Patricia Yeo was on her way to completing a biochemistry degree at Princeton University when she enrolled in a cooking class in the New York Restaurant School to try her hand at something different. Along the way, she just happened to cross paths with Bobby Flay and in a life-changing turn of events, proceeded to work with him at Miracle Grill, Mesa Grill, and Bolo. In 1999 she and Flay opened up AZ in NYC, featuring an Asian-inspired American menu. Most recently, Yeo was the Executive Chef at Khong River House, a competitor on Top Chef Masters and author of a cookbook: Patricia Yeo: Cooking from A to Z. True to her initial calling, her opinion on working in the restaurant industry run along scientific, pragmatic lines—she sees the gender differences between men and women as an asset to the ecosystem of an industrial kitchen.
—Diana Emiko Tsuchida
Was there anything that set your foundation for becoming a chef and following a life in food?
I think I was very fortunate I traveled a lot as a child, going from Malaysia to the UK to America back to Malaysia back to the UK and all over Europe and throughout most of Southeast Asia because of my father’s job and we were just exposed to so much and my parents were great because we learned to love food. We ate what we were served. The rule is that we had to taste everything at least three times and then if we still didn’t like it we could have something else. It’s hard with kids and so we grew up with a sort of really large palate and also super interested in the anthropology of food and how it travels. Food is not just about geography it’s about time and space. It’s all interrelated. If you think about the Silk Road, and pasta for instance and where pasta was invented, was it Chinese or is it Italian? If you look at the influence of the Silk Road bringing all the Persian spices to parts of China and even Southern Thai curry and Indian curry and very Persian influences. And where would kimchee be without chili?
Is there something inherently helpful in knowing how to cook foods from your own heritage?
I sort of fell into Asian food for some reason. I started working with Bobby and I am really quite well-versed with Southwestern food and when you think about it, there are huge similarities in the flavor palates between Asian and Southwest American. You know, cilantro, chilis, lime, the flavor palates run the gamut but I think it’s really important to experience the food before you have to make it. I work with really great guys, mostly Hispanic, but they haven’t really had much exposure to what I consider any other food outside their Hispanic background. If there’s a cobbler to make, it’s such a battle to get it right when you have no frame of reference. So if you don’t know what a cobbler tastes like, even if you have a recipe, you can’t reproduce it.
How do you help them get familiar with those unknown flavors?
I usually try and make them go and taste it. You can technically find any sort of cuisine especially in a big city so I always encourage staff to go out and taste. We really try and get them to eat as much as they can.
What is your opinion on the ‘Gods of Food’ article?
I don’t know, I haven’t thought about it tremendously. My visceral reaction to it is that there’s no such thing as a “god” of food. Some of us are born with better palates, some of us have a better understanding of the rhythm of the kitchen but you can get taught all these things. And then having said this, I believe food is food and I don’t really want to tamper with it that much which is strange, coming from somebody with a scientific background. I don’t want to eat yogurt in twelve different forms. Yogurt should be yogurt.
What is your philosophy on food or creating a menu?
Bobby Flay once told me “No more than five ingredients in a dish.” And when I say five ingredients I don’t mean you don’t use peppers but they have to be coherent. I think so many times young cooks throw cilantro and then tarragon and it just doesn’t make sense. I’m also a big believer in slow cooking and in the slow cooking movement. It has so much more depth to it. I think some of the techniques are fantastic, I think sous vide has changed the way we all cook but I don’t necessarily want to go around spraying rosemary scent in somebody’s face.
Have you ever experienced anything that was discriminatory?
Strangely, the only time I’ve experienced weirdness as a female (and as American more than anything else) was working in Korea. I did it for a little while on a consulting basis.
Do you think there are barriers to women helming their own kitchens?
I don’t think women will ever be equal because it boils down to the fact that we’re not, really. I’m not a business person, I’m a cook. I have a hard time trying to raise funds for my own restaurant, I have a hard time asking somebody for money. I think it takes a certain brashness and maleness to do that. And also I think most women ultimately get out of the kitchen because they want to have families and it’s really hard to have a family and if you have a spouse who stays at home and there’s a mom with children. It’s really difficult. People ask me if I have children and I say, “No I have restaurants.” Having said this, it’s been a real advantage being female and Asian because there are so few Asian female chefs that when they do round-ups of chefs, there’s a handful they can pick from. You end up in that group. And as good as I am there are people that are better and I just happen to be at the right tier or demographic, so that’s an advantage. As a female Asian chef you get included in a lot of things because there are not very many of us around.
Do you feel other Asian women chefs should use that to their advantage?
I think it’s very much an equal opportunity, where there are quotas for ethnic groups. If you happen to be tall and skinny and you get picked to be a model then go with it. You can’t deny who you are.
Do you think you’ve set up your kitchen differently? Is there a unique way you lead your team?
I think I ask for a lot of help because I’m small and I’m short and not as strong as the guys so you know, I’m not afraid to say to the guys “Grab this for me” or “Lift this.” I think a lot of women think they have to do the same–we’re not meant to do the same things as men. And women are a bit of multitaskers so I like to keep a certain percentage of women in my kitchen. One of the things I’ve wanted to do is hire more women because it makes the men nicer. It takes away the swearing, they just become nicer people. And it becomes more a family as opposed to a bunch of guys who are just scratching themselves.
What would you like to be remembered for, either professionally or personally?
They’re very similar actually I think we’re all so tied up in our profession. If you ask me what I am, I think of myself as a chef. The professional and the personal are so intertwined because your well-being and sense of self is so tied into your career. I’ve worked with a chef who’s run a business for a long time who was prolific with helping other chefs and giving them a helping a hand. It also thrills me when people call me for references. I guess I’m proudest of the people who have worked with me and for me that have become very successful.
What do you take away from working in the kitchen?
It’s a great learning process. There many facets of the restaurant business. In my former life, a dish was never perfect. You could come up with a dish and it was very good but everyday you tinker with it, every day you adjust it. And I think you know it was a chef, at some point you have to learn to say, “Enough. Don’t touch it anymore, it’s fine. Let it go.”