Host Spotlight: Chefs Frances and Sasha of Berkeley

This week, I sat down with Frances and Sasha, the lovely hosts of The Field Kitchen Cooking School in Berkeley, CA. We covered topics ranging from Prince to pigs’ heads in our discussion about their passion, their pasts, and their journeys as chefs. Read on to hear more about the highs and lows of the culinary industry, and how they made it here in the Bay.

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First and foremost, tell us a bit about yourselves; what brought you into the world of cooking?

Sasha: I've always baked at home, and my mother was a good cook but not a great baker *laughs*, but my aunt was a great baker. I was surrounded by a lot of cooking growing up. When I graduated, I accidentally ended up at a biotech company, and when I got pregnant, I thought; this is my chance to do this! So I went to cooking school in San Francisco, then worked in restaurants for a number of years afterwards. A friend told me that Tante Marie's was looking for a pastry chef, and that's where I met Frances. She actually trained me -- she taught the professional cooking program, which included pastry. We became friends, and now we're teaching together!

Frances: I grew up in Ireland, and I was originally a home ec teacher I taught home ec and Gaelic language for about ten years, but then I got an opportunity to go to a cooking school at night. I ended up taking a year off to cook here, in California, and one year turned into a lot more *laughs*. And I worked, I was a chef at Lalime's in Berkeley for ten years. I then got an opportunity to work in France; I'd cook in France for the summers, and come back and work here. Then I had to get a real job -- going back and forth was fun, but not sustainable. I started teaching at Tante Marie's and stayed for ten years. I had actually been talking to another teacher from the East Bay, and we started teaching cooking classes here as there aren't too many offered in Berkeley. She then moved on to a full time job and Sasha joined me. 

What made you pursue cooking originally?

Sasha: We were poor. My mother was a very imaginative cook, so I got to see her use a lot of ingredients not a lot of people were using, like squid, liver. I'd never been a picky eater because of that, and it showed me how you can be imaginative, and now everyone fancies eating all those things, but it was unusual then.

Frances: My mother was a passionate gardener. She had grown up in the south of England, and her family always had a garden or there were farmers close by. In our garden, she had things like artichokes and asparagus and loganberries, things that you couldn't buy in the stores. I remember she got a book called "Eat for Free", and it was all about foraging, which I suppose is very hip now. When I went to school, people would be thinking, aah, what's she got in her lunchbox! At the time, I wished I could just have a plain cheese sandwich, but I'm very grateful for it now. We weren't a big family by Irish standards, four children, but there were always friends and family, aunts and uncles, and food was a big part of our lives. We ate together every night, and my mother started us cooking when we were very young because she wanted help. My dad would read me the instructions in a cookbook and I would cook, I was very interested in it.

What are your major achievements/meaningful moments in your business thus far? 

Sasha: I had an opportunity to open a bakery that's still going strong, it was really exciting to find a space and convert it into a beautiful spot in an up-and-coming neighborhood, it's called Sweet Adeline Bakeshop here in Berkeley. That was really, really fun -- exhausting, but starting from a completely empty vessel and turning it into a successful space was amazing. And I made a lot of wedding cakes -- even though it can be very stressful, I find it very satisfying, once you're done and it's set out and people are admiring it, it's really gratifying.

Frances: My most important milestone was coming to California, and Lalime's, when I walked in the door -- I had been told I wasn't confident enough in interviews -- so I walked in very confidently, and was offered a job as head chef. I'd never worked in a restaurant before. I learned how to pretty quickly. But to be responsible for the entire kitchen, seventy people, was a huge challenge. I supposed I'd be there for a year but stayed there ten, and the menus changed all the time, so it was a great challenge to be creative and come up with new ideas. And then, the other highlight, I think would be working at Tante Marie's, and I was often helping people change careers, and I've got now a whole network of former students and friends, two of whom I work for now that started cooking schools. It's been really great seeing how they've developed, and I'm very proud.

Sasha: I'd say that's very satisfying as well, teaching is truly special, and teaching at Tante Marie's was fantastic because you could really tackle complicated things. It was nice to have that time to really get into the nitty gritty, and people who were so scared on the first day could really grow.

Frances: I actually had one student who was really unsure of herself, and she went on to be a private chef for Prince. That is one of the best parts of teaching. And, of course, being able to cook all the time was excellent. I remember I would be in the casual carpool line with all my ingredients and people would ask me what I do, and I would answer, and they would say, you're so lucky. And I am, to be able to spend the day exchanging ideas with people who love food and love talking about food.

Sasha: The best people love talking about food.

Frances: And being able to share that with other people was amazing. At Tante Marie's, we would cook everything from scratch, we'd get a whole pig and butcher it, and make bacon and prosciutto. We'd think of new recipes and other ways to preserve pork, and I had great fun with those challenges with the students.

Sasha: I remember after those classes I'd see a whole pig's head in the sink *laughs*. That was not fun.

What were the initial hurdles that you had to get through?

Sasha: Working in a restaurant is challenging. Because of the fast pace and the personalities in a restaurant. Between the cooks and the chefs and the guests, I always thought it was good to be in the pastry department -- you could arrive first, everything was quiet, nobody is arguing yet. There were actually fights in the kitchen, and some unsavory behavior.

Frances: I got to choose my team eventually, so you had to be able to tell whether somebody was going to be a good team member. But when I started working, I was the only woman in the entire kitchen -- the entire restaurant. So that was quite a challenge. But on the same side, it's very passionate, very intense, but the good side of that is I have good friends like family. We argue like siblings still, but it was tough. Long hours, physically demanding; the teaching part was actually easier. 

Any advice for other people who want to pursue cooking or be in the culinary industry?

Sasha: I would say to anyone who is looking to pursue cooking as a profession, not to expect to make very much money for a very long time. But I would encourage anyone to learn how to cook, whether for pleasure or for business, because it's the most satisfying, gratifying, enriching thing you can do, and it's wonderful to share food with people whether you're doing all the cooking or sharing in the cooking. I can't think of anything better.

Frances: I guess there are people who think of cooking as a chore, and some may think of it as repetitive, but most jobs are repetitive. And the fact that you're being creative even if you're making the same thing over and over again, there's something meditative about the process, and you also have the opportunity to make it better every single time. Which is also a problem, because you have to perform well every single day.

Sasha: You can't mess up!

Frances: The people are coming!