Education: Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, BS
How did you incorporate your love of cooking into your role as Office Manager/Head’s Secretary?
When I first took the position, I thought it was going to be a 9 to 5 job—I’d go home afterwards to cook and feed my dream of starting a catering business—that didn’t happen. Luckily, Murray Cohen (former Head of School) and Sharona Barzilay (former Assistant Head of School) saw that I enjoyed food. In addition to my work as Office Manager, as well as being the point person for the Board of Trustees, they asked me to supervise the faculty kitchen. Back in the day, I would cook meals for monthly Board meetings, which allowed me to try new recipes. While I no longer do that, I still enjoy cooking for occasional meetings.
Where does your love of cooking come from?
I learned from my mom that food is a way to bring joy and comfort. We are one of those families who’s always planning the next meal. My mom is an amazing cook—Vietnamese, Chinese, all different cultures—and my dad was a guest cook that would make something special every Sunday morning (like hand-made noodles in a yummy broth). My mom is a master at stretching a meal. She would roast a chicken, then turn the bones into soup, shred the leftovers and turn it into another dish. She’d feed 10 people from one chicken and make two or three meals out of it! We immigrated to America from Vietnam and my mom was able to make ends meet using her culinary skills. Even today she has a reputation in Bakersfield for her moon cakes—people call her to buy them from as far away as Fresno. My parents made sure that we never experienced hunger and that’s one of the reasons I’ve always felt secure.
When did you learn to cook?
I honestly never had to cook anything until college and it was a matter of survival. I would call home and ask how to make different things, and I obsessed over each recipe. I started with chicken wings and learned to make 20 different kinds, then I moved on to cheesecake and made every flavor imaginable, until I discovered Créme Brulee, and so on. I would look at a recipe, dissect it, and try every variation. It was a great way to make friends in college, and I always had willing taste testers. After moving to the Bay Area, one of my favorite past times would be to host dinner parties to try new recipes. At the end of each year, I would throw a holiday party that featured my favorite recipes from the year (and some annual favorites), so that my friends could try everything they might have missed during the year.
Tell me about College Prep’s Asian American Association (AAA) Club?
Early on in my career at College Prep, a group of self-identified kids approached me to be the sponsor of the AAA Club. What we accomplish each year depends on my student leaders; our gatherings are discussion-based and we always have food. Sometimes they want to talk about the model minority and issues that Asian Americans are facing, and other times they just want to be able to hang out with their friends, exhale, and watch a Miyazaki movie. Over the years, we’ve created some traditions like hosting a potluck around Thanksgiving, decorating the campus and making dumplings for Lunar New Year, and having a tea party under the cherry blossoms in the spring.
Are you enjoying teaching Life Prep (non-graded practical knowledge classes for Juniors and Seniors)?
Of course, my classes are all about food! The first one I taught was Knife Skills: Salads (only mildly exciting). Then, I offered Knife Skills: Salsa (huge hit!). Students learn how to do a fine dice, a medium dice, and build their own salsa with tomatoes and a seasonal fruit. They had an opportunity to play with ratios and see what happens when too much acid is added, or how to counterbalance too much salt. I showed them that the heat of a pepper is in the seeds, where the capsaicin is, and how to rub their hands with olive oil before they cut the peppers to avoid irritating their skin or eyes later. I share the magic of limes and lime zest, what can be done to get the most out of the flavor. Another fun class is EGGcellent. I consider eggs to be one of those magical ingredients. Students learn different ways to boil eggs to get varied textures, how to fry them, and we make lemon curd. For around three dollars you can get 18 eggs and so many possibilities!
You also helm the Common Classroom garden project.
With the new schedule I saw an opportunity for a Common Classroom offering: The magic of putting things in the ground and seeing what comes up. The Stage Craft class built garden boxes behind the faculty kitchen. I did research on gardening and discovered that to yield the quantity we wanted from our small space, we needed to plant each crop in a 12” by 12” square; it’s called “Square Foot Gardening.” We mapped it out, bought a bunch of seeds, and things came up. Kale, lettuce, and stir-fry greens did really well, we achieved one harvest of carrots, we lost patience for the beets, and planted a bit too late in the season for the butternut squash and pumpkins. From our harvests, I taught the students to make tacos, salads, scrambled eggs, and fancy ramen. We’ve learned a lot from our first season and planted our spring garden a bit earlier. We have a good cycle started.
We recently had our Annual Parents’ Association Auction and Dinner, for which a highlight is always the various things you donate.
This year I made tarts that were auctioned off, and I also enjoy participating in the silent auction by offering to cook brunch, throw a tea party, and making a batch of fleur de sel caramels. I think watching my mom cook and bring joy and comfort to people is something that I inherited from her. I love being able to use my skills to help raise funds that support our amazing teachers and students.