By Merrin Mae Fuentebella
In which MyCookshelf food writer and professional chef Merrin Mae Funtebella answers the behind-the-scenes questions of the nitty gritty environment, secrets, and mental and physical states it takes to be a chef and/or cook.
Curious? Simply “Ask a Chef.”
What’s the biggest kitchen secret you can tell?
Ah, yes, the secrets. There are definitely a fair share of tall tales that are told in regards to the happenings of cooking and dishing during dinner service. The biggest of those, which many people don’t understand, is the fact we don’t have set-in-stone recipes. Sure there are procedures that we all acknowledge, but to assume that we are standing over a pot dutifully following a precise recipe just isn’t the case. If that were the case, we would lose the essence and journey we go on as cooks. Ingredients vary, from where it comes from to the time of the season it was harvested, which can affect the sugar content. The process of tasting as we go is the connection that we have to the dish. A dash or pinch of this or that balances out the flavor and personality. As the saying goes in the kitchen, “We are not shoemakers.” Meaning, we are not robotically following what is written on a piece of paper. We adapt, we improv, we have fun.
If there are no recipes, how are you trained?
The very core of a kitchen is the flow and movement of a person. Our interview process is unorthodox in the sense in that instead of a formal sit-down interview we are observed during what is called a “stage.” During a stage you are immersed into the kitchen environment. You assist in prepping, trail a station during service and maybe break down at the end of the evening. Meanwhile, as you are reacting, learning and absorbing information, the hiring chef is assessing you. You may be asked to cook a simple dish or to taste something. The intent of this task if for the hiring chef to understand your palate. The most important qualities of a good cook are respect, work ethic, passion and that they fit in with that kitchen. Other qualities are trainable, like the basic skills of making a stock, how to saute, etc.
What dish makes you angry when it’s not done right?
It would be more along the lines that the dish doesn’t make sense than it makes me angry. As chefs we put so much time, effort, and ourselves into each dish. Therefore, if you see on a December menu they are serving a bountiful tomato salad, it doesn’t make sense, nor does it showcase the care of the making of the menu. Especially with California cuisine being so much in tune with farmers’ markets, and the local, seasonal, farm-to-table mentality, it’s rather disappointing to see ingredients that are so obviously out of season.
How do you deal with the heat of a kitchen?
Hah! The average temperature in a kitchen is around 92°F, and that’s if you aren’t directly in front of a wood-burning grill or a pasta station that has a pasta well that is constantly emitting steam on you for hours. The strain and sweat that your body endures in a kitchen during service is amazing. With white shirts sticking onto your back, sweat dripping down your brow, cooks have to develop a tolerance level to the heat (usually with the help of three or four tall, plastic quart-size deli containers of ice water consumed during the shift). The thought of pushing through a turn on a busy weekend night of service helps us deal with the heat. It’s the heat of the moment, the mindset of working another day doing something that you love to do. That, and the very fact that most of us in the kitchen are crazy and crazy enough to love it.
ABOUT MERRIN MAE:
Merrin-Mae Fuentebella, a first-generation Filipino American, has been a lifelong connoisseur of good food. Although food was important in the household, it wasn’t her first career path. Finance was the first job, but something never felt right with that career choice. Merrin-Mae's grandmother encouraged her to enroll at Le Cordon Bleu and study culinary arts. Food was a blessing in disguise.
Since graduating, Merrin-Mae has cooked in some of L.A.’s most acclaimed restaurants. she has worked at Alma (Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurant in America”) and Sqirl with Jessica Koslow (one of Jonathan Gold’s “99 Essential Restaurants in L.A.”)
You can ask Merrin-Mae more “Ask a Chef” questions on Instagram and Twitter @Merrinmae #askachef
By Madeline Lee
The scent and sound of fresh espresso being brewed in a French press permeates through the air as I wander into the kitchen on a Sunday morning. Sunlight filters through our lacy curtains, and my mother sends me a brief smile before washing her hands. She throws me an apron and begins donning her own, and we lapse easily into the process of baking a banana cake together for breakfast, following a recipe that years ago had first seemed daunting and a complete shot in the dark for an amateur baker year, but had quickly become a quintessential family favorite. We mash bananas, sift a dry mixture, and whisk eggs and butter together in a quiet and comfortable silence. The worn recipe sheet lies face-down on the counter adjacent to us—we hardly even look at it anymore—its presence comforting and familiar.
As a child, I bonded immensely with my mother over our mutual love for pastries and desserts. We would always have play-pretend tea parties, dreaming up the most elaborate scones or cakes that we would describe in great detail to each other. She would add blueberry muffins and coffee cakes to our weekly groceries list, and the pastries slowly became our favorite breakfast food. It was then that my mother attempted to create her own rendition of our beloved blueberry muffins from a box mix, but the satisfaction of seeing the end result was dampened in knowing it wasn’t an organic process. The next week she attempted to make molten chocolate lava cakes from scratch—I still remember the texture of this so clearly—and failed miserably. It was dry, flaky, and the chocolate didn’t melt at all so the center remained stiff. My mother was crushed and put aside her baking dreams for a while, too discouraged to try again.
When I started the first grade, both of my parents began to pick up more hours at work and would often drop off my brother and me at the home of a family friend who would take care of us during school holidays. Our babysitter was a nice elderly lady who insisted that we call her Grandma Sandy (we weren’t related), and she loved to bake. Each time she would make cakes, cupcakes, or cookies, she invited me to help her. During my time at her house, I learned so much about proper baking techniques like the correct way to mix batter—always in one direction—or how to prevent air bubbles from forming—whisk lower and slower. Often times I would come home and tell my mother all about how I helped to create these confections, even bringing her pieces of the carrot cakes or oatmeal raisin cookies we would make. While this seemed to leave her feeling dejected about her own lack of baking ability, I soon realized that I could teach her the techniques of baking and pass on the lessons that Grandma Sandy had taught me.
While this slightly unorthodox teaching process was difficult and frustrating at first because I was an extremely temperamental child, my mother slowly learned everything I knew about baking. Before long, we were able to bake all kinds of cakes and cookies together. We even stumbled upon the aforementioned banana cake recipe, which she would later quickly master and make her own. Mom began to take baking classes in her own time, eventually learning to perfect the art of making macarons and meringue through an endless amount of trial and error—which is mostly what baking is.
Although we have both since grown from the times of a little girl instructing her mother on baking techniques, our mutual passion still remains. While we don’t always get along or fully understand each other, my mother and I have always found common ground in baking together. So we stand in the kitchen on so many Sunday morning to mash, sift, and whisk more batter for our cake, marveling at all that we have achieved and all that we have yet to learn together.