Another interview! Although I may not be totally keen on putting these conversations together after the fact, sitting down with someone and connecting with them face(Time) to face(Time) brings me a lot of joy. Which is great, considering that’s all we’re doing now.
Did you hear that, NBC? I love interviewing… Unfortunately, though, my name isn’t Jimmy or James so I’m not sure I could ever qualify to be a late-night talk show host. Speaking of names, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve communicated with someone electronically, then met in person and watched the complete shock rush across their face when they realize I’m not a black dude.
Featuring culinary skills on my blog this week meant I needed to connect with a chef, and fittingly enough… I know a chef. I know a beautiful chef that has a much deeper story than I would’ve expected. Which, thank goodness… how boring would it be for you all to read a story about a monotonous life?
Role-play with me here… obviously there’s no ringing — it’s more like a weird pulsing sound before I see Chelsea’s smiling face; she’s sitting in her backyard and her long brunette hair is glistening under what will soon be a sunset.
“Chels! Hi! I’m so glad we’re doing this,” I tell her as I’m sitting in my “home office” which is just the beige guest room upstairs with an L-shaped glass table I excitedly put together from Amazon… yes, I actually do enjoy putting furniture together.
We start with the basics — Chelsea Cummings, 25 years old, born and raised in Missouri.
“Talk as much as you want to about what life was like as a child… your parents… any siblings…” I trail off, allowing her to take the wheel as I see her mind go to another time.
“Well, my parents got divorced when I was around seven, I’d say… my sister was one, so she doesn’t remember any of it. The divorce meant I was forced to grow up really fast since my mom moved four hours away and my dad was single,” she paused — her pause left me anxious for more. “My step mom came into our lives when I was in fifth grade… so, I was… ten. Yeah, I would’ve been ten. She had four kids already; one set of sixteen-year-old twins. The other two were out of high school, fortunately. I don’t think I could’ve handled that crowded of a house.”
“Even still… receiving new siblings at ten is rough. My sister came into my life when I was like seven and it took a long time to get used to,” I offered, knowing that arrangement wouldn’t have been easy.
She nodded and adjusted in her lounge chair.
“Yeah, I definitely hated it at first. My dad builds homes for a living, so he built our house and it felt like one day we were all just suddenly living together. Then six months later, he proposed… it was crazy. And for better or worse, I didn’t become close with my step mom until after moving out.”
Knowing my own circumstances, I turn my lips down and lift my right shoulder to my ear — my nonverbal acknowledgement that I can empathize completely.
“Okay, what about your mom?” I asked. “At ten years old, she lived four hours away… that must’ve been a really rough transition. How often did you see her?”
“Mm, I’d see her every other weekend. The drive was not pleasant at first, but we got used to it, as humans do, right? We get used to things.”
“Yeah, we are certainly an adaptable species,” I concluded, then asking what her mom did for work. She told me her mom used to be in the corporate world and now is a nurse, before we transitioned back to her dad.
“My dad often made me feel as though he was disappointed in me. I was the first born and he seemed to have my life planned out. Not surprisingly, my life wasn’t unfolding according to his plan, and as much as I couldn’t see it as a kid, my step-mom really was a good sounding board for him,” she smiled; I imagined she thought of an instance where step-mom came to the rescue during her youth.
“Yeah, he was very protective. I wasn’t allowed to be at a friend’s house on a school night, wasn’t allowed to date anyone… so I started lying to my dad. You could say he didn’t know how to cope, so instead, it felt like he ended up resenting me.” I watched her face, expecting her demeanor to slump; at the very least, a solemn expression to flood over her — that didn’t happen. It was clear she’d found peace. “I realize my dad had always been there for me as a child, just not quite in a way I knew how to comprehend at the time.”
“Did you participate in any sports or hobbies?” I questioned in a nice and unnatural segue. “Yep! I played basketball for five years, volleyball for two… I was in choir and theater.”
I wish I did choir and theater growing up… if I had to list out one regret, not participating in theater sooner would be it.
I repositioned in my black chair as it rolled backwards. I placed my finger tips under my desk and pulled myself in. I really should’ve looked at the dimensions before purchasing… as I always sit cross-legged, I would have appreciated a wider seat.
“So, okay, let’s start talking about food, right? Seeing as I’m interviewing you about your path to becoming a chef, tell me when your love for cooking started.”
I watched the sun start to set and felt the urge to grab my laptop and go outside.
“I actually never wanted to go into culinary school. In eighth grade, I started sewing. I was making my own clothes and told my parents I wanted to be a fashion / marketing major. Then in high school, I took sewing and cooking class. I completely fell in love with them both. So much so that I wanted to double-major, which apparently you can’t do at an art school. At least not in Kansas City.”
I remembered how tough it was for me to decide which major to declare, going from physical therapy to writing (oops, should’ve stuck with that one), to undeclared, to business.
“Ultimately, my family telling me I wouldn’t pick culinary as my major is what made me pick culinary as my major, and I left the day I graduated, moving in with my mother. I was the youngest girl in my classes, and I would second guess myself every day. The Art Institute is one of the most expensive in the country, so I really felt I needed to earn my place. By the end of the semester, I felt pretty confident I’d earned it… the class started with 30 people and ended with 7.” I offered her a round of applause before she told me she also gained 15 pounds because she was constantly stressed and had no idea how to deal with it.
“How was living with your mom during your college years?” I asked, imagining how much different my freshman year would’ve been if I’d lived at home.
“Let’s just say we keep a comfortable distance these days. I love my mom very much, but we definitely had our fair share of tribulations. I lived with her for a year before meeting a guy about nine years older than me. He was a truck driver… he was actually friends with the guy my mom was dating. Big shocker — he ended up having a significant drinking problem, but I didn’t see him that often. I was working two jobs and I was almost done with school… it was a 2.5 year program.”
“Well, we’ve all made a fair share of mistakes when it comes to dating… that’s all part of it, right? Trial and error,” I recalled the people I’d selected throughout the years. “But talk to me about the end of school… were you ready to go out into the real world and start implementing all of your newly attained skills?”
“Mmm, well, towards the very end, we had a competition for our final grade. We had to make up a fake restaurant, which we had the last week to prepare for. We had to have a blueprint, a printed menu, products, a staff, and an actual dish… the full gambit, really. I put together this amazing scallop display — it was inside a ‘birds nest’ which I made out of potatoes, and the scallop had a marmalade on top of it . I had to make conversation with the judges and explain my restaurant in depth… it was intimidating. My whole family actually came up for it and I remember my dad saying he was proud of me. It felt like a lifetime since I had heard him say that,” she recalled with a tear twinkling in her eye.
“I’m on the edge of my seat here… did you win?” I was actually on the edge of my seat.
“Yes! I won the competition. And at that point, I really wanted to get out of the state. I wanted to travel the world. So, I talked to a school counselor who had a contact in Saipan [Asiana Pacific] which is where I went. Saipan is part of the US Commonwealth, so you don’t need to have a Passport or Visa. I relied heavily on the counselor to set everything up. I had a Skype interview, which consisted of very broken English. Honestly, though, I didn’t have any anxiety about going. I was ready.”
“Wow. It’s so interesting how we’re all wired so differently. The thought of leaving to live in another country… with a 15 hour time difference and poor English… let’s just say I’d be nervous.”
“Yeah, well maybe I should’ve been. Living in Saipan was the worst year of my life, but also the most gratifying, if that’s even possible. It was absolutely not the experience I imagined it would be. Just making it there took 46 hours… four different planes — and on the last flight, from Guam to Saipan, the plane malfunctioned… I actually thought I would die.” I stared at her face through my phone, wide-eyed and impressed. I asked her to walk me through her experience in her new world.
“Well, to start, they weren’t welcoming to women. I made $5.45 an hour and lived in a concrete box. Groceries were so expensive… seriously, a box of cereal was like six bucks. And the local chef would slam his hand down if one of the girls said anything, announcing, ‘WOMEN DON’T TALK IN MY KITCHEN!’ so I would only talk at work when he wasn’t there.” I shake my head, both in disgust, and with gratitude, recognizing quickly how far we’ve come and how blessed we all are to live in America.
“Yeah, our GM was Japanese and we were supposed to bow to him and his entire family… we didn’t know! So, we were sent to HR. I was living in constant fear and ended up losing about 15 pounds. I’d quickly lost all the confidence I gained at school. But I did end up meeting my best friend, Hannah during my time there…she was one of my only saving graces.”
“If things were so bad,” I paused, wondering if I was missing something… “if things were so bad, why didn’t you leave?”
“If you didn’t fulfill your contract, you had to pay the money back, which I couldn’t do. I grew very depressed. I didn’t have a support system… and there were five typhoons while I was there. The last one destroyed the island, which meant we didn’t have food, water or supplies coming in for about a month. We were lucky that our housing structure was made out of concrete, so it wasn’t destroyed… others weren’t so lucky. Some parts of the island didn’t even have electricity for 3 months. Phone lines were completely down because it was just one grid under the ocean which was wiped by the typhoon. Once I was able to call my family, I remember how emotional the exchange was. I remember when I returned home, my mom admitted that she thought I might be dead.” I let her words wash over me, trying to imagine being in a foreign country, in a poor work environment, not being able to contact loved ones, not knowing when food would come in… I continue to be impressed by human endurance.
“Okay, what happened when you got back to the states?” I wondered what brought her to Arizona.
“Right. So, I moved back home to Missouri before making my way to Texas. I was so malnourished when I came back to the states and surgery became inevitable. I had strep seven times while living in Saipan and at times it would be near impossible to eat or drink. It took a lot to readjust back to life in the US; big crowds of people made me nervous and I would have panic attacks frequently. Things like going to the grocery store or getting gas just seemed so trivial and out of place for me. My time in Saipan made me realize that I didn’t need the lavish things in life — I just wanted a good place to work, maintain my relationships, and have somewhere to live. So, I reconnected with the Hyatt and was able to be placed at The Driskill, in Texas, where my aunt and uncle lived. I started there as a line cook and about eight months in, I applied to be the kitchen supervisor, and got it.”
I smile. I love a redemption story. Especially when I can see the joy beaming from their eyes. I asked Chelsea to spell out her subsequent career moves, as again, she ended up in Arizona.
“I had a lot of mentors at The Driskill that really wanted to nurture the drive and talent they saw in me, which was amazing. But after two years, I felt it was time for a change. I wanted something more, so my boss suggested corporate management, which there was a training program for with Hyatt. I had an interview and checked the box that I was willing to relocate. I was then given three options: New Mexico, Lake Tahoe, or Arizona. You know which I selected.”
Since moving to Arizona, Chelsea has worked at three different Hyatt locations, moving up each time… most recently, in November, opening up the newly renovated restaurant, Barrel & Bushel, in Downtown Phoenix as the Sous Chef.
“Do you have any desire to open your own restaurant?” I wonder as I remember my dream to open up a drive through PB&J shop… to be honest, I still think it’s a solid idea, given the right marketing.
“Oh, no, definitely not. I don’t need that level of stress. I love working for a large company that provides me with everything I need, while still giving me the creative freedom that I desire. And if I could just end on this note… throughout my career, I’ve had many moments of self doubt, wondering if I really made the right decision. I’ve surprised myself, conquered my fears and ultimately became an empowered woman who believes quality food should be shared with quality people. One of my favorite chefs of all time said “Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world, you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life and travel leaves marks on you.” — Anthony Bourdain