before she married and had three kids she worked at Meriwether's and Chuck Muer in Aurora, Illinois; that's where she learned the essentials of cooking and presentation of food as well. I can only assume that is how she evolved into the cook she is and how she made us such wonderful meals, from red chile enchiladas (beef, flat, egg on top, and don't forget the raw onion garnish) to meatloaf, her unique chicken pot pie with Lima beans, fresh salsas, and so many more dishes. Her cooking was not only delicious, but most importantly filled with love. Her presentation was always on key too, even when we would have the "on-the-fly" submarine sandwiches and chips; as kids we called them "sangos." I believe that is where my passion to cook came from, although I didn't ever think about cooking professionally until I was about 18 or so.
I started working at Dunkin' Donuts at a very young age, and that's where I learned the rewarding feeling of working hard as an employee. I worked there for about five years. The amount of times I heard customers tell me, "It's time to make the donuts," is absurd! I laugh now about it, but back then it was another story. Then I started working for a corporate seafood restaurant, Red Lobster, and I worked there for six years. I was a server, and this is where I learned where you can earn the most money in a restaurant as an employee. I was always intrigued by the kitchen staff; they were like the "rock stars" of the place. At Red Lobster we called the kitchen staff "The Heart of the House," because like a heart that pumps blood they would pump out food, which is essential in a restaurant, just as a heart and blood are to life. It may sound cheesy, but that is something that has always stayed with me.
At Red Lobster, I was taking some CNM (Central New Mexico Community College) courses. I was taking the core classes trying to find where I belonged in the world, so to speak. Meanwhile, my sister Laura, who worked at Red Lobster with me, would always sign us up for baking birthday cakes, Halloween cupcakes, potluck meals, and so on and so forth for company gatherings. Although she always had great ideas and knew how to rally the troops, I was always the one left holding the bag, staying up until the wee hours of the morning trying to finish the items for whatever party was next. It never really bothered me. I guess I didn't realize, yet, how much I enjoyed it. One of my close friends, then manager, said, "You're really great at cooking and baking; you need look into culinary school and become a chef." I thought, "A school for cooking?!?!" Then I looked into schools like Le Cordon Bleu; it was really expensive, but I thought about it. The prices were overwhelming. Then, it was weird, within that one week that he told me that, I was at CNM and saw a little pamphlet that was filled with information about their culinary school. I talked to my advisor, and signed up for the introduction classes for the following semester. While I waited for the next semester to begin I read Michael Ruhlman's "The Making of a Chef." It blew my mind. I was so excited, and I couldn't wait to start culinary school. I could only hope CNM's culinary program would be just like the book. And it was incredible. It has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. That is where I found my way to Farina.
When I came here, to Farina, I was definitely intimidated. It was my first job after I graduated, and it actually was my first kitchen job, ever. I did pick up a couple other cooking jobs as second job while working at Farina, but nothing has compared to the quality at Farina. I started off as a pantry cook, then learned how to stretch and build pizzas, and eventually, to cook pizzas in our 750°F oven. I made the pastries for about a year, and then I rose to the sous chef position. Our chef is Richard Winters; he is a "Zen master" of food. He truly implements quality over quantity in his restaurant, down to the bare essentials of peeling our own garlic and shallots, meticulously cutting all the vegetables that go into our marinara, hand crushing tomatoes, and so on and so forth. But one of the best things I've learned at Farina is the reward of local organic produce. We buy from so many farmers (sometimes it's tough to keep up, there's so many). I remember when I first started, the amount of prep and precision that goes into the food was overwhelming for me. Although it can be time consuming at first, I've found that taking extra measures to make sure food tastes its best is always worth the trouble, and now my speed makes time less of an issue.
Richard is so humble (we do not dare call him "Chef"), and I feel like staying humble is another great thing I've learned from him. I now know how to cure meats (pancetta and guanciale), smoke meats (brisket, bacon, Canadian bacon), pickle vegetables, and make sauerkraut and kimchi, to name a few things. Most of these things have been ideas that intrigued me, and I've asked if I can try making them. Not only does he encourage me to try them out, but he also pays attention to the fine details of each process, so I can continue to make each product better and eventually have it exactly where it should be. Farina is like a playground for me, at times.
One thing that cannot be taught in culinary school is how to manage people. I've learned that being a person in management doesn't mean you can walk around "high and mighty." It means that you have been chosen to orchestrate people to achieve the goal of having satisfied customers. All egos aside, that is what all chefs need to achieve. It definitely took time for me to figure out how to motivate and also make it a fun environment. It was like I was handed a new family, and I had to figure out how each person worked. A kitchen has a lot of diversity, and that makes it all the better. We all learn from each other. There are weeks I see my coworkers more than I see my own family. The most important thing I have learned is that you have to give respect to get respect. That is one thing I practice daily. There isn't anything I would ask a person to do if I wasn't willing to do it myself. My Farina family means the world to me.
The thing that inspires me the most is that we always have these different cheeses, cured meats, vegetables, mushrooms, and fruits. It's always fun to create a dish using foreign items. At the same time, I really enjoy creating dishes with whatever is on hand and using items before they pass their prime. Nowadays, I've found myself going over to my sister's place or my mom's and making dinner without grocery shopping first. It's like a challenge for myself: cooking with what is available. I've really grown to be comfortable cooking.
Being a woman in the kitchen, I'm very fortunate because this restaurant is very progressive. Our three main owners are males, but they've always been very encouraging to me, or any person or woman that wants to learn more or kind of build themselves up in the company. Honestly, with my chef, there isn't anything that he would do himself that he won't ask me to do. It can range from hand mixing pizza dough to cooking pizzas in front of a scorching oven for 10 hours straight; he's always treated me like, "Alright, you're up," and it's never been like, "Oh, here, let me carry that for you." I feel like that has made me stronger in my career. With Richard too, he's mechanically inclined, so I've learned a lot of stuff like how to change the switches/wires on ovens, being elbow deep in a grease trap trying to pinpoint a problem, fixing an ice machine, etc., so there isn't like a male-female divide. They're not only encouraging, but they also treat me the same. I really appreciate that.
Along the way, I would have to say there's four people who have been my biggest inspirations. There's my sister; she's always been an encourager, my cheerleader, my biggest fan (my brother, Joseph, might get upset with me saying that). Secondly, there's my brother; he's always played devil's advocate. His brutal honesty is something I really appreciate about him. Third, Richard, my chef, as you may already know, continues to feed me with knowledge. Lastly, and most importantly, my mother inspires me. She's really shown me the true beauty of life and to not stop when times are tough. She's showed me that life doesn’t stop, so you just have to keep getting "it" done, whatever "it" may be. I am truly grateful for those four beings.
The advice I would give women is just this: I would say not to be intimidated. There's a lot of intimidation in cooking. Don’t be intimidated, don’t hold back, and work hard. Sure, cooking may be male dominated, but everything is constantly evolving, including kitchens, and if you're truly fired by passion, nothing will hold you back.
What grounds me? I would say cooking grounds me. I really enjoy cooking. There hadn't been anything in my life that had ever really clicked for me; but once that light bulb was turned on in my head, the rest is history. I know I cook well and can make people happy. I love feeding people, and touching their souls one dish at a time.
Eliza is the sous chef of Farina Pizzeria in Albuquerque, NM. She was born in New York, NY, and eventually made it back to her mother's home state, New Mexico. She attended Central New Mexico Community College and graduated with an associate's degree in Culinary Arts. Her passion for cooking grows every day, and she values the fact that there will always be something to learn and she can never learn enough. Her favorites in the kitchen are curing meats, pickling vegetables, making sauerkraut, kimchi and hot sauces.
Words: Eliza Esparza