The Skirt Steak Files

for ladies who cook, professionally
Documenting the outtakes, outbursts and opinions behind the book SKIRT STEAK: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen (Chronicle Books; October 24, 2012. PRE-ORDER it on
  • May 14, 2012 10:51 am

    Cook, Interrupted

    Today’s guest post comes from Tina Dang in San Francisco. She’s looking for some encouragement and seasoned advice. See what inspires her, and what she has been cooking, at her gorgeous blog

    When I started to cook, my eyes were cloudy with romanticism. Here I was, finally cooking.   I was intent on learning and having a mentor.  I was super-idealistic about the evolution of a chef—what it was going to be like to button up those whites.   That was 27; I turn 31 this June.  I grew up surrounded by donuts, and at night I dream of stuffed squid in a spicy tomato sauce.


    Classic story:  I always wanted to be a cook.  I always wanted to feed others, and I loved watching others eat my food.  It took a grand kick in the ass for me to jump into this gastronomic world (or, more like a nagging persistence of kicks). My father was afraid that I would never have the patience to graduate high school let alone college. I just had to do something to make my parents proud, so culinary school was pushed away for an Art History degree; but somehow I still ended up with a knife in my hand.  My first paid kitchen job was at a spaghetti shack. I wore hoop earrings, basked in the glory of the blasting music playing in the FOH and tossed Caesar salads with tongs.


    I kept at it.  Working in various kitchens with various people.  I have heard, “I just want to strangle you,” or “You have to work ten times harder than any other guy in that kitchen;” or my favorite, when I sent out salads and knew nothing about coarse lines like, "You’re gonna make me go to IHOP!” There were sour times when negative cooks threatened my optimism … and, more than anything, many, many times when I just loved what I did.  I was at my happiest when I finished a shift and the smell of burning coals lingered on my clothes. 


    Unfortunately I take things personally, and I am stubborn.  Yes, I have grown as a person—I have learned, and I have conquered emotions. And, I’ve grown as a cook—from making salads to desserts; from working with coals to burning wood; from mastering grilling to roasting, and sweating to sautéing. But, professionally, I have not reached my desired goal.  


    What is that goal? Good God, I still don’t know.  When someone asks me if I want my own food cart, if I’ve thought of opening my own catering company, if I will do pop-up dinners, if I still want to work in a kitchen … it all seems to be in a state of flux and limbo.   Yes. No. I don’t know.  Somehow, I always have the same answer: I just want to cook and I just want to keep on learning.


    See, that’s the wonderful thing about what I do; I am always learning and, every day, placing myself in a challenging situation.  But I still have to pay off those student loans and cover my rent. 


    So after a couple of years, I decided that I was going to go freelance, but because I did not have confidence in myself, I did not flourish. Once again, like my idealized image of a chef, that romantic notion of freelancing was tarnished.   I tried my hand at being a private chef; tested out various catering companies; cooked for under-privileged kids; taught classes, and lastly, even dabbled with food styling as an assistant.  Despite being inconsistent, it was all successful and gratifying, but I still felt lost. 


    I went back to a restaurant kitchen because I missed the sounds, the adrenaline; I missed the prep.   I just love it—all of it. 


    I also went back because I felt like I still needed more time under my belt—more experience.  


    One day, while working part-time at two restaurants and cooking for a private residential client, I was asked to be a part of a new restaurant and help with the opening.  My chef approached me, said he needed strong cooks, and implied that there was sous chef potential.  He told me how much he paid his sous; he told me that I had balls and he wanted me on his team.


    Although it was never promised, of course, in my head, I was on the road to becoming a sous. I was working towards and being considered for it, and a number of people knew that I was up for that position. I thought wanted it. What I really wanted was a new challenge—to give my career a boost, as well as my confidence.


    What did I do?  I changed my LinkedIn profile to read “training sous.” I told my friends, my family; everyone was so proud.  I continued to work the line in order to know all aspects of the restaurant and the stations, trailed with prep, etc.   When announcements were made, my name was not listed as sous.  That day I went to the bathroom and told myself not to cry. Do not cry! I became a line cook again and I realized that I wanted more than that.   I felt so ashamed.  I continued on the line, but it became clear to me that I was not exactly passionate about the food, so I broke the news to my chef two months later. 


    As heartbreaking as it was to walk away, I understood that this wasn’t the challenge I was looking for. Still, I feared that I had backed down. Had I decided too hastily? These and other doubts have continued to surface. As much as I love it, I sometimes ask myself, did I choose the wrong career? I wonder if I would I still be this heady and crazy if I had taken a different path. At the same time, I worry that deciding not to be a line cook anymore is a form of giving up.


    I have also wondered what it would be like to work at a legitimate fine dining establishment. It always loomed over my head. What would it be like to use a spoon and do those cool swivels and swirls? Like a painting! So I quenched my thirst for that moment and did a stage at one of those places. It felt cold; there were no smiles and if there were, they were questioning smiles.  The food was gorgeous, though—too precious, but so damn beautiful. Unfortunately I did not get to taste many of the plates.  As I stood there watching each person work his two plates, I knew this wasn’t what I wanted in cooking. I can check that off my list; there’s one less thing to wonder about now.  

    With a rocky personal relationship, and a job that was unsatisfying, I gave my notice to my boss.  A cook told me, “I think the best thing for you is to go get an office job.”  I responded, “Nope.”


    I need advice. There is still so much I can learn from other seasoned chefs.


    One thing I know for sure: I want to cook.