Potsticker Poser

I felt like a Firecracker Shrimp fraud. A Potsticker poser. I had been invited to be a guest chef at a prestigious festival held at a swanky, mountain resort. This was the first time I would be doing a cooking demo without my mother, a famous chef and restaurateur. I picked up the local paper and there it was: a giant picture of my face with me holding a potsticker. The headline reading: “World Renowned Chefs Come to Visit.” Holy crap, World Renowned? I’m just a caterer who’s still in my mother’s shadow.

  • Sous Chef: “We didn’t get the dried black mushrooms you wanted, we bought fresh shitakes instead. Can you use them?”

I half-nodded to the sous chef and said, “Oh, sure, I’m can improvise with those,” trying to convince us both that it would be okay. Then I ran into the walk-in refrigerator and called my mother.

  • Katie: “Mom, can I use fresh mushrooms instead of dried?”

  • Mom: “Oh sure, just sauté them first and then add them to the filling once they cooled. Want me fly down to help you? Why are you whispering?”

My mother would much rather be cooking than doing anything else. So much so that she forgets where she is or what she is doing. Her bumper sticker should read: I ♥ deep frying!

Trying my best to sound like a seasoned pro, I explained to the sous chef that I would simply sauté those fresh mushrooms and add them later. Thank God no one noticed me crouched down between the cases of arugula with my phone cradled in my ear.

I’ve always considered myself a reluctant cook. My mother was the real chef. I followed her and asked her pedestrian questions on our cooking show. That was our shtick, bossy-authentic, Chinese-chef mother meets ignorant, headstrong, Americanized, daughter. Everybody laughed. I rested on my laurels and let her do most of the work.

With our catering business, my mother would come to my rescue. She helmed the kitchen like an army sergeant directing my unemployed friends with military precision. I took care of the business matters, the rentals, security, marketing, decorations and staffing. Periodically I’d sense out of nowhere that some scallions needed to be chopped. I am now convinced that my mother sends me TCM – Telepathic Culinary Messages. I’d run back to the kitchen where she’d point to the onions and say “there.” I’d start chopping.

I was my mother’s protégé— her slave to lo mein. I regarded this position with amusement, then resentment, then appreciation, then amusement and then back to resentment. I had signed up for this but it wasn’t easy, especially when you’re being bossed around by your mother on national television:

  • Katie: “And now, you fold the egg roll up just like this.”
  • Mom: “Faster, faster, Katie, why you so slow?”

In addition to being a culinary savant, my mother is an organizational machine. She came to visit and cleaned my garage. She devised systems for my pantry and labeled everything in my three freezers: “400 firecracker shrimp,” “Fish for Stew,” “Cook this one right away.”

To counteract the imbalance in our culinary roles, I would chase after shameless self-promotion like a stealth Ninja. Even if I couldn’t cook like her, I could get us publicity, damn it. I threw a big party when our Food Network Special aired. My mother pulled me aside and said, “You know, Chinese people don’t draw attention to themselves like this, it’s not classy.” My heart sank. I felt so ashamed. I felt more American than I ever have and not in a good way. Still, I pushed forward knowing that it was the right thing for us and that I would have to be our Ruben Kincaid.

Like all smart mothers, she realized I was never going to learn unless I was on my own. So three years ago, my mother announced she was going on a European vacation. I was in shock. I had booked the entire summer with catering gigs and now I was alone. It was hard at first: figuring out all of the calculations when cooking for 300 people – what is 3 Tablespoons times 37, anyway? Waking up at 4am to buy Bok Choy at the produce mart. Trying to negotiate the price of ducks in Chinatown when I don’t even speak Chinese. Training my unemployed actor friends how to cut, blanch and fry.

At my first big party without my mother, I let ice leak into the tuna rolls which caused them to explode when they were placed into hot oil. We managed to salvage them, but my friend who was helping out said, “Please let your mom know we missed her tonight. A LOT.” By the end of the summer, I had managed to pull it off. And you know what? I actually enjoyed it.

Just when I was feeling pretty confident, my mother returned from her trip and criticized my new methods: “You can’t use Tahini, you must use Chinese sesame paste—Chinese always better” or “Why you take the tail off those shrimp – not pretty at all.” It was a waste of energy to argue. It was better to say, “You’re absolutely right, Mom.” Still, I know my mother was secretly proud that I had survived a summer without her.

And then, I find myself on stage about to be introduced at the food and wine festival. The glare of the lights shined in my eyes. There were cameras everywhere and large monitors for the audience to see my hands in motion. My heart beat a mile a minute. I started to cook and suddenly it was as if mom was there, guiding me as I swirled soy sauce into the wok with conviction and expertly hacked the shrimp into tiny pieces for the dumplings.

I gently folded the chicken, shrimp, black mushrooms, and scallions into a colorful filling. I spoke of my mother and her lessons while the crowd smiled and laughed. My fingers pinched the dough into perfect pleats resulting in the most delicate shu mei. I placed them in a bamboo steamer over a river of boiling broth and they looked beautiful. The crowd clapped and cheered. Cameras flashed. My assistant walked over with a knife and said “Here you go, chef.” For the first time, I didn’t turn to see who they might be referring to. Instead, I nodded and accepted the title with pride. I had finally flown the coop and climbed out of my mother’s bird’s nest soup.

Re: Potsticker Poser

I ♥ this story! Thank you Chef for sharing this funny and warming tale. I think I used to watch your show with your mother on PBS. If that was your show, I enjoyed it very much. Now I feel like I know you. Do you have plans for another show?


Re: Potsticker Poser