I have enjoyed cooking as long as I can remember. I love eating; experiencing different tastes and textures is exciting for me. My dad is Italian-American, so I was raised in an environment that revolves around food; family gatherings are like eating marathons.
As a child, I never thought I would be a chef, or had even considered the food service industry as an option. Of course, I changed “What I’m gonna be when I grow up” almost weekly. I always imagined myself in some sort of white collar position, with at least a Bachelor’s Degree. I love learning, and have a knack for science and math. In high school I planned to go to college to study chemical engineering, but once I got into college, I changed my mind, deciding I would study graphic design. That lasted about a year, then I switched to mathematics. After another year I dropped out, telling my parents I would work full time managing a KFC, and eventually go to culinary school. I think I am attracted to cooking because it combines science and art. There is real chemistry involved, but you get to be creative and expressive through it.
It took two years for me to get my act together and get into culinary school, but I eventually did enroll at Kitchen Academy in Sacramento. After school, I continued to work in the Quick Service Restaurant industry, managing three Cold Stone Creameries for two years. I also work part time in a chocolate shop for several months while managing the Cold Stones.
Once I left the QSR world, I was hired as a pantry cook at Stone House Bistro in Rancho Murieta, CA, a small (Friday Harbor small) gated community outside of Sacramento. I worked my way up, essentially managing the restaurant over the course of two years. Eventually I felt the need to move back to Lodi, where I grew up. There is a wonderful bakery there, The Dancing Fox, and I’ve always enjoyed baking and pastry more than savory cooking, so I decided that I was going to get a job there. In the meantime, I would sell cheese and wine. After a few months, a breakfast cook position opened up at The Dancing Fox, so I applied; even though I really wanted to bake, I figured a foot in the door couldn’t hurt.
At Kitchen Academy the chef instructors told us that breakfast cook was the most difficult position to have in a kitchen. They had me terrified of it! It didn’t help that when we had “Egg Day” at school, I had the worst time ever trying to fry an egg properly. I couldn’t do it. In my defense, I had never tried to fry an egg before because I didn’t like eggs very much. In fact, I still don’t like the taste of a fully cooked egg yolk. I was so hard on myself for not being able to do it well, I actually started to cry. Since then I’ve eased up a little bit. I have to keep reminding myself, it’s just eggs, not life or death. But I digress.
At Dancing Fox I took to breakfast cooking like a duck to water. I love it. Maybe it’s because I feel like I overcame a challenge, or because I feel confident at something I know others feel uneasy about. As I cooked breakfasts food more and more, I learned to like eating them more and more. (I had never been a breakfast eater before.)
Once my aunt Stephanie (who has been with The Tucker House Inn and Harrison House Suites for several years) heard I was doing breakfasts, she started asking me to come here and check out the Inn. After almost a year of her saying “We need someone, come see.” and me saying “Oh, I don’t know, it’s a big move,” I finally came up and checked out the island. And, like everyone else who comes here in July, I fell in love with San Juan Island. I knew I had found my home. I flew back to California, packed up and came back here within a month to start working.
So now I’m here, watching the rain fall, thinking about myself and what to tell you all to make me sound interesting. My thoughts keep coming back to my table. All of my best memories from childhood were either outdoors or at the big butcher block table my dad built that was in our kitchen. (I love being outdoors, that’s part of why I love SJI, great outdoor activities.)
About the table — I love it. As a child, I thought it was gigantic. I know now it’s not, but I still remember climbing the barstool so I could climb on top of it and sit with my mom while she cooked. I spent as much time at that table as I could, cooking, eating, doing crafts, doing homework, or any other excuse. One of my fondest memories from childhood is spending all day in the kitchen with my mom while she made her post -Thanksgiving turkey soup, tasting it along the way as she added ingredients.
I began “helping” my mom cook at an early age – cracking eggs, grating cheese, licking the beaters. I never saw her use recipes, though she had many books and several tins full of recipe cards. I suppose that’s where I picked up the habit of cooking with intuition. My tutelage did not last long; I am a self-guided learner. That’s my fancy way of saying I’m too stubborn and independent, and need to learn from my own mistakes instead of taking others’ word for it. After age 12 or so, cooking dinner one night a week was one of my chores. I would trade all the other duties I was assigned in order to cook more, but my mom didn’t want to scrub the bathrooms either.
I made some great meals at that table, a lot of mediocre ones, and a few real stinkers. The most epic failure I can remember was a batch of chocolate chip cookies. My friend was there with me, and she didn’t want to make them without adult supervision, but I would hear none of that. I was old enough (I think I may have been 8-10), I’d made them with help before, we would be fine. So we mixed the dough and got them baked without incident. But we thought they were a little off. Then I took one to my mom and she could barely choke it down. She asked what I’d put in them so I showed her the eggs, flour, sugar, and can of Crisco in the fridge I had used. When I pulled out the shortening can, she began laughing hysterically. It wasn’t Crisco, it was bacon fat! So now I know the importance of labeling, and being able to identify ingredients.
On my first day at The Dancing Fox, I discovered that we donated day old pastries to the same women’s shelter where the table had ended up. After a few weeks, I inquired about the table with the woman who picked up the pastries every day. She told me they had it in storage, because they had since gotten a new table. She told me I could have it back! I was so excited I made plans to get it immediately, even though I didn’t have a place for it in my apartment. Thus, it found a home in the kitchen at The Dancing Fox. It served us well there, but I was certainly not going to leave it there once I decided to come up to Friday Harbor. I brought it with me, and now I have truly been reunited with my favorite piece of furniture. A piece of my childhood, here in my new home, it helps me feel grounded, when I am so far from my family for the first time in my life. I can’t wait to see what I make on it up here. I don’t plan on reliving the awful cookies, but time will tell. We all have good days and bad days.