People are always curious to learn how chefs or owners enter the restaurant business.

Although a lucky few know their career calling right away, the rest of us figure it out by trial and error. Of course, we all have one thing in common: a love of good food.

During my childhood, good food was a part of my daily life, thanks to my mother, Ching Yun Yin. Although many of our relatives and friends took her good cooking for granted, my brothers and I had a sense that our nightly dinners were a cut above normal home cooking. Whereas other kids our age were eating meatloaf, pot roast, pasta, or chicken, we were treated to a smorgasbord of five or six different traditional Chinese dishes every night; seaweed, jellyfish, braised oxtails, chicken feet, roasted duck in soy sauce, prawns with their heads on, and steamed whole fish were among the usual dishes at the table. Because my mom’s family was originally from Shanghai and my father’s family was from Hunan, she exposed us to a variety of ingredients and made specialties from different regions of China.

Some of my fondest childhood memories include sitting at the kitchen table with my grandmother and my mom, rolling and wrapping dumplings. I would listen to my mom and grandmother describing how to make the perfect dumpling, elaborating on its consistency, size, filling, and cooking method. Then, when I was in high school, I started baking simple fruit breads, brownies, and cakes in my home economics class. Soon, I was experimenting with all kinds of baking recipes. I couldn’t wait until I was old enough to get a job in a restaurant kitchen so I could learn more about cooking.

The summer I turned 16, I began working at the Chinese Kitchen, a small restaurant just outside our town of Rumson, New Jersey. It was a tiny place that specialized in Mongolian barbecue. Even though Rumson was a bedroom community for New York, the Chinese Kitchen was considered exotic at the time. Raw meat would be sliced to order, marinated in a sauce customized by each guest, and cooked on a special Mongolian barbecue grill. The owners had another restaurant as well, and since the menu at the Chinese Kitchen was so limited, I wanted to work at their other location as soon as I had mastered that job. At the second restaurant, I helped make spring rolls, fried rice, and other simple foods. The kitchen was located by the entrance to the dining room, and I enjoyed catching glimpses of people enjoying their meals, or overhearing the conversations of the waiters and waitresses. Everything about that restaurant fascinated me.

I started out in the kitchen, but the more I worked, the more intrigued I became by the idea of serving people. So I applied for a job as a busser at the Fromagerie, the most upscale restaurant in the area, which was just around the corner from where we lived. It had an excellent reputation throughout New Jersey and was one of the few restaurants in the area that had been reviewed by The New York Times. In the early 1980s, people still considered French food the epitome of gourmet cuisine. I remember how I felt when I pushed open the restaurant’s heavy wooden door for the first time. The door reminded me of the entrance to a mansion, and when I entered the restaurant and looked around, I suddenly became very nervous. I had never eaten at a restaurant that had tables set with fine tablecloths, multiple pieces of silver, fancy china, and stemware. At home, we just used chopsticks and maybe a spoon.

Despite my anxiety, I applied for a job there, and I was hired as a busser. For the next two years, the Fromagerie was my hobby. I became friends with the other bussers, servers, cooks, and bartenders. And working there exposed me to foods I had never tasted before, such as fettuccine Alfredo and quiche. My mom never cooked with cream or butter, and we certainly didn’t eat cheese at home. The blue varieties struck me as particularly stinky and unappealing at first. I can’t say that I became a total convert, but at least I would try cheese on occasion. I also learned a lot about desserts, because the Fromagerie made its own pastries. At home, I tried to replicate pastry recipes from the restaurant and tested them out on my family—until my father finally said, “No more desserts, unless you help us eat what you make.”

Mar|Apr 08 Contents
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