This July will be my eight-year New York City anniversary. But I’m originally from San Diego. My parents are both academics—they teach at UCSD. My mom’s a visual artist, and my dad is a Chinese film historian. Growing up, I was really passionate about books, music, art, and film, and when I went to university, those were the topics I was interested in and studied. Cooking and food were far from my mind.
When I moved to Montreal in 2009, I had this fantasy of going to grad school for a PhD in Ethnomusicology. At the time, my parents were living in Singapore. I’d gone to visit them, and reached out to this amateur ethnomusicologist. He took me to flea markets and I learned about how he excavated all this really interesting ‘60s local girl group music. I was really fascinated by that, thinking about pop music coming out of East Asia in the last 60 years, so I applied to grad school, but I was rejected from every program.
I stayed in Montreal but I had to work under the table because I’m not a Canadian citizen, and restaurants and cafes definitely run on that kind of undocumented work. I was really lucky that they took a chance on me. I didn’t have any experience but I pretended I did. I just needed a job. I fell deeply in love with the craft. Not just learning the technical skills, but also the culture and community that existed in restaurants, discovering new food—I loved all of it.
But I was never going to become a chef in Montreal or be legitimately hired because I was undocumented. I was tired of working under the table and not having a bank account. Everything I did was out of cash I kept in an envelope literally under my mattress. I loved pastry so much I decided I wanted to keep getting better at it. So, I moved to New York to work at Marlow & Sons and Diner.
Eventually, I was hired as executive pastry chef for a restaurant group called Matter House. We opened Cafe Altro Paradiso in February of 2016, and then Flora Bar and Flora Coffee in the Met Breuer in October. Two openings in one year. It was really hectic, but it was also super beautiful and rewarding.
As someone who was super demanding and really wanted the restaurants to be the best that they could be, to go through that process twice in one year, was just a giant amount of pressure. We’re definitely at the point today, in 2021, where we’re re-examining the efficiency and purpose of that kind of pressure. It almost feels quaint to think back on that and the pressure of those openings, because it just seems so unimportant now.
I didn’t do any professional culinary training. I studied English Lit. A lot of people who are thinking about pastry or cooking in restaurants ask if they should go to culinary school, and while I’ve had great experiences with all the different ones in the city, it just wasn’t right for me. It’s hard to justify the cost of it, and some people simply can’t afford it. What I tried to do was seek out restaurants whose chefs I wanted to work for. Developing mentors in the restaurant industry is really challenging. I wish I had that one person, but I was just trying to work at restaurants where I was able to learn from somebody who knew a lot more than me.
COVID has been incredibly hard on everyone in hospitality. When restaurants in New York closed down and I lost my job, I was like, Well, what now? In that moment, when you’re living it, it can feel like you have no options, that the world is falling down around you, and you have no way of figuring out what a path forward looks like. But it’s like getting out of a bad relationship: eventually, enough time goes by that you see all the ways it opened you up to other opportunities or to do other things that were better for you anyway.
I’m so glad I didn’t go to grad school, too. I’m grateful that I feel like I ended up somewhere that is actually better suited to who I am as a person. But coming from an academic family, that’s what was what was marked as being successful, so of course I thought it was my destiny. I think there’s a lot of value in looking back on your past and seeing it from a little bit further away and feeling more grateful that everything worked out the way that it did.
The last year has definitely reframed the way that I think about what I do. When you’re working in a restaurant, you kind of put your head down and then you look up and five years have gone by and you’re like, Wait, I’m in my 30s, is this really something that I can keep doing? Is this really sustainable? Going back to over a year ago now, the last day that we were open I had worked two weeks straight. We had just wrapped Fashion Week, and all the events and shit that go with that. Plus, I was still not rested and recovered from the insane holiday season. It’s just months and months and months of anxiety and move, move, move. I’m so lucky to have been okay when everything shut down. It was scary and stressful and I didn’t know what was going on, but it also gave me the chance to just stop and rest. To be outside during the day and go on long walks and eat better and sleep for as long as I wanted.
A book agent and I had started working together on a proposal the November before, but because of how much I was working it was always the last thing on my list. I just could not get to it. After the shutdown, my agent called me and was like, “Totally take as much time as you need, but now could be a really good time for you to get some work done on your proposal.” And she was absolutely right. I finally had the gift of time. That said, I didn’t have a computer. I haven’t had a computer for many years, I don’t have TV, I don’t have Wi-Fi. I was always at work and I live alone in this little apartment so it just never made sense to me. Wow, it is so hard to write a book proposal on an iPhone. A friend loaned me an iPad so I kind of went back and forth between the two. But I did it. Like a 40 page proposal—it’s insane.
Finishing it felt like a huge accomplishment. It scratched this itch that goes back to before I’d ever thought about food as a career—the idea of writing, of being a writer, and publishing a book. It’s a dream I never thought would be a reality outside of academia.
It was scary and stressful and I didn’t know what was going on, but it also gave me the chance to just stop and rest.
The whole process was so overwhelming because, at the same time, the pandemic was unfolding in this absolutely sickening way. The way it was mishandled, all the question marks hanging over everything that everybody did all the time. And then, of course, George Floyd was murdered and with that came the wave of the BLM movement. Simultaneously, we started seeing these other reckonings within the food industry, at other restaurants and with Bon Appétit ... just all this garbage swirling together.
I started to wonder, even if there was a job for me, would I ever want to go back to that? Is that really the work I want to be doing? Working for a man at a fine dining restaurant that none of my friends can afford to eat at? Like, is this my life purpose? I ultimately didn’t have to make that decision because I was terminated in June, but it helped me contextualize all these things I was already grappling with in my head about the systems of the restaurant industry and how healthy or toxic they were for different kinds of people.
I’ve spent the past year untangling those threads, and having really profound conversations both privately and publicly, like, “If I choose to work in restaurants again, what are my terms? What does that look like? What kind of role do I have? What kind of space is it going to be and who are they going to serve? What are the values at the heart of this business?” Now, I feel like I’m established enough in my career where I can, instead of being grateful for the scraps, for the $45,000 a year salary, have a little more agency over who I’m working for, who I’m working with, and the kind of things I say yes or no to.
One thing that I’ve gotten really back into in the last year, that has also been incredible for my mind and my peace, is drawing and doodling. A big part of that is because I’ve been working and collaborating with my mom on my Never Ending Taste pop-up. One of the things I love about it is that it’s in such opposition to the polished perfection of a Manhattan restaurant, at least the kind that I was used to working at, where the cutlery’s perfect and the glasses are polished. The pop-up is a little rough around the edges—things aren’t quite perfect. I would draw the menu and my mom would do the poster that I would use to promote it.
It’s created this new relationship with her. My mom was in art school when I was little; I remember her getting her MFA at CalArts. Our house is full of her art. But it was never something we did together. It wasn’t until I started doing my pop-up and thinking about creating that digital language with her. I think it also helps her understand and be more interested in the pastry work that I’m doing, too.
I think a lot of people were feeling like this but I’ll only speak for myself: how scary it is to think about your loved ones getting sick with COVID, how fragile life is, and how it’s ripped so many people from their families in a horrible way. I live that fear, too. Part of collaborating with her was being like, “We need to create some stuff together. I want to have this chapter with you.” That’s brought us closer because it’s not just the same mother-daughter stuff that happens when we talk on the phone. Like, “Do you have enough vitamins? Do you have enough socks? Are you seeing anybody?” That kind of laundry list where you feel like you’re just checking in, rather than maintaining a relationship with someone.
Edibles have come so far—everything from aesthetics to the ingredients.
When I first asked my mom about using her illustrations for this collaboration with Gossamer and Rose Los Angeles, I was actually expecting her to have something critical to say, but she was so excited. I was blown away. She was like, “This just looks so cool. The website’s amazing. The boxes are little works of art.” She already has this plan for how she wants to frame them in one of those shadow boxes, like a little installation. I think the attitude from our parent’s generation is changing a little bit around weed culture in general, and I really feel like it’s because of work that Gossamer and Rose Los Angeles are doing to bring weed into a more inclusive space.
It’s been really fascinating to see it all unfold. It’s not a subculture anymore. For me, the best part of where weed culture and products are at right now is that there are so many alternatives to smoking. I didn’t smoke weed at all growing up. I was a competitive athlete. I rowed in high school and at Cornell. It’s a really demanding sport and we had to sign contracts that said that we wouldn’t drink and do drugs during the seasons. So it’s all new to me now! Edibles have come so far—everything from aesthetics to the ingredients. It feels cleaner, it feels healthier, it feels less stigmatized by society, and that’s really exciting.
I’d never really considered cannabis as a flavor. That was the most interesting part of developing this recipe: it’s not just about finding harmony between the grapefruit, kiwi, and celery, but also highlighting this fourth element. When you’re putting that much care into sourcing all of the ingredients, why wouldn’t that extend to the weed as well? It makes perfect sense to me.
I’m from San Diego, so winter in New York is always really hard for me. But California citrus was always this bright spot when there’s not much else to look forward to. I approached this recipe the same way I do dishes for desserts at a restaurant—what it means to build layers of flavor and how different things can create something bigger than themselves when you mix them together. Oro blanco is interesting—it’s not something that most people know by name. But I love how delicate and clean and restrained the flavor is—it’s not overwhelmingly bitter but there also isn’t a lot of sugar.
Kiwi is going to add that creamy, banana-like sweetness, and thicken the whole mixture. This is not a huge note in the recipe, but I love that there’s celery in there, too. I love using celery in desserts. It pairs really well with almost everything because it’s so refreshing. I like those more savory notes in sweeter dishes so that it’s not too cloying. There’s something a little more sophisticated about it. It’s not necessarily a pairing you might have thought of but if you try all those things together, like, cut up on a spoon, you’d be like, “Oh, it’s delicious.” You’d get it.
Sugar is not a flavor. It’s kind of like salt in that it can set off certain notes. It can make fruit taste more vivid or it can soften the bitter edges of something. But if you use too much of it, it dulls and mutes that flavor and sensation. The thing that you want to taste is the actual ingredients of the dish, not the sugar. So, I always try to play up some more of those savory notes, so that you’re getting something that’s a little sharper in focus.
In a way, this collaboration is like my homage to San Diego, because these California fruits really remind me of home. I’m homesick, and it just feels really cool to have something to work on with my mom that makes me think of home. But the story of the illustrations is actually really cool. I went home in September for a pop-up at Chino Farms. One day at home, I was sitting at a table and my mom just walks up next to me, drops this stack of notebooks, and says, “You can have these if you want,” and walked away. She didn’t say anything about what they were.
The thing that you want to taste is the actual ingredients of the dish, not the sugar.
When I opened them, I realized they were her personal journals. They’re unbelievable. They’re her super skillful, detailed pen drawings of her observations or ideas, but with all of this dense text in Chinese characters embedded into the illustrations or with the text just wrapping around it. It was so intimate, so personal, and so beautiful. But also to get this gift, that peek into your parent’s lives and you suddenly see them as a whole person.
Adding another layer of mystery is the fact that I can’t read the Chinese. It was super enigmatic. I started seeing all these patterns, like six different drawings of an old man smoking. And then I started noticing every time she drew food, like a bowl of noodles, or fried chicken on a plate, or a fruit coming out of a school bus. The images had this magic to them because we don’t really know what she was thinking or how they relate to the text.
But I treasure them. I probably sent 50 different photos of pages or passages of illustrations that stuck out to me during the design process for this collab. My mom loved the idea. She also liked that lack of context, that the drawings are a little bit mysterious. The ones we used are all from her journal from 1999. I would have been in ninth grade at the time. Was I thinking about this rich inner life of my mom illustrating these personal journals? No, I was probably thinking about something super vapid and self-involved. It’s so cool to now to know, “Wow, this is what my mom was doing in ‘99.” I feel so honored that she gave them to me, and that we were able to use them.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Natasha Pickowicz photographed by Meghan Marin at her home in Brooklyn. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.