Samantha Kwok has been with The Sylvia Center for seven years, first as a Teen Culinary Apprentice, then a Chef Assistant, and currently a Chef Educator. We talked about how teaching has helped build confidence in herself and how she’s oriented her teaching style around building that kind of confidence in her students. She told me about the earliest roots of her passion for cooking and why, no matter how good she gets, she’ll never be able to take over her mom’s kitchen.
By Kate Ray
Photographs by Cindy Hu
Kate: Have you always liked to cook?
Sam: When I was a kid, like the second I was born, I knew I wanted to do something with cooking. As soon as I was able to walk around, I was baking cupcakes and cookies. And it wasn’t anything from scratch, it was box cakes. But just that, the smells and tasting everything made me really enjoy it. As a kid, I wouldn’t watch cartoons, I watched the Food Network all day, all night. YouTube wasn’t around when I was really young but when I got older, I started searching how to make cookies or this or that. So I learned a lot of things from watching the Food Network and YouTube.
But that was mostly pastry. When it came to cooking, I learned a lot from my mom. We cook a lot of Chinese dishes. Growing up, my mom would always make dumplings and to this day, dumplings are my favorite. I don’t know her secret recipe, but watching her folding dumplings, she makes it look so beautiful and elegant. It’s something that I’ve wanted to learn, but I cannot fold the dumpling wrappers. They look terrible! Like, comparing my dumplings to hers, it’s very obvious which ones are mine. But it’s something I strive to learn. The beauty of cooking, it’s just so amazing.
Kate: Do you ever cook for your mom?
Sam: No, she does all the cooking. She allows me to cook some dishes, but then she enjoys taking over. If I’m in her kitchen, I’ll be like, Mom, you can relax. Don’t worry about it, but then she’ll find her way into the kitchen. She’ll be like, Do you need help cutting this, do you need help cutting that, and then she takes over at that point. So there’s no fighting Mom in the kitchen.
Kate: What do you think draws you to cooking?
Sam: I mostly like the thought that I get to eat something delicious. Knowing that the simplest ingredients can make the most delicious thing. So if I’m able to create something with my own hands and be able to feed myself and nourish my body and feed other people, I think that’s beautiful.
Kate: How did you end up teaching it?
Sam: My original plan was not to become a teacher. I am very shy in general, so when I was given the opportunity to become a Chef Educator, that was my cue to push myself and be a little more outspoken. I’m still very shy, but I think having the role of a Chef Educator and having all these students look up to me and respect me has given me a lot of confidence overall.
I didn’t have a good experience when it came to high school. I went to three different schools and my experience with them was honestly really bad. So when I’m in class and I see students who are struggling, I hold on to those students a little bit tighter. Because I know school can be very overwhelming. You’re in school for eight, nine hours a day and then you have to go to afterschool, so that makes it ten, eleven hours. If I can find a way for them to feel safe in my class and know they’re going to eat something delicious at the end of the day, I do everything I can to make those students feel comfortable. I try my best to make a connection with every student at every site. I try to figure out every student’s personality when it comes to how they are in school or with friends, because again, there’s a lot of students that I can see myself in and they don’t really click and unfortunately there can be bullying. So again, I hold on to those students tighter, to make sure they’re comfortable, to make sure they know, You’re safe when you’re here.
I had a student named Adrian. He was in middle school. He really really wanted to cut an avocado. It was his first time cutting avocado. But when he finally began cutting it, he freaked out halfway through and he actually started crying. He was like, I can’t do this. I can’t do this. And I was motivating him like, Don’t be scared. You got this. But also, If you truly don’t feel confident, if you don’t feel safe, don’t worry, I can help you. I always try to speak with the student and give them options. Like, Would you like to do this? If not, you can do that. If you don’t feel safe, if you don’t feel confident, don’t worry about it. There’s something else you can do. Because some students aren’t as confident when it comes to cutting or mixing or whatever the case may be. So I try to motivate them as much as I can.
Kate: Has working at Sylvia changed anything about how you cook at home?
Sam: I always ate relatively healthy. I love eating vegetables. So when I started with Sylvia Center and was able to learn actual plant-based recipes, using all these vegetables that I love, it gave me new insights. Like I never thought about puréeing a butternut squash into soup. I always assumed that you should roast it. I was able to introduce a lot of healthy snacks to my family. My partner is on his health journey now, he’s into eating super healthy. So right now is my time to step in and show him all the recipes. I love the pizza recipe, I love doing the pizza with the kids. And the blueberry muffins are delicious.
I’ve been trying to push myself to try new things. But I’m a little scared. Only because I’m afraid of it turning out badly and then I waste a lot of food. That’s my biggest concern, I don’t want to waste food. So I try to push myself once a month. And I think once I start feeling more confident I can try to make it once a week.
Kate: Is there anything new on your horizon?
Sam: I hope more doors open for my cooking journey, I’m still willing to learn. I’m very open to anything.