From science to sizzle: A conversation with Chef Patricia Yeo

While many of the people I’ve had the opportunity to speak with were bitten by the cooking bug early on, I’m discovering more that started down one path in their lives only to realize they belonged on a different one. Take, for example, Chef Patricia Yeo. Many know her as an extremely talented chef, more so now after her run on season 4 of Bravo’s Top Chef: Masters. Patricia’s first path, thanks to her education, was science. She excelled at it, enough so that it led to a doctorate in biochemistry, and in all likelihood a long career in a laboratory. Who would have imagined that a cooking class would change all that.

I had the opportunity interview Chef Patricia, during which we talk a little about her love of food, her views on the industry now, and what’s on tap for her as she leaves Boston in her rear-view.

Patricia Yeo – Photo by Felix Cutillo

Foodie Journal: When was it that you really discovered you had a love and passion for food?
Patricia Yeo: I grew up in a large Chinese family. Food and cooking was always a part of my life.  I realized I liked cutting and dicing as an undergraduate at the university of Oregon. I’d cook and my three room mates, all guys, would clean. I think I got the better end of the deal. It wasn’t until much later that I thought of it as a profession.

FJ: How did you end up getting your start in the business?
PY: Pure luck!

FJ: Could you envision yourself doing anything besides being a chef, or at the very least being involved in some way with the food industry?
PY: I did not start cooking professionally until I was 30, so yes I did want to achieve other goals.  I still may!  They have changed since I was a starry eyed 20 year old when I wanted to discover the next wonder drug for cancer.  Now they are not so lofty.

FJ: The food industry is more popular now than it ever has been, causing a lot of people to think about it as a career choice. Is there any advice you’d give to someone just getting started in the food industry?
PY: The Food Network and shows like Top Chef have made cooking seem really glamorous. It isn’t.  For ever hour of celebrity we achieve there are as many years of hard work.  You sacrifice time with family and friends, personal time and your own physical and sometimes mental health.

To anyone thinking of going to culinary school I would say spend at least half a year working in the industry.  School isn’t for everyone.  Some people are autodidacts. They learn from watching, reading and doing. It depends on who you are and how disciplined you are.  If you are one of those people, use the money you would use for fees to pay for our living expenses, work for a chef you respect for free, and learn as much as you can.  In the long run you are better off because you have practical experience, you have started building your resume, and you don’t have school loans.  On the other hand some people like the structure of school.  I guess I am saying there is not one single path to reaching your goal, especially in the world of food and hospitality.

FJ: Maybe the one downside that comes from how popular food, restaurants and chefs have become is people looking for a fast track to becoming rich and famous. Everyone wants a shortcut! To me that seems detrimental  Can you speak a little about why the traditional methods, like stages and mentors, are better for the industry?
PY: That is the best joke! This is not a business where you become rich and famous.  For every successful chef there are 1000 times as many struggling cooks and chefs.  Don’t get into this business searching for money, fame and celebrity.  The most successful people in the business do it because they love it, the rest just follows.   As a chef, having credibility is your best asset. The only way to do that is to know how to do things and not be afraid of doing everything in the restaurant.  It takes years!  There is no fast track in this business. You are more likely to become  rich buying a lottery ticket.

FJ: It’s been reported that you’re going to be leaving the Boston area, heading to Chicago. Can you tell us what’s next for you?
PY: I had a lot of fun and met some super wonderful people in Boston. However, I need a larger playing field.  I am going to focus on restaurant development.  I still love the adrenalin of working the line and being in the kitchen, but physically it is getting impossible. This is the best of both worlds.  I am still involved in developing menus, and the culture of the restaurant, but I am removed from the daily grind of getting to work at 7 am and staying until 10 pm.

FJ: Now, for my favorite question. Anyone that loves food has really fond memories and experiences where food was involved. Do you have a particular food memory that you’d like to share?
PY: I’ve had far too many food memories; my favourite by far is a meal I had just outside San Germignamo in Italy.  Cooking professionally wasn’t even on my radar at the time.  It was a lunch at a tiny restaurant. There was no menu.  We were served a simple tomato and bread soup followed by rabbit stew.  Our very rustic red wine was served in jelly jars.  I am not actually sure if it was the food or the romance of being in this little restaurant. It was probably a combination of both.  It is never just the food exclusively, the company, your surroundings, the wine all combine to form these memories.

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