The Road to a Michelin Restaurant

 May 6, 2020
The Road to a Michelin Restaurant
Wang Yuan (L) and Chef Sim Cass, one of her teachers, at the Institute of Culinary Education [Women of China]

 

I live in New York, the United States, and I work full-time at a fashion company. I grew up believing that food is a form of an emotional bond between people. So, during my spare time, I learned pastry and culinary management at the New York campus of the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). I once worked at a three-star Michelin restaurant as a part-time pastry chef.

I came to the US in 2008, as an international student, to study English at State University of New York. I am from Ningbo, in East China's Zhejiang Province, where "what to eat for dinner" is a big part of my family's culture.

I always wonder how food brings together all diversities in this melting pot of New York City, so people feel connected. I have such a strong curiosity, and I like to explore the goodness and value behind the kitchen. I started my journey to learn pastry and culinary management at ICE in 2013.

The Road to a Michelin Restaurant
Wang Yuan gives a lecture during a New York Chinese culture salon. [Women of China]

 

Balancing work and habits was hard. After work, at 6 p.m., I rushed to the subway, and I studied for the quiz for my pastry class on the train. In the kitchen, punctuality was important. I usually finished my class around 11 p.m.

Once, I was so late from work that I almost missed my cheesecake practical exam. I tried my best to calm down, so I could follow the instructions, after I sat down in the classroom. I made it to that exam, and I made a perfect mascarpone raspberry cheese. Since then, I have understood that the real kitchen is about being focused, and about intense and orderly work.  

"Why not grab this opportunity to try all kinds of restaurants?" I asked myself, when I was choosing the right place to work as an intern. The internship is a chance for pastry students to experience a real kitchen.

The Road to a Michelin Restaurant
Wang Yuan (L) poses for a photo with the owners of a restaurant. [Women of China] 

 

David Burke was my first choice. Its cheesecake lollipop was popular. The head chef was considerate, and she taught me how to make famous monkey bread. It was such a typical American dessert that combined overloads of sugar, butter — and more sugar. I hesitated after the first day, as I asked myself if that was the type of menu I wanted to make.

Restaurant Betony opened another door for me. "Yes, Chef!" That very loud shout started the day. The chefs were well-trained, and they worked like a military team. The head chef gave me a to-do list, and I had to learn by myself and to make the new recipe quickly on my own. I was sweating, as the working environment was male-dominated, and so I felt a little suffocated.  

Lastly, my trial at Jean-George was welcoming. I made it to this three-star restaurant in Trump Tower. It offered a range of French desserts, from petit four, macaron, warm chocolate cake to freshly made bread and handcrafted chocolate bonbons (on the seasonal menu).

Michelin surprised and failed me at the same time. I started from peeling apples, and I had to work hard enough to win the opportunity to make marshmallows at the beginning. Day by day, my to-do list grew longer.

My co-workers took rotations, from a 4 a.m. shift to the late-night shift. The earliest shift involved baking the morning buns for the hotel. The night shift had to wait until the last order was placed, and the dessert was always offered last. The order in the kitchen was smooth and precise. I assembled each plate, with perfect reheat of temperature, to make sure the tart was warm or the ice cream was not watery, when serving the table.

After I grew more comfortable in my role, I started to observe the situation around me. The dishwasher spoke little English, but he loved to help us find equipment. Most of the chefs in the cooking department were male, but the chefs in the pastry department were all women.

One thing that bothered me was the waste of food. I noticed one-third of the macaron shells had bumps on the surface, which was normal. But when it came to quality control, I had to toss them into the trash to match a three-star standard. No one would be able to afford to lose one star, and you never knew if a food critic was sitting outside to judge a single mistake.

I started to feel guilty for wasting edible food, just because it was not pretty enough. With the chef's permission, I collected the abandoned pastry and gave them to homeless people on my way back home.

I was once attracted by a post from school, which explained how famous food photographer Alan Battan was looking for an assistant to publish a book, Crossing Borders. He took the photos of 192 chefs from more than 75 countries. The fusion food was trendy at that time.

Luckily, I became his assistant. I worked with him on editing recipes, and it gave me a chance to access all the kitchens, from the Loeb Boathouse, in Central Park, to Daniel, on the upper east side. Each chef signed the page that contained his/her recipe. Sales revenues from the book were donated to a group of children in the Bronx, to help them learn cooking skills.  

My road to Michelin's experience has changed a part of me. I cherish food more than ever, and I always appreciate and say "Thank you" to whoever cooks for me. I love how food helps me get a chance to learn about this country, and this city, from a new perspective. In this city, which offers hundreds of different cuisines, each cuisine should be respected. It is our way to blend in.

 

Photos Supplied by Wang Yuan 

 

(Women of China English Monthly April 2020 issue)

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