I recently had the chance to talk with a chef-in-training who is, as of Monday, in posession of an envious spot: a (well) paid stage in Basque Country in the kitchen of Martin Berasategui.
Tracy Chang, 23
Culinary Student from Boston, MA
Favorite pintxo: The sea urchin roe and anchovy pintxo (huevos de erizo con anchoa) at Txepetxa
Current ingredient obsession: Konbu. I've always loved seaweed. I've been using it for curing fish, making stock and eating afterwards. I'm forever obsessed with the sea and seafood.
Cookbooks du jour: Too many to count. Here's a few: A Day at El Bulli, Dessert Fourplay, Momofuku, Shunju, The Perfect Scoop...
Breakfast de aujourd'hui:A glass of orange juice before my 8:30am class. Then I had a croque madame between classes. Simple yet satisfying.
What was your immediate reaction upon hearing the news?
I didn't know whether to believe it or not because I found out via the Basque Stage Blog. I thought it was April fools until I was 'tweeted at' on Twitter and then I saw Chef Martin's speech on vimeo. That sealed the deal.
When did you first become interested in food?
In elementary school, I spent a lot of time in my grandmother's Japanese restaurant admiring the sushi chefs at the bar. When I wasn't there, I was at my grandmother's house, helping her cook Sunday supper. My grandmother loved good food and consequently, so do I. It runs in the family.
What was your first kitchen job?
My first real kitchen job was at O Ya, a contemporary Japanese restaurant in Boston.
And how did you get it?
The owners were looking to hire a hostess. I applied with no real intention of hostessing. Instead I created a picture portfolio of 23 dishes I enjoy making as well as a sample of my signature green tea cookies. They offered me an opportunity to stage twice a week. A few months later, they took me on full-time. My first day staging, I vowed not to cut myself. In fact, I thought I'd be washing dishes all day but no, I was asked to cut cucumber brunoise. I felt embarrassed having to ask how to spell 'brunoise.' I spent two hours cutting no more than a few ounces of brunoise which shortly after, were deemed 'useless.' I went home and practiced cutting cucumber brunoise that night. And the next day, too.
Who do you count among your inspirations, chef or non-chef? Why?
Inspiration comes in many forms. Most recently, I was working at the CIA Worlds of Flavor convention in Napa, featuring various top chefs from Japan. I was astounded by the majority of Japanese chefs who chose to actually prepare their dishes themselves for demonstration and sampling. They were thoroughly preparing dishes from fish bone stock to hand-cut soba noodles. It was inspiring to see that chefs (most of which were at least twice my age) of such caliber chose to spend their time, energy and talent on the event when they could have easily just handed off tasks to volunteering students. To be more specific, I was most impressed with Chef Toshiro Konishii (and his ceviche) and Chef Shuichi Kotani (and his multiple demonstrations of hand-cut soba). Its chefs like these that inspire me to always cook with integrity, passion and precision.
What are you most looking forward to about Basque Stage?
I'm excited to learn and cook in another country and in a foreign language. I think the chefs in Spain have a lot to teach me and I'm ready for the challenges to come.