I had the great experience of eating at BEAST in Portland, and alongside that incredible meal, one thing that has stuck with me was a quote written on the bathroom wall by Virginia Woolf: "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
Growing up, I was spoiled. When it came to my relationship to food and care, I was extremely spoiled. My sister and I would barge into grandpa’s house and have this ritual where he would grab a Diet Coke and we would grab two glasses, and he would equally pour the soda into each cup while we squealed over drinking the foam.
When I reflect on that recurring memory of my childhood and all the times we did that, I realize that it was a lot of work to go through just to drink a soda. Man, now that’s love.
When I would go over to my bachan’s house, she always had prepared something for my sister and I. She was like Mary Poppins in the sense that she would magically have onigiri perfectly aligned on a plate for us when we arrived, so pristine-looking that not a grain was out of place. Whenever we randomly said we were hungry, she never gave us a bag of potato chips to sedate our hunger. Instead, she would either have real food prepared or creatively whip something up on what felt like a whim. If that isn’t true love then I don’t know what is.
It wasn’t until I was older when she was teaching me how to make sushi rice, that I realized her meticulous sense of care towards executing her food—making sure it tasted and was presented correctly—was an expression of her care and love towards not only us, but whomever she was cooking for. She wanted to make sure that people were eating properly.
My early food memories aren’t really unique. Like many, they have been tied to family, friends, and good feelings. But taking the whimsical part of my childhood of drinking “foamy soda” while learning to execute Japanese American food “properly,” I feel I have developed a multi-dimensional relationship towards the dishes I make. And this ultimately drives the reasons why I enjoy cooking, specifically baking.
There is a part of me that bakes because I enjoy making people happy and being a “part” of their celebrations through cakes, cookies, and whatnot. But it doesn’t fully drive the vehicle to why I pursued baking (briefly) as a professional career. As much as it serves as an expression of my joy and love towards people, baking also deeply serves as a mode of self-love.
Baking is a medium in which I find the most confidence in myself. To be honest, I don’t believe I am a great public speaker, writer, artist, mathematician...the list goes on. But baking was something I felt I could really “own.” In a Japanese American household, I felt like it was hard to really invoke “praise” and “hype” about something I was a part of. To clarify, my family was always supportive of me, but I felt there to be a lack of excitement, and vocally expressing praise was rare. But with baking, it was easier to achieve some sort of affirmation. When presenting a cake, I usually received responses like “Wow, Dina, you made this?! It looks so pretty!” Maybe it is just that I live on praise, but it definitely boosted my sense of confidence and capabilities.
When I entered a professional kitchen for the first time and worked on the line, I was so nervous. It was just me and the pastry chef. Within the first week, the pastry chef mentioned that he would be going on vacation within six months and relied on me to quickly learn enough to be able to run the pastry department on my own. The pressure was on and I honestly didn’t think I could do it.
I soon learned that this was an arena where execution and the food mattered more than I ever imagined. It didn’t matter how well I could deliver a speech or how fast I could calculate expenditures. What mattered was how fast and well executed I could deliver food. This was the first time where I deeply evoked my inner lessons from my bachan about the levels of care and execution. For once I didn’t know or see the people eating the desserts I was plating or making; I could only see the server take it from the line. It didn’t matter if I knew these people or not. It was important to care about their experiences, but to also know that I was confident in delivering it.
Six months passed and the pastry chef had confidence in me and left me in charge. The thrill of running the pastry section by myself was to this day one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. I have never felt so confident in what I was doing.
While I continue onto my journey of figuring out what food truly means to me and what I want to accomplish, I continuously reflect inward on my experiences and why I do and think the way that I do. In one sphere, my bachan enforced this discipline of care; in another my grandpa instilled my sense of enjoyment with food. I continue to incorporate both in whatever I am making, while also owning my self-confidence and making space for my own cultivated experience.
Although I was raised on the expression of showing outward love through food, I also hope people understand whenever they are eating something I’ve made, they know that it is also an expression of my own self-love.
Love well, be well, and dine well.