All Things Come Full Circle
I come from a big Mexican family, five siblings, nieces, aunts, uncles, cousins... Our gatherings always revolved around food. My parents brought a lot of their roots and heritage with them, but as far as food goes they try really hard to preserve that. I remember when I was younger my parents would always be in the kitchen on the weekends, and family would come and hang out to EAT. I have this memory of music playing in the background and my mom and my dad cooking and doing a few dance steps and then back to the stove to finish cooking.
My fondest memories are of my dad and the way that he would cook. He did it differently. It wasn’t like mom's cooking. It was very spur of the moment, no recipe and no rules. He just put it together, more of a rustic style of cooking, and I loved that. I loved that and feel I really took more to his style. I always found myself back in the kitchen when dad was cooking.
I was set to go to college to major in marine biology, and about two months before I was supposed to move up north to start, I just felt like, "I'm not too sure about this." At the same time, I had applied to a culinary school in Portland, Oregon, and had found out I got accepted. I knew where my heart was and just felt, "There is no better time than now." I packed up my stuff and moved up there by myself. I didn't know anybody, but I was 17 and ready to conquer the world. I worked full-time and went to school full-time. It was either I sink or I swim. I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted the struggle. I wanted to learn. I wanted to grow. And it was the best decision I ever made.
I completed my internship at Melisse in Santa Monica, and they ended up hiring me on full-time. It was the start of a pretty wild ride. This was my first experience in the cutthroat fine dining industry and was a completely different world than I was used to. You're either in or you're not, and you either know or don't know. You have to learn to do it "on the fly" or you're not going to make it. I would work maybe 14 hours a day and barely got minimum wage, and the irony in that is the dishes that we prepared were for $500-$800 tables, which made the whole experience a very bittersweet and ironic one. I was never in it for the money, and in most places you won't get paid much, sometimes nothing at all, but what you learn and walk away with is your salary. I can't deny how much I gained and learned, and you just can't put a price on that.
One thing with chefs, specifically in restaurants, is that the restaurant is pretty much your world. That’s where your time goes, and you don't have time for much more. You dedicate yourself to the kitchen. The whole crew eats together, conquers a busy service together, cleans together, all of it. It's either for you or it's not. Around this time I got pregnant with my first daughter, and my whole world changed. Before my daughter, I hardly saw my family. I worked nights; I worked weekends; I worked holidays. In kitchens, the rules are you don’t call out sick and you don’t abandon your station, because the kitchen needs you. With my daughter, I shifted and thought, "Now maybe it's time to make some changes," and ended up leaving and staying home with her for about nine months — and then I realized how much I wanted to go back. I missed it way too much. I don't have this passion for anything else.
My first introduction to the corporate world came about a year later with Disney. This was a completely different end of the spectrum. In a small business, you're not going to get docked for showing up late, but you're going have to be there until 2 a.m. You need to hustle and get things done or you're going to be in the weeds for the rest of the night. In corporate, there is a little more structure, a little bit more guidance, and a little more money involved. Working there, I really realized how much I loved the restaurant aspect of the business. The rush, the prep, the detail, and the plating. It is such a creative outlet.
Later in my career I became a Chef for Hilton. This may have been the hardest career hurdle that I have had to overcome. I was the first female chef ever for that property, and the youngest. Most of the cooks that were there were all veterans. Some of them had been there for 15 years, some for 17 years, and none of them were shy about telling me that they had never had a female chef. At the same time, though, a lot of the women in the kitchen were so excited for me to be there, which was very humbling for me. It was a great feeling to know that I was the first female chef that they had ever had, but I think it was definitely culture shock for not only the cooks but for the management as well. Right off the bat, I heard, "You're the new kid; you're the young one; you're the girl." I was under a lot of pressure and scrutiny. I was under a microscope. Even when I managed to prove myself and show them I knew what I was doing, it was like it almost wasn't good enough. Unfortunately, the three years I was there were probably the hardest years of my career. It was just a daily uphill battle. I was eventually asked to run the restaurant line, having the most fine dining experience in the chef team, and I took on the challenge. But again, all of the line cooks were older and all male, and I just never felt like I fit in, never felt like I belonged there. The line cooks were not happy about this young girl coming in and being in charge. They were very resistant, and so I got so much pushback and lack of respect: "I don't have to listen to you." But I refused to give up. In the end, several of them were genuinely sad to see me go. I gained respect from most of them; some looked up to me and genuinely wished me well when I left. It sucks to say that I had to work so hard to get them to change their minds about me. At the end of the day, I left knowing I did make some sort of positive impact on the cooks. But it was time to leave. If I’m not growing, learning, advancing as a chef or cook, I start to feel like I am wasting my time.
The best things I took away from my time there were how to be a good manager, how to treat my employees, how to motivate, and how to lead a line. You can't just learn that anywhere. The stuff that you learned in the corporate world is not the stuff you're going to learn at a mom-and-pop shop. Now, in my new position, I run my line. I do what I’d like. I get to set up my menu every day. I manage four cooks that are eager to learn, excited to cook, look up to me, and are super respectful. I love it. It's my kitchen, and I can do it how I please. I don't think I have been this creative in years.
Juggling the mom life with the chef life is not an easy thing. I have this love and passion for my craft and dedication to creating good food, but I also have these two beautiful babies that I have to raise and support and care for — and sometimes it does get very difficult. I have to figure out, how do I find the balance, how am I going to devote my time, my energy to both? How do I put all of my day together, the laundry, the cleaning, coming up with the new menu item, and a daily special? Add to that the orders, inventory, scheduling, and so many intricacies that also go with the territory. There is a struggle that I don't share with others, mostly because I think it is irrelevant. My daughters are happy and I love what I do, and so I try not to get too into the details about how hard it is, but it can get difficult finding the balance.
I feel so blessed and lucky that my daughters and boyfriend understand that I love what I do, and that is very important. I have a great support system; I would not be able to do any of this without my family. I also have an amazing community of friends, mostly chefs, a lot of them women. I love that I can bounce ideas off of them. We help each other find solutions, we encourage each other, and it's pretty awesome. I have chef friends in Chicago, New York, Delaware, all over the world! It's THE BEST.
Through all of this, being a woman in the industry, I have learned that how you carry yourself, and the perception of others, has so much to do with running a successful kitchen, no matter what your skill set. I always think back to the two chefs that really inspired me along my own way, Chef Jeff Cummins and Chef Ruben Esparza. They encouraged me to try harder, to be better, to never give up. I remember cooks were intimidated by these two, some would hate to work beside them. Not me, I purposely chose to work with them; I wanted to see how they made a stock, or a sauce. I took from their techniques, tricks, habits, and developed my own. I feel they took me under their wings from the beginning, perhaps because I was not intimidated or afraid, and as a result I grew and thrived. I owe a lot of my "no bullshit, I don't care what you think" style in the kitchen to them, and I am so grateful for what they taught me and the chef I have become.
I'm so grateful for every single one of my experiences. I take it all, the good, the bad, and the ugly. For my entry interview for my job now, I was asked, "What are you going to walk away with?" I am a firm believer that, no matter what the experience is, you always have to walk away with something. You have to say to yourself, "This is what I've learned..." From all of my chefs, I've learned something, be it good or bad. Personally, I am a firm believer in passing it on. I feel that I need to lead by example, I need to show my team that I too am a part of it. I will clean the fryer and scrub the floors if need be. I have no problem teaching you something. If you have a question or need clarification, I will stop what I'm doing to guide you. I will help you. I will show you. I take a lot of pride in this. Staying very dedicated but without losing humility, those are very important. I've told some of my cooks, "Without your success, I am unsuccessful." It's so important as a manager or a leader for your team to know that you have their back, and in turn they will have yours. I hope that young women will read this and be inspired. I hope I can encourage; I hope I can continue to lead, and look back and feel accomplished.
Liz lives in La Puente, CA. She is currently Chef de Cuisine at The Valley Hunt Club in Pasadena, and has been in the industry for 15 years. She is a graduate of Western Culinary Institute, Portland, OR, and has worked at Melisse, Santa Monica, CA; Disneyland Resort & The Napa Rose, Anaheim, CA; Pacific Palms Resort, City of Industry, CA; Hilton, Anaheim, CA. #truecooks
Words: Liz Macias