Talking gender inequality, Yelp and … persimmons with the 31-year-old executive sous chef
Edalyn Garcia turns the bonbon over and over in her hands, inspecting it with a level of scrutiny usually reserved for scientific experiments.
I watched her digest the chocolate visually, deliberately before taking her first bite. She popped it into her mouth and chewed, the gears in her mind almost visibly turning.
I met Garcia, executive sous chef at The Village Pub, over dinner at Protégé in Palo Alto, her chosen restaurant for the next installment of my “At the table” interview series with local chefs.
Garcia, 31, embodies focus and discipline. At 23 years old, she represented the United States as team captain in an international culinary competition. She was the first female sous chef at the Michelin-starred Plumed Horse in Saratoga. She trains in mixed martial arts and Muay Thai kickboxing. She practices intermittent fasting. She references Angela Duckworth’s “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” as a manual for how to be a better mentor and manager.
Garcia was born in the Philippines and came to the United States when she was two and a half years old. Raised by a single mother in Santa Clara, she fell in love with cooking as an emotional outlet when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cooking “saved my life,” she has said, “because it gave me a sense of hope.” In choosing a career in restaurants, she broke with a familial and cultural expectation that she would become a nurse.
After culinary school, Garcia steadily worked her way up the ladder at some of the area’s best fine dining restaurants, including the Plumed Horse, Madera and The Village Pub.
As the second in command at The Village Pub’s kitchen, she spends more time managing cooks than cooking on the line. She’s one of the unseen but crucial people who make things run smoothly at one of the Peninsula’s most well-regarded restaurants. Diners don’t know her name, but they should.
I hadn’t heard of Garcia until I listened to her on Copper & Heat, a locally produced podcast that digs into kitchen culture, talking frankly about the pressures and expectations women face in fine-dining restaurants.
In Protégé’s dining room, over bluefin tuna, caviar-topped scallops and the coddled hen egg with obligatory shaves of black truffle, I talked with Garcia about the roots of her intense drive, how she works to create a healthy kitchen culture at The Village Pub and where she goes when she’s craving sweet Filipino spaghetti.
What got you interested in a career in cooking?
Being Filipino, whenever there is any type of celebration, they cook for a small army. They cook so much food. We’re about hospitality. We like that people are able to take food home. Sometimes it gets really out of hand. The food that we cook (the most) in any celebration is pancit. Depending on where you are in the Philippines they prepare it differently. In my family’s case, it’s usually made with noodles that are made out of bean threads with a bunch of vegetables, pork belly and shrimp, soy sauce being the base.
I was pretty lost when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Coming out of high school I felt like I didn’t have too much opportunity because … my mother was a single mother. Just not having that financial backing, that was difficult. It was … pursue something where I knew that I could make money fast.
But it wasn’t until I was going through a rough time — I found out that my mom got diagnosed with breast cancer. It had metastasized. The doctors had told us (she had) a year and a half (to live). That hit me like a ton of bricks. I needed that outlet. I needed something to get my mind off of it. I know it kind of sounds selfish, but people have their ways of dealing with things. (Cooking) was my outlet that I needed. The more that I think about it, I realize the reason why I gravitated towards it so much is because that was one of the only times of my life when I felt like I was in control. There are a lot of things in cooking that you can’t control but for the most part, you can. You can control the heat. You can control how big or how small this portion can be.
That’s really what got me through. I think that’s the reason why I fell in love with it so much and so quickly, and why I never gave up even during the hardest moments.
Where was your first restaurant job?
I did my stage (an unpaid internship) at Google. I realized very early on that I’m not about that large-scale, corporate (cooking). It didn’t bring me as much joy as working in an actual restaurant does. From there I went to work at the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara (and then) at Madera at the Rosewood.
What was Madera like?
Very difficult. That’s when I realized, this is what they were talking about when they tell you ‘your ass is going to get handed to you.’ It was definitely nothing I had ever experienced at the Hyatt Regency or Google. That was probably one of the first times where I felt like I wasn’t good enough.
What has The Village Pub been like for you? What’s the kitchen culture like there?
It has been probably one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve ever had. It’s pretty family oriented. A lot of people have been there for a long time.
How much of your role is managing versus cooking? What are your responsibilities as executive sous chef?
Right now managing versus cooking is 60–40, 60 being the managing. (I’m) training, hiring, showing (cooks) how to work a station, pulling them aside and having one-on-one talks with them… telling them what I expect, the potential that I see in them. I’m actually reading a book right now called “Grit” by Angela Duckworth. I take a lot of pride in trying to really foster the cooks and really let them know that I believe in them, that I expect more from them because they can do it.
You talked about this in Copper and Heat, but can you speak to what it takes to move up in a kitchen as a woman?
You have to show that you want it more than anybody else. What I found from reading the book “Grit” — a lot of it has to do with your pride and perseverance. How much are you willing to take? What makes you different from other people is that you’re just willing to work harder than them. Most of the time, you have to make that sacrifice. If you really want to move up in the ranks, you do have something to prove. Because how else are they going to trust you with running an operation if you don’t show them that you have what it takes?
I didn’t really think about, ‘I’m a woman working in the culinary industry.’ There were moments where I didn’t feel like people would take me as seriously or didn’t think that I could do certain things because I was female, because I’m small, because I’m of color, whatever the case may be. I think what really helped me is just holding close to myself what was important to me and making sure that I did right by my family. They remain my drive to get better, to be the best version of myself not only as a chef, but as a person. You do find yourself a lot in cooking.
Copper and Heat host and cook Katy Osuna starts the podcast by saying that the restaurant industry is systematically sexist. Do you agree with that?
When I first started out cooking, I didn’t feel like it was that much of the case but as I got older and I stayed at The Village Pub, the more that I saw that. We had a cook (who) was very green. He had already started some pretty bad habits, like always munching on food. I’m not cool with that. If you’re hungry, that’s cool. Take a step off the line. He’d talk about, ‘I’m a man, I need to eat.’ I remember overhearing both my sous chef, Juan, and my chef de cuisine telling him to stop eating. He would not say anything back to them. He wouldn’t say a word.
He and I had a bit of conflict. I would get on his case for basically not doing his job. I was having the conversations with him with another manager present — that’s how we do it at Bacchus Management; when you need to have a conversation (with a staff member), you need to have another manager present. He brought up, ‘When Chef Steven or Chef Juan talk to me, they’re so nice.’ I wish I could see the facial reaction that I made when he said that. But that was when I realized, wow, this is real.
So you felt like because you’re a woman, he reacted to you differently than the male chefs?
Yeah. When a female is trying to direct males or getting angry at them in the same manner that a male chef would, they find it more like bickering or being mothered.
Did being on the podcast spur conversations with people at work?
Yes. It really got me thinking. I would go and ask a lot of the women why they felt like there weren’t as many females in higher places (in restaurants). Motherhood would always come up. One of my good friends who I met in culinary school currently works in corporate dining and is a mother of four now. She and I talked about if she’d want to go back to the fine dining industry. I’m like, ‘You can do it.’ She’s like, ‘No I can’t. How am I going to do that? Who’s going to watch the kids? How am I going to make that money?’
I think now I’m seeing more women come up and be promoted. I think sometimes they are discouraged, afraid to put themselves out there and go for that position.
Do you feel like you’ve noticed a change in restaurant culture with more conversation around all these issues?
I do. I feel like more people are sensitive to people’s emotions. At The Village Pub the way we like to approach things is give them praise in public, but then reprimand them in private.
I always want my cooks to feel like when I’m around, that they feel safe. But at the same time I want to instill some fear into them, not because I want them to have a bad experience at the restaurant, but I feel working in the kitchen you need to learn to work in uncomfortable situations. That’s how you’re going to thrive. There are situations where you have a millisecond to come up with a solution to something. … Something I always tell them is, ‘I’m not going to get on you for needing help. I’m gonna get on you if you need help and you didn’t tell me.’ You need to communicate.
How do you take care of your mental health as a chef?
Going to the gym is definitely a big thing. Having a good support system. Being able to be open with other people and to pay attention to others. … Cry. I do it all the time. Showing emotion is not weakness. I think that’s what being a chef was … A lot the male chefs that I work with (now), they’re not afraid to show emotions.
How does menu development work at The Village Pub? Are you involved in that process?
For the most part, it will be the chef de cuisine with Executive Chef Mark Sullivan. Sometimes I will throw some ideas out before they have their menu meeting. One of my favorite ones that I’ve done was a beet and persimmon salad. Persimmons are one of my favorite fruits. There was a beet salad with labneh. We would ferment that in-house. We got this really good olive oil that’s pretty acidic so I didn’t need to make a vinaigrette for the salad. I made this crumble that consisted of beet powder, cashews, levain bread, a little bit of citric acid, a little bit of powdered sugar for the sweetness. That combination is just awesome. If you were to close your eyes, it was very reminiscent of Fruity Pebbles. For me it was really nostalgic.
Do you feel like Filipino flavors have influenced your cooking style at all?
Not too much. Growing up, my family really only cooked food from that region. It’s pretty vegetable driven, but it’s also very driven by fermented fish, a lot of fish sauce. There’s this other type of fish sauce, patis, which is more fermented. It is super intense. It’s more viscous. It’s kind of milky. There’s a dried fish, daing, that my family always cooked. It made the house stink like nobody’s business.
Have you found any decent Filipino food on the Peninsula?
Does fast food count? I love going to Jollibee.
What’s next for you, career wise?
I would love to venture off into pastry, which one of my friends actually gave me shit about. She’s like, ‘You can’t do that. You’re gonna lower the amount of female chefs.’ I’m trying to make myself better. Being in pastry is a really good skill to have. Right now I’m focusing on trying to get more skills and in certain areas… things that I’ve never (done before). I feel like that’s the way you’re going to get better.
When you go out to eat are you looking for inspiration and thinking about it as work or are you able to eat just for the sake of eating?
I think that’s pretty important, trying to find inspiration. There are times when you do get those roadblocks … I don’t want to be a food critic (when I eat out). I don’t want to be too judgmental. I don’t want to be a Yelper. I don’t want to be too hard on a restaurant because I know what it’s like to be back there. Maybe they were understaffed, having a bad day, something broke down, whatever the case may be. I know the type of pressure they’re under.
Do you pay attention to The Village Pub’s Yelp?
I do. One of the big reasons why is because some of the guests are kind of passive aggressive. You ask them, ‘How was your meal?’ They’ll say that everything was fine, and then all of a sudden there’s an angry review. We could have made your experience better had you told us that something wasn’t right. (“How was your meal”) is not an empty question. Let us fix our mistakes. Let us make it better for you. We’re all about that at The Village Pub and Bacchus Management in general — making sure that we provide that better experience. Their motto is that the guests leave happier than they came in.
Do you eat out often?
When was the last time I went out to eat? I don’t remember. If I do, I’ll go to more simple … more casual places. My last eating adventure, a group of friends and I — we actually all worked together at one point at The Village Pub — we went to what I like to call the triangle: Plumed Horse, Pasta Armellino and La Fondue. We start at La Fondue.
Korean food is really big down in Santa Clara. It’s one of my go-to’s for comfort food. There are two places that we go to the most: Jang Mo Jip and Gooyi Gooyi. The fancier one we like to go to is Jang Su Jang.
Why did you choose Protégé for this dinner?
I’ve heard a lot of good things about it. I like the concept of it as well where it’s not … stuck-up. You don’t have to worry too much about what you’re going to wear. I also like that the price point isn’t as crazy as a lot of places (with a tasting menu). … that’s really important because I think that’s what’s going to bring more people to come to enjoy this type of food and become more educated about this type of food. You hear so many people say, ‘Why would we want to pay so much money for that when I can go here and eat this much food?’ They don’t think about the quality. They just think about the quantity. They don’t think about all the other moving parts behind it. I hope places like this will encourage other people to try (fine dining).
What do you think about the fine dining scene on the Peninsula?
I think it’s great. It’s coming up. For a while there was only San Francisco. Now I’m glad that it’s starting to branch out. A lot of people that have been working in San Francisco are opening spots in other places. I think that’s awesome. It’s not so condensed.
What would you tell a young woman who’s interested in pursuing a career in restaurants?
Your limits are the only things that you make for yourself and not anything that you were born into. Your limitations are your own. It’s your responsibility as to whether you’re going to break those limitations or let them control you. There have been so many times where I felt like I was so limited. How am I going to make things better for my family? Once I realized that I had more control … I knew that I could do better and excel in this career, as long as I have that passion.
I think what I can say to the male chefs that are out there, push your female (chefs). Don’t think that they have a limitation. Just as much as women have a responsibility, males have that too. I know when I first got promoted at Plumed Horse, something that Chef Peter (Armellino) said to me was that I was his first female sous chef. That meant a lot to me.
Stay up to date with other coverage from The Six Fifty by subscribing to our weekly newsletter, featuring event listings, reviews and articles showcasing the best that the Peninsula has to offer. Sign up here!
More local eats from The Six Fifty:
- Crazy delish Asian food: Chef Chu’s restaurant has fed Bieber, Bonds…and probably you, too
- The chef’s bucket list: 47 Peninsula dishes to eat before you die
- Exploring the aisles of Takahashi Market, the Peninsula’s emporium for Hawaiian & Japanese goods
- What we’re eating now: enticing, unsung eats in San Bruno and Millbrae
- Ghost peppers and legal waivers: Our search for the spiciest dishes on the Peninsula
- At the table: eating with Kenji López-Alt, San Mateo’s ‘mad scientist chef’
- Inside Noodle in a Haystack, the local pop-up poised to change the Bay Area ramen game
- Can It’s-It Ice Cream rep the Bay Area for another 90 years? Their owner isn’t worried.