Life Lessons from the Kitchen

Food is edible therapy, and making it made me better in so many ways.

I have just returned from my food trip in Bangkok when the government announced a country-wide lockdown. Hopeful things would pass, I decided to stay in my then company’s staff house.

May, June, and July came. Before we knew it, 2021 had rolled in. Though the world around me hasn't changed much, I am not the same person I was before.

Unlike people who became quarantine cooks to escape a creative rut, I found myself in the kitchen out of necessity. But because I spent every day in it, I saw it for what else it could be: a playground and a place of learning.

With every knife cut and oven burn, I moved more mindfully and gracefully. With my first difficult dish and the many rosemary focaccia bread I perfected thereafter, I built trust in myself. Despite the utter chaos and literal mess, I found peace within me.

Discovering another way to express myself when words were too much was a revelation to a communicator like me. Food without frills can make people feel things—and I liked that. It amazed me that a bowl of soup can be a hug on a lonely day and how I can make someone feel so, so special just by recreating their favorite snack from childhood.

In the past year, I felt more connected to my surroundings, my community, and myself. I am nowhere near as good as I want to be, but I know I can only become a better baker and person from here on out. Below are just a few of the life lessons I've learned in my culinary journey, and I can't wait to move forward.

Be patient

Baking forces you to be patient always, in all ways. When you don’t allow your bread enough time to rest, or if you bake cookies quicker and at a higher temp than instructed, the reality can be far from expectation—even disappointing.

Like wine, some things get better in time. These days, I am more content with relishing every opportunity life serves me, rather than chasing shiny things at an unripe time.

As an ambitious person, I used to worry about being left behind. Whenever there are rotting bananas on the counter and I find the energy to turn them into moist, flavorful bread, I am reminded that we can be something good that we have never dreamed of.

Celebrate the small things

Here’s what I learned about learning: mistakes show just how much you can still grow. When you let feelings of embarrassment consume you, you’ll never go from good to great. Imposter syndrome loves that.

Instead, be your own hype man or cheerleader, and celebrate every plate you put on the table. If you could do a simple chocolate chip cookie or a seemingly hard chocolate cake, imagine what else you are capable of.

Ever so often, I look at the photo of my first omelet: burnt, greasy, and gross. I was proud of it then, and I am thankful I’m better now and don’t have to eat that again.

Say thank you more often

If my mom could have all the time in the world, she'll spend it spoiling me and my siblings with food. Mama Arlene is an awesome cook and even better baker, but she won't admit it.

I realized that I never thanked her enough during the times she was able to make food until I did it myself and discovered just how hard cooking is. From the grocery shopping, meal planning, to the actual cooking, there's so much blood, sweat, and tears shed every step of the way.

Unless you cook for a living, you won't spend hours or a day in the kitchen just for anyone. No matter how annoyed you are with your partner or your picky children, cooking cannot hide how much you love them still.

Now when someone serves me food, I say “thank you” and mean it. There’s nothing more gratifying than knowing someone appreciates you for a job most people take for granted.

Be bold and break moulds

Have you tried a recipe that says “the best brownies” or “the easiest corn muffin” and hated it? We often forget that cookbooks are simply guides and Instagram photos are heavily stylized. We beat ourselves up when we don’t get it right.

Remember that what comes out of your kitchen is 100% unique: the brands of ingredients you'll use, the fruits and vegetables in season, and the flavors your loved ones are craving. When I mustered the courage to claim my substitutions as twists and even combined four recipes for focaccia to hit the spot, I realized that cooking can be more fun when I am me.

In the same manner, there’s no one way to live life or whatever your profession is. The circumstances and journey look different for everyone, but honestly, the uncertainty is what makes it exciting. Revel in that.

Allow yourself to be so much more

If you told me five years ago I would be baking weekly or cooking paella sans occasion, I would call bullshit. I had always thought of myself as a writer, period.

But whenever I pick up a spatula, knowing a year ago I wouldn't even get near an oven, I am reminded that I can be so much more in life: maybe a food journalist, professional dessert maker, adventurous traveler, kind person, who knows. Even an egg isn't afraid to become an omelet, sandwich, or leche flan.

If you could only eat your favorite dish every meal until you die—first of all, why—wouldn't you wish you explored life’s pantry more?

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