Louise Liu – Assistant Research & Development Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region, Whole Foods Market.
Many career-oriented women come to a point, whether it be one or five, six or seven times, where they want to try something new, change jobs or even careers. We want to be successful, but what about finding a fulfilling opportunity that we love waking up to each and every morning. How do we get there in this fast-paced and ever changing environment while lugging a suitcase full of financial or family responsibilities and obligations? Each woman's situation is unique and presents different challenges, but by all means it can be done!
Another thing I think people can get trapped into are career descriptions and what you think is a title for what you do such as “I'm an architect and I do this” or “I'm a chef and I do this”. If you do what you really love to do eventually there will be some position that brings all of those things together.
Louise Liu, currently the Assistant Research and Development Chef of the Mid Atlantic Region for Whole Foods Market, is a career changer and loves her job. Who would ever know Louise holds a B.A. in Architecture from the University of Berkeley and a Master of Architecture from the University of Minnesota with a post-graduate research fellowship focusing on low-income housing design and housing and urban policy, in addition to ten years of professional experience. However, everything changed for Liu in Fall 2001. Louise shares her journey with me at the Whole Foods in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Discover how she found her dream job, what challenges arose and what advice she has for other career changers.
ASIANCE: What inspired you to become a chef?
Louise: I always liked cooking. While I was teaching architect in Hong Kong I was deciding where to go next with my career and thought I would take six months off to go to the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, New York in Fall 2001 to determine if this is what I wanted to do. I absolutely loved it. In my first job at Daniel (the restaurant of renowned chef Daniel Boulud), a really high-end high-pressure restaurant, everyone was saying to me you are going to be treated terribly because it was all French male chefs. Despite the fourteen-hour days, six days a week, the working conditions were very good and I absolutely loved it! I thought if I loved something this much, why would I go back to doing something that I like some, but not this much. That's when I decided to change careers.
ASIANCE: After spending so much time, effort and money, did you ever regret your decision of pursuing architecture or for staying in it for as long as you did?
Louise: Actually there are a lot of similarities in the two fields in the sense that you come up with a design or recipe and you're going to think about how you're going to build that dish or that building. From there you actually have to make it. What's so wonderful about cooking is that it happens all within an evening or even over the course of a week. It all happens in a short period of time and usually what you come up with at the end usually has a lot of similarities to what you thought of in the beginning. Architecture is a much longer drawn out process and what happens at the end has many, many hands touch it and has a lot more regulation to it. Of course the other wonderful thing about cooking is almost everybody is happy with what you come up with even if it didn't turn out perfectly. There's just a lot more instant gratification to cooking, but it has the same aspect of creativity, working with a material and needing to understand it in order to come up with a finished product. From that standpoint, all the things I love about architecture translated into cooking and its much more hands on because in architecture there is a lot of sitting in front of a computer doing a lot of computer drafting.
ASIANCE: What advice do you have for career changers?
Louise: I have to admit, I probably had it easy. My family and husband were very supportive, which was very helpful. Try to be careful in setting it up so that you can take that time off. Also do not think about it as a career change initially, which was my mentality going into it. I think people often feel they are making a permanent decision and worry “What if I get stuck being this other thing?” First find something that you want to do for six months. It's taking a break from whatever you're doing. It's not a kill your career decision. If you don't like it (or it wasn't what you had expected) you can go back. Of course you can work and go to school, but that's tough too. Do what works best for you.
When I went to culinary school, I would say fifty percent were career changers. There are ways to fit it in especially if you're a career changer because you're trying something out and not putting all your eggs in one basket. You always know you have a career to go back to. It's not as nervous. If you don't like it, you always have a way to make money. If you're thinking about changing careers, it's not necessarily because of the money. There's no harm in trying something out and giving yourself the chance and time to do it.
Another thing I think people can get trapped into are career descriptions and what you think is a title for what you do such as “I'm an architect and I do this” or “I'm a chef and I do this.” If you do what you really love to do eventually there will be some position that brings all of those things together. Who would of guessed that there is a job out there where I'm designing recipes, cooking and needing to know about architecture all at once. You wouldn't come up with that job description. If someone would have asked me what do I want to be when I grow up, there would be no way I would have said or known I want to be somebody who cooks and does architecture all at once. It kind of evolved on it's own.
ASIANCE: Do you enjoy architecture more now?
Louise: I do. What's funny is when I was an architect I would read and watch a lot of cooking magazines and shows. And now as a chef I have to read those things for work, so now I tend to like architecture/design because there is some distance from it. It has also come in handy with my work here at Whole Foods because there is a lot of new store development and a lot of my R&D has to go towards what do we need for each of the new stores, so it helps that I can read the blueprints and look at floor plans and suggest equipment.
ASIANCE: What has been the most challenging time for you?
Louise: Opening the cafe in Hong Kong was a really challenging time. That probably really tested my commitment because I was thrown in an environment where nobody had any experience. In fact I was the one who had the most experience right out of school. As the opening chef I did the initial menu and recipe writing and of course the cooking part of it was wonderful. However I also set-up the business, set-up the kitchen and took up a lot of the financial responsibilities since nobody knew anything about that aspect. I have every admiration for people that love doing this (opening and running restaurants). You really can't have another life. It's very difficult. It's brutal and physical work.
Currently the most challenging part is to balance personal life with work life and that doesn't have to do with the career change, but with having a family. In some ways it's purely time issues. If you could somehow have 80% time for work and 80% time for family and have it somehow equal 100%, but I know there's no mathematical possibility for that. I have also realized it is challenging to change careers later in life because right now I'm hitting the time where I want to move forward with my career and it's also the time when (she pauses) but this happens to other people. The timing is never perfect, you wish it was, but it never is.
ASIANCE: Did you start off at Whole Foods in your current position?
Louise: I started in the kitchens cooking and from there became a catering manager and from there was hired into my current position. It is a regional position overseeing 28 stores. One thing that I really love about working here is we truly encourage every store to be creative in their own way, so each store has their individual personality. At the regional level, where another company would call it regional director or general manager, we call it Coordinator because what you're trying to do is coordinate all the efforts of the stores. What I do is to try to take what the stores are doing and also take regional initiatives and assist the teams in implementing them, in addition to change the menus seasonally. It isn't solely testing every single recipe.
ASIANCE: What's hot for Whole Foods this Spring/Summer?
Louise: Grilling and heirloom vegetables and produce will be a main feature.
ASIANCE: Why are heirlooms so special?
Louise: Heirloom produce is varieties that have been lost and that haven't been modified like a generic beefsteak tomato. They are called “heirlooms” because they're antique varieties that have been handed down only because the seeds have been handed down from generation to generation, therefore they are originals. Heirloom tomato salads will be coming into the cases and heirloom peppers and eggplant varieties. It's challenging to find a consistent supply because they are really dependent on the season as there is no outside assistance in extending their season. It is a challenge to plan for those kinds of things.
ASIANCE: I know you are happy now, but do have any future goals or dreams?
Louise: For us to move internationally again. (Who knows her next destination may be Europe as Whole Foods opens their first store in Summer´07 in London, England)
ASIANCE: What is your favorite cuisine and dish?
Louise: What could I eat everyday Chinese. My mother is from Suchow, near the Shanghai area, so I could eat those little meat dumplings all the time.
Recipe from Louise
Heirloom Tomatoes with Prosciutto and Salsa Verde
(Serves 4 as first course or light lunch)
1/2 oz. (from 1 pkg) Fresh marjoram, leaves only
3/4 oz. (from one package) Basil, coarse chop
3 large cloves Garlic, coarse chop
1.5 oz Anchovies, coarse chop
2 Tbsp Sherry Vinegar
4 oz. Extra Virgin Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs. Heirloom tomatoes, cut into thin wedges
5 oz. Baby arugula and mache lettuce mix
8 oz. Prosciutto, thinly sliced
Fine sea salt to taste
Sherry vinegar and olive oil to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Sprinkle tomato wedges with lightly salt and set aside.
For salsa verde:
Place herbs, garlic and anchovies in a food processor and pulse to coarsely chop. Add sherry vinegar and pulse once or twice more to combine. With processor running, slowly add olive oil to emulsify sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
To assemble the salad:
Toss lettuce mix with a little vinegar and olive oil to taste. Distribute evenly on four salad plates. Arrange heirloom tomato wedges in a circle on the lettuce and mound 2 oz. of prosciutto in the center. Drizzle salsa verde over the tomatoes and finish with freshly cracked pepper.