Dina Fan was a sophomore at NYU stuck in a boring archaeology course when her aunt gave her an ultimatum: “Why don’t you go to culinary school since you like food so much? I’ll pay for that.” Encouraged, Fan saw that ICE had a spot open, and she took it.
As a student, she interned at EN Brasserie, worked as a line cook at Ma Peche, and then helped open Tertulia. While working there, she saved up money for a six-month stint interning overseas, hopscotching around Asia before returning to New York. Now she’s the sous chef at El Colmado (600 Eleventh Avenue, 212-582-7948), the Seamus Mullen tapas and wine bar in Gotham West Market.
Here, Fan discusses being the only female intern, high stakes tryouts, and how she’s able to keep her head above water with 80 oyster tickets during El Colmado’s happy hour.
How’d you get started at El Colmado?
Seamus said “I’m doing this new project. I think you’d be a really great sous over there.” As much as I loved being a line cook, I had to grow up sometime.
What’s he like to work with?
He’s a really cool boss. He knows we can handle it and that he doesn’t have to be there all the time. It’s nice to have that level of trust that things are going to be done the way he wants them.
You have a few line cooks under you. How do you like being an authority figure?
It’s just good to know you have to be responsible. If you’re a cook, you do your thing, clean up, and go home. If you’re a sous, if one of your cooks fucks up, you get yelled at for that. So if your cook fucked up the skirt steak, you get balled out. You’re responsible for everyone.
What do you like about Spanish cooking?
I love the culture. When I was little kid, we visited my aunt and her husband in Barcelona. They were so chill and so relaxed. They owned a Spanish Chinese restaurant by the beach. He wore a white suit with a pink shirt and a gingham tie on his fishing boat, and he was holding the tuna he just caught. Like, get the fuck out of here! Who wears a white suit on their boat? It’s like, you guys have been in Spain too long. I’d want to save money and backpack through Spain.
Does getting slammed affect you emotionally?
Some of the cooks will start panicking when they see all the tickets and they’re spinning in circles. I’ll look at a board and consolidate it, so it’s four this, two of these, and six of that. It’s repetition.
What’s going through your mind?
Do we have enough bread? It’s a guessing game. You get that pride, that rush, when you’re really busy. El Colmado’s like, “Oh shit, there are 80 oysters on the board. I guess I better start shucking.”
How is the kitchen at El Colmado different from the kitchen at Tertulia?
When food is ready, it’ll come out. We don’t work like Tertulia where everything gets coursed out — we know the black rice is going to come out when it’s black and that it takes 15 minutes.
What’s your take on Pete Wells giving you a two-star rating for the group of restaurants at Gotham West Market?
I was surprised that he gave a star rating. I thought it was just going to be a write-up. It’s great because it’s a collaborative effort. Each vendor thing chips in on one component.
You took six months off to stage in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, and Taiwan. What was it like to get out of New York?
It opened my eyes to what’s really out there, outside of New York. When you only cook in New York, you only think about New York restaurants and that we’re at the center of the world, but it’s a big eye opener there. You meet a lot of people from Australia, England, and Canada. It was like holy shit! There are a lot of really dope restaurants out there.
Come across any crazy perfectionist stuff in those foreign kitchens?
Each kitchen was different. In Singapore [at Andrha] it was the chef was Taiwanese but he’d spent 17 years in France so he had a very French mentality. He had 300 plates, and they had to be perfectly shiny. If he found one plate with a smudge, you’d pick up all of them and say they’re probably all smudged and the whole staff had to polish everything again. It happened all the time.
What rituals did you embrace?
The kitchens were very clean. In Hong Kong before service, we had to disinfect everything. There were fifteen squeeze bottles dispersed throughout the kitchen. You used a cutting board? You want to use a bowl? Disinfect it. They were very paranoid.
How male dominated was it?
I was the only girl while staging overseas. There was a girl in Singapore, but she did the pastry. All the other places, I was the only girl. I got a lot of weird looks and then finally they’d open up and be like, you’re all right. Most of the restaurants said I was the first girl they’d ever had. They ordered a small stock uniform specifically for me so that was pretty awesome.
What was stressful about cooking there?
Your first day you were like a deer in the headlights. The other chefs were fast, and one plate would have 16 to 20 things on it to assemble. Some people would take 10 to 15 seconds and boom — done. Everyone moved at lightning speed, and no one bumped into each other. It was intimidating watching them.
Did you get a chance to try?
You got on chance on the pass, and if you didn’t get it, you had to go back to cutting some onions or polishing.
Did you mess up?
The first night I lost it, and you can take notes, but they don’t really count. If you opened up a notebook, they’d be like why isn’t your shit on the plate yet. The first night, I was so shaky I was like a crack addict holding the micro herbs and flowers. The chef does the sauces or the proteins and the sous chefs do all the other components like the crumbles or the soil.
How does attention to detail translate in your work back here in the States? Have you chilled out since then?
It makes me more anal than I’d like to be. What I do now is very simple traditional straightforward Spanish food, so I’ll get a little bit too focused putting herbs on a dish and then say, “What the hell am I doing right now?”
How did they initiate you at EN Brasserie?
They gave me a Japanese knife and said, “Don’t bring your culinary school knives in here again.” You have to take really good care of [a Japanese knife] otherwise it will start getting rusty. Your knife skills get a lot better. That place was addicting.
What was the transition from EN to Ma Peche like?
I loved working at EN, but I wanted to use hotel pans and stir pans like a New York kitchen. Ma Peche was a totally different world. It was like starting over learning all the terms because I was used to hearing things in Japanese.
What were the most unforgettable parts of Ma Peche?
I learned speed and organization. That I attribute to over there.
It had to be more social.
They definitely hung out. They were big on camaraderie. At EN, everyone does their job and then goes home. There, it’s like let’s go to the dive bar around the corner get wasted until it closes. Everyone’s bonding and hanging out. The people you work with are the only people you ever hang out with or see.
The executive chef, [Paul Carmichael] and I still hang out. He’s a great mentor. He was the one who got my creativity going. He made the most amazing dishes. His palate is awesome. His food seemed so weird and out there, but then it was like, holy shit, that makes perfect sense.
What’d you eat growing up in Jersey?
My mom was a house mom. We would all sit down and eat together for dinner. She cooked very traditional Taiwanese. She always had like five or six different things. I didn’t appreciate it then, but when I think about it now, it was very stressful and admirable.
Did she try Western stuff?
For us eating out was Western — Hillstone or Houston’s — and my mom used to get so mad at us because she’d cook so much and be like, “You guys just want to eat a burger or ribs or steak.” She tried some Italian once; it was not very good spaghetti, and it was like, “Oh man, nice try but that was a fail. Let’s not do spaghetti again.” I used to try to trade [food at school]. We had these Asian candy desserts that the cool Jewish kids wanted. I’d get a corned beef sandwich.