The way I lived was through butter and sugar. Ten years ago I remember myself in sophomore year stressing myself out, working hard, and spending long hours figuring out problems at night. No, it wasn’t homework, it was all my recipes I was mastering. I worked on my feet all night in my small kitchen, bustling around as if I were the head chef at the Dominique Ansel Bakery.
“You need to get good grades if you want to be successful in life,” my dad expressed with a stern voice. “Becoming a pastry chef won’t get you anywhere. You need to become a doctor.”
I looked at him in dismay, glancing down at my apron covered in white dust. I continued to stir my ganache so glossy I could see the tears in my eyes start to well up.
“D? Ba,” I softly spoke in Vietnamese, resisting the tears that were about to flow out.
I left the kitchen, went back to my desk, and continued to do my Calculus homework.
“No music. Put your headphones away. Get it done by 11:00,” my mom said walking up the stairs. “Goodnight con.”
After twenty minutes went by, I made sure my parents were sleeping and snuck back into the kitchen. The oven was on before my dad had lectured me to stop cooking, so I threw my dacquoise in, and waited. That was my life for two years, until I realized I had to stop hiding behind this lie that I was going to give up baking for medical school.
June 12, 2007, my last day of junior year. I started to feel an emptiness and sadness, but at the same time, I felt like I was taking my first step toward becoming a culinary master.
“Dear M? and Ba,
By the time you read this, I’ll be off to New York to the Institute of Culinary Education. I know you want me to become a doctor and I know you thought I wanted to become one too, but I have no interest in doing so. I don’t even like kids. I want to bake. And I know you’ve told me many times that I won’t make a career out of it, but I will not come home until I prove to you that I can do it. I’ve borrowed money from Chú Scott and Dì Liên and I told them you allowed me to go to culinary school. I’ll be staying with Ch? Duyên and Anh Tú and I have enough money to buy food and everything. I’m ready. I have faith in myself and I hope you do too. Please forgive me. I love you and I’ll be back…who knows when. I’ll call you from time to time.
I arrived in New York with a luggage and a bright smile, although my eyes were red and puffy since I practically cried the whole way there. I felt bad for not even saying goodbye to my parents face to face. Ch? Duyên and Anh Tú picked me up at the gate and embraced me in their arms.
“Good to see you, Ling Ling! We haven’t seen you in years,” Ch? Duyên smiled. She was the sweetest person, but also the most honest. During the car ride home, I told her and Anh Tú that I lied about getting my parents’ permission to come to New York. Anh Tú stepped on the brakes and told me I had to go home.
“We need to be responsible Ling. I know we’re usually the chill cousins but I can’t let you do this. It’s not fair to your mom and dad. We’ll talk to them when we get back to the apartment,” Anh Tú said with a straight face.
I couldn’t tell if he was angry or sad that I was leaving. It was impossible to tell how he felt when he lectured me at first with his straight face, but his voice told me that he cared. I ate my ph? quietly while Ch? Duyên talked to my parents. After hours of sitting in silence, I heard her hang up.
“You’re staying. Go to bed. Your classes start in a week,” Ch? Duyên said.
I stood up in disbelief. “Seriously?”
“Your parents said they love you and they’re giving you one chance.”
“Oh my God, thank you, thank you, thank you!” I exclaimed and ran to hug Ch? Duyên.
“Don’t thank me. You know who to thank. Anh Tú’s making your bed. Goodnight.”
I gave Anh Tú a hug and hopped in bed. And my new life in New York begun.
Culinary school started a week later and I shook nervously while entering. Classes from 8am to 3:30pm, Monday through Friday, no breaks. I took my seat ten minutes early and realized I was the last student to come in. Everyone was about five years older than me so I automatically felt like the odd one out.
“Good morning class. My name is Chef Thong,” my head instructor spoke.
“And I’m Chef Michelle.”
I was shocked to see two Vietnamese people as my instructors. I was used to seeing Caucasian chefs teaching the class but now I felt a little more comfortable. At the end of the day, I was exhausted. Learning the techniques were difficult, but I felt well prepared and picked up the concepts well. I learned new plating techniques, which was easy for me since I had a good base in geometry and artistry. But I struggled to whisk meringue with no electric tools and my arm was extremely sore after taking 20 minutes to whip up a floppy, gritty batch. After the last class of the week, I thanked my professors and told them that it was an honor to be at one of the best culinary institutes in the United States.
“Thank you, Di?m Liên. I hope to see some progress soon. To be blunt with you, you are one of the weaker ones in class.” I was shocked. A wave of realization glossed over my eyes. I shut them to keep them in. “Show improvement soon before weekly reports come out. If we don’t see progress within the next few weeks, I’m sorry but we’ll have to send you back. Work hard,” Michelle spoke. After Chef Michelle walked out of the classroom, I turned my back to the door and sobbed and a flood of emotions--sadness, anger, and determination--washed over me.
Three weeks passed and today was the day for the long-awaited day to take the theory exam and to prepare dishes for special guests. I practiced for countless hours at home in the kitchen. It was like I was back home with M? and Ba except smaller. What nostalgia I felt.
“Prepare me a coq au vin and a pate de fruit for dessert. You have three hours. After the three hours, you will take your theory exam. Three...two...one. Go,” Chef Thong ordered.
I ran through the pantry gathering all my ingredients, pots, and pans. I bustled back to my counter and began. I felt rushed and pressed, but as the time passed, I was in my element. At the end of the cooking test, I felt like I prepared a decent coq au vin. It wasn’t the most amazing dish I prepared, but I thought I would pass. After four and a half hours of cooking and test taking, my body was as soft as melted jelly. I went home and rested, letting my body set and cool.
We received our final reports in the mail. I opened the large envelope up with hope and anxiety. I stood in the living room shaking in my feet. Ch? Duyên looked at me.
“What’s wrong?” she walked over curiously.
“They kicked me out. Chef Thong and Michelle didn’t think I was good enough,” I murmured while my letter started to shrivel up with water.
“Thanks for everything you’ve done for me,” I expressed to Ch? Duyên and Anh Tú. I walked down the ramp slowly to feel the cold breeze, sterilized air, and sat down.
“Just a water,” I told her. I leaned my head back, thinking about what I would tell my mom and dad after this plane lands in six hours. I dreamed a new dream, my head filled with new thoughts and hopes. I already failed once in culinary school, but I believed I could succeed this time around. I didn’t let go of my dream so I knew I had to convince my parents to pursue my career. I came home to my parents and told them I was sorry. They held me in their embrace and didn’t let go. It felt like they hugged me for the whole three months that I was gone.
“Xin l?i, M? and Ba. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay, we’re just really happy to have you back. Now will you go back to school? Your senior year starts in two days.”
“I…I don’t want to go. I want to continue my goal, just in a different way now.”
“Di?m Liên, you know how we feel about this. We gave you a chance and you didn’t meet their standards. You have to go back to school and go to college like the rest of your class!” shouted my dad stubbornly.
“I’m asking you for one more chance. Please, Ba.” He and my mom thought about it for the night. I could hear their muffled speech through the walls as thin as tuile. The sun rose and I heard a knock on my door.
My dad sad on my bed near my feet. “This is your last and final chance. If this does not work out, you have to promise us you’re going to finish high school and go onto college, no matter how much time it takes you, okay?” he said sympathetically but firmly.
“I promise. Thanks, dad,” I smiled.
I spent months creating my vision. I asked my Uncle Chan and Auntie Chantal to help me build my storefront and work through logistics so I could open up in summer of 2008. I spent my days at home perfecting my own recipes. Although I wasn’t good enough for the head chefs in New York, I knew that now that I have prepared for days at nights at home, I was good enough not only for them, but for myself. I was confident and ready to open my bakery. I called it Butter and Sugar.
I started to gain popularity in southern California after two years and my bakery took off. Auntie Chantal helped me with documents and legal files and Uncle Chan helped me in the kitchen. They lost their jobs a few months ago so they came to help me out. My mom and dad would come down to the shop after work and help me out. The store got so crowded sometimes that there would even be a line outside.
One day, business was bustling and two familiar faces walked through the door.
“Chef Michelle? Chef Thong? What are you doing here?”
“We came to tell you we regret kicking you out of culinary school for not seeing your full potential. We thought too little of you and knocked you down when indeed you were the better chef. And to make it up, we have an opportunity for you. Two words: Las Vegas,” Chef Thong spoke to me with enthusiasm.
I thanked them for their kind words, but I declined. “I appreciate the offer, but I will get there myself. Just wait for it.”
Nine years later, I’m one of the most world renowned chefs in the United States. I am currently the head pastry chef at the MGM in Las Vegas and business is booming down here. My self-taught, homemade recipes were taking me further than I could ever imagine. I now specialize in Asian and French fusion pastries, blending both my heritages and cultures, and starting my own culinary empire. The best part of going through this journey was finding myself. I learned how to overcome those challenges, never face defeat, and show that your wish can come true with hard work and desire; mine sure did. And it was all because of butter and sugar.