Meet CSCA Alum & Chef Instructor Melissa Lee
Melissa Lee graduated from the Certificate Pastry Program in 2014, worked at Flour Bakery & Café, Farmstead Table, and Blue Ginger after graduating. Since 2017, she has been teaching in-home cooking classes and running a lifestyle blog, Cooking Beautiful Lee. She’s been teaching sushi and dumpling classes at CSCA within our Recreational Program for just as long! We reached out to ask her about her journey and experience in the culinary industry to date.
Why did you decide to attend CSCA?
I began my young professional life as a journalist in 2012. I started a popular blog and wrote a travel column for Liberty Times, which has the highest circulation among periodicals in Taiwan. My column included a section on local food specialties, and I enjoyed interviewing people who worked in the food industry, as well as discovering the history behind local food specialties around the world. I also contributed articles with recipes—specifically baking with children—for the most popular online periodical website among female readers in Taiwan. Those articles proved to be extremely popular. Since I enjoyed cooking and writing about food so much, I thought to myself: “Why don’t I try to work in a commercial kitchen and see how well I can do there? In order to get my foot in the food industry, I decided to first enroll in CSCA’s Pastry Certificate Program.
Tell us about your professional experience since graduating from CSCA.
I started as a cookie girl at Flour, working under the great Chef Joanne Chang. I woke up four o’clock every morning when the sky was still dark. I could tell where Flour was blindfolded by following the aroma of bread! Before you can work on your own, your pastry chef or assistant pastry chef will work with you side by side at your station for two weeks. Every day I was given a spreadsheet with the number of products I had to make. The pastry chef set up a timeline for me, so I knew at what times the cinnamon buns should be out and the cookies baked. I learned how to hustle. It was unlike culinary school, where I could spend twenty minutes making a perfect edible rose to decorate my cake. And because of Chef Joanne’s high standard for food, I learned to never trade quantity for quality. I learned how to work fast and still deliver the best products to our guests. Efficiency was key.
After Flour, I worked at Farmstead Table, a farm to table restaurant in Newton Center. Farmstead Table is owned by a lovely couple, Chad and Sharon Burns. They were the best mentors to me! What I learned the most for working for them is how to run a small business and treat your employees like a family. That means a lot to me because I am an immigrant, and except for my children, the rest of my family does not live in Boston. Together, we worked with local farmers and used seasonal ingredients. We constantly changed our menu to reflect what was in season. If the farmers had some vegetables that were hard to sell, we would purchase them and use them to create some fun dishes. I felt grateful to have an opportunity to be creative and to give back to the community!
My next position was at Blue Ginger as a server when I was going through a difficult divorce. I needed to generate more income and I needed a more rigid schedule. Chef Ming Tsai held very high standards for both the front of house and the back of house staff. A server needed to be knowledgeable of the wine list and have tasted every wine on the menu. The servers also enjoyed every signature dish at Blue Ginger by the end of each training shift. He wanted us to be able to describe each dish and wine by heart. I was intrigued by our extensive wine list. In order to deliver a better service to our guests, I took the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) course and got WSET level two and level three certified and became a sommelier.
At Blue Ginger, I learned how to interact with guests to make them feel comfortable, respected, and pampered. Being a server is like being a conductor. You must constantly observe the situation and decide when is a good time to serve another course, reset the table with silverware, and clear a table. To serve guests in an elegant way is an art. I am a very shy person and would stay in the kitchen forever if I could. Because of my experience working as a server, I learned how to interact with guests, which has helped me become a great chef instructor.
What’s your favorite class to teach at CSCA and why?
Since I embrace a healthy lifestyle, sushi is my favorite topic to teach. Made of rice, fresh vegetables, and fresh fish—sushi is low in calories and full of vitamins, fibers, and protein. My mission is to make sushi approachable for home cooks. I love making sushi with a large group of students because each of them can be creative and choose whatever ingredients they like for their maki (rolls) or tameki (hand rolls).
My favorite food to make is Inarizushi, which is featured in the Sushi and Sake Pairing class at CSCA. Inarizushi is a form of sushi consisting of a pouch of fried tofu filled with rice and topped with different kinds of toppings such as raw fish, avocado, shiitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, and fish roe. The concept is similar to a taco, but instead of putting your favorite ingredients into a tortilla, you put the ingredients you love into the tofu pouch.
What motivated you to get into teaching and create your own business and lifestyle blog?
While I was going through my divorce, I decided to create a business to generate more income and work with a more flexible schedule. Since I worked the front of house as a server and the back of house as a pastry cook, I knew I had the skills to make delicious food and the pleasant demeanor needed to pass those skills onto students. At the end of 2016, I started to teach baking at Culinary Underground, a CSCA alumni-run cooking school in Southborough, that provides recreation classes for home cooks. When I taught these classes, there were always students who asked me if I could go to their homes to run a one-on-one workshop or a cooking party, so I got the idea to create a business that provides in-home cooking lessons.
How was the process of getting your business off the ground? How has it grown since?
From 2017 until late 2018, my business was slow. I was busy teaching public classes but had very few requests for in-home cooking lessons or cooking parties. I wondered if I was writing blog posts to entertain myself and was thinking about closing my business. Suddenly, in the fall of 2018, I got a lot of requests. By the spring of 2019, I made double the revenue of the entire year of 2018. I became number one on Yelp for in-home cooking classes in the Boston area. And many new clients found me. Summer is usually slow, but during fall I get booked almost every weekend.
I like to blog about my positive experiences as a female chef in hopes of inspiring women who want to become a chef one day. I write about my experience in creating a healthy lifestyle through amazing food, traveling, and working out while striking a balance between being a successful female entrepreneur and a single parent of two young children. I also post about fitness and these posts are very popular! My client, Priya, explained to me that she wants to hire a chef who can teach her how to cook healthy food and enjoy a healthy lifestyle. There’s the old saying, “Never trust a skinny chef”—maybe this doesn’t apply to some clients in 2019!
How do you balance life and work?
People also ask me if it’s possible to strike a balance between home and life as a female chef. Yes! I know the long hours in the food industry, especially restaurants and bakeries, are notorious. It is possible to forget what weekends are like after working in the food industry for several years. However, there are opportunities such as personal chef, recipe tester, or chef instructor that will allow you to have flexible hours. I have been able to create a business that is profitable and get to share the joy of cooking with my clients — while still being able to spend quality time with my two young children.
Is it ever too late to get into the culinary industry?
No! I pursued my passion for food when I was 31-years-old! If you’re thinking about changing your career path or create a second career after retirement, and you have a strong passion for food, don’t limit your potential because of your age. I started a new career in my early 30s, and I’m thriving. I have seen many friends successfully change their careers and establish themselves in the food industry around my age or after retirement from their first job. You only live once. If food is what you love, follow your passion and fill your life with spicy, sweet, sour, and spectacular memories!
Sign up for an upcoming class at CSCA with Chef Melissa Here.