Taiwan is my “what if” country.
What if my parents had never immigrated to the United States? What if I had been born and raised in Taiwan? What would my life be like? Would I have the same personality, same career, same way of life? These questions re-surface every five years or so, every time I visit and reconnect with family.
But this trip felt different. This time, I wasn’t weighing Taiwan against myself, but I was comparing it to the rest of the world through an alternate lens—its food and dining culture—just like every other country before it.
How did it fare?
Note: Because my stage at Narisawa was a new experience in many ways, I will split my post about it in two parts. First, the culture in the kitchen, and second, the food itself.
When I worked at Restaurant Daniel, Relais & Chateaux was celebrating its anniversary by sending chefs to prepare dinners at fellow R&C establishments, and Chef Emmanuel Renaut came to New York City to cook with Chef Daniel Boulud. He brought along his sous chef and pastry sous chef, who was Japanese, spoke fledgling French and no English.
The pastry sous chef struggled to communicate in our kitchen and was frantic trying to finish his prep for the special dinner. I did my best to assist because having done events myself, not knowing where things are in a kitchen is a major hurdle.
One morning, I came in early to help him. He asked me to make a sable dough and I skimmed his recipe. All of the ingredients were written in French, which was no problem, but there was one item on the list I couldn’t translate because it was in shorthand. I tapped him on the shoulder, pointed to the ingredient and had a puzzled look on my face. He thought about it and said in a heavy accent, “Yellow.” I worked the riddle out in my head and a light bulb went off. “Egg yolks!” He nodded his head enthusiastically. I thought, “Yes. This will be okay. We will make it work.”
This was a harbinger for my experience at Narisawa, which is considered the best restaurant in Asia and number eight in the world. There were many, many riddles to solve every day: culturally, linguistically and technically. Mental and physical exhaustion beckoned with the 16-hour days ahead of me, but I was determined to make the most out of my experience here.
The first leg of my travels have officially concluded.
It’s unbelievable that after two months I could be so attached to a kitchen staff, but that’s the nature of a professional kitchen. When working under pressure with a group of people for ten hours a day, six days a week, a family forms. There’s no option but to be close to one another.
The first day at a stage is undoubtably the hardest. You’re always in the way because there’s never enough room, you never know where to find anything, and no one knows you. Mentally it’s a lonely day.
Now compound this with being in a foreign country where there are language and cultural barriers. I was treading new territory and feeling a bit of trepidation.
I should have known better in Bali.