Chef to Chef
Restaurants and the American Dream: Chef to Chef HTX
August 9, 2022
BentoBox’s dinner series continues at Houston, TX’s Caracol.
On Tuesday, July 19, BentoBox’s nationwide Chef to Chef dinner series continued in Houston, TX, with a stop at Caracol. A dining room of industry professionals came together to mingle, enjoy the restaurant’s “coastal Mexican” seafood and take in a panel discussion that hit close to home for everyone gathered.
The conversation centered around the American Dream: what it means, who it is for and when you know you’ve achieved it. Hosted by Chef Hong Thaimee, the conversation featured Chef Sasha Grumman and Chef Evelyn Garcia, both of whom were featured on recent seasons of Bravo’s Top Chef.
How do these two chefs feel about the American Dream in light of their success? The answers are complex and provide a nuanced view into one of the most fickle cultural stories we have.
Your American dream may not follow a straight path
Sasha Grumman did not plan to become a chef. After graduating from a pre-law track in college, she was spending time at home when she realized that not only was she happiest when cooking, she was good at it.
“Post-grad, I was cooking a lot for my family,” Grumman recalled. “One day I was in the kitchen with my dad and my sister, and my dad kind of stopped me and said, ‘You know, you're kind of good at this. You're not following any recipes; you just see something that inspires you and you make it.’ I really fell into that. I’m grateful that it was with a lot of support from my family that I entered this career.”
Working as a chef ended up being different for Grumman than she originally thought. After attending culinary school in Italy, Grumman thought that a restaurant career was the route she needed to take. But restaurant life was hard.
“Most of my career, upwards of 10 years, I had my head down and I did my job. And that was what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to execute. I was supposed to make a schedule; do R&D; order from the right people; go to the right farms; check all these boxes. And checking off boxes is something I'm good at. But did that mean I was living my dream?”
Even being featured on television didn’t make her experience in restaurants any better. When the pandemic hit, Grumman was able to rest and recalibrate for the first time in a long time.
“The day I was furloughed, I went home and slept for two weeks. I was forced to slow down and look at how I treated myself. I hadn't read a book in 10 years. I hadn't fostered appropriate relationships with friends. I kind of lost hold of what made me, me.”
Looking for a way to continue her love of cooking and feeding people, Grumman developed a new American dream: to be her own boss, outside the confines of the traditional restaurant world. She started a business called Sasha’s Focaccia and hasn’t looked back.
“Building this business and fumbling and making a ton of mistakes has been incredible. I think that's part of the American dream. I'm learning. And I think the best part about it is that it's not over if I make a mistake. There's room for growth, and everything I learn leads to innovation and new avenues in my life.”
The American dream is global
Evelyn Garcia, whose parents hail from Mexico and El Salvador, has come a long way from helping out at her family’s restaurant as a child. Her career has been about blending tastes from Latin America and Asia into a new, thoroughly Houstonian, cuisine.
“Growing up, it was as easy for me to eat a bowl of pozole on a weekend as it was for me to go eat pho,” she said. “I didn't really see the difference between Mexican food and Asian food, because it was just what we ate in Houston. Someone told me that the dish of Houston is pho. We have a huge Vietnamese community here. But that inspires me a whole bunch. And after graduation, my dinner was at Spice Market and I was like, Holy crap. My mind was blown.”
After committing her career to cooking professionally, Garcia decided to expand her familiarity with Asian cooking by studying in Thailand.
“Putting yourself in those situations, to better understand the culture, makes a huge impact as a creative. Experiencing Thai food in Thailand is completely different from here. I mean, I was in kitchens where there were just fish tanks, and we would go and grab the live prawns to serve immediately. I learned that people don’t yell as much in Thai kitchens.
“Living through those experiences, immersing myself in that context, has definitely inspired my dream now. And one aspect of that is really just being grateful that we have the opportunities we do here.”
The American dream is finding joy in your commitment
Chef Thaimee, having heard the stories and aspirations of her fellow panelists, offered sage words.
“As someone who has been in the industry for almost two decades, I've gone through a lot of ups and downs. And the best thing I could tell you, in terms of advice, is to find your small pocket of joy.
“There will be days when you hate yourself. You’ll hate that you made this or that decision. But you have to keep going. Just look for the joy in the life you chose for yourself.”
Chef to Chef is a nationwide dinner series produced by BentoBox. For information on joining our next Chef to Chef sessions in Miami (September 12), Dallas (September), Denver (October 10) or Atlanta (October 17), email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow us on Instagram @getbento.
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