When it launched at the beginning of 2018, the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship set out to create opportunities for aspiring chefs. The first ever winner, Taiwanese cook Jessie Liu, made the most of her three months of stages in two of the world’s best kitchens, spending time with renowned culinary personalities, discovering new techniques and even tasting a 290-year-old sherry, for an experience that she deemed “unforgettable”.
As we prepare to launch the new 50 Best BBVA Scholarship for 2019, we retrace Liu’s journey from Taipei to the Basque Country and San Francisco in 10 great culinary moments.
1. January 2018, Melbourne, Australia: the application
In 2016, without any formal training, Jessie Liu – an ambitious 22-year-old cook from Taipei – decided to follow her vocation to work in professional kitchens and moved to Melbourne, where she found jobs at restaurants Vue du Monde and Eau de Vie. Two years later, she applied for and was selected to receive the first 50 Best BBVA Scholarship, following a judging process that involved a written application, several video submissions and an interview.
In her application, Liu stated: “I want to show my family and friends that although I haven't gone to go to culinary school, I can make it up with years of hard work, knowledge and a good attitude. I take cooking very seriously and I have ambitions to create wonderful dishes that can touch hearts and inspire people. I can't imagine doing stages at two of the most amazing restaurants ever and learning from great chefs like Andoni Luis Aduriz and Dominique Crenn, whom I've always looked up to. It would no doubt be a dream come true.”
2. June 2018, Bilbao, Spain: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018
To start her journey, Liu flew to the Basque Country of Spain to receive her scholarship on stage at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 awards ceremony, alongside some of the best chefs and restaurateurs on the planet.
Liu says of the experience: “It’s hard to believe I am actually here. I never thought I’d get to see so many great chefs all together in one place. Receiving the award on stage was definitely the scariest part, but now that it’s over, I’m super excited to begin my journey. Being the inaugural winner of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship really means a lot to me. I am humbled, blessed and thrilled be a part of this amazing opportunity.”
3. July 2018, Mugaritz, Spain: the production kitchen
Shortly after the celebrations for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Liu moved to Errenteria in the Basque Country, where restaurant Mugaritz – No.9 in the 2018 list – is located. Her six-week stage started with a full week in the famous restaurant’s production kitchen.
Liu says: “The production kitchen is where we make most of the components that go in the dishes. We deal with a large quantity of meat, seafood and vegetables that are always fresh and of high quality. Some things we do daily, such as cleaning crab meat and picking out mushrooms, and others we do weekly, such as scraping chicken skins or picking seaweed leaves.
“On the kitchen wall, where everyone can see it, is a famous Mugaritz saying: lo posible de lo imposible se mide por la voluntad de un ser humano. It is constantly reminding us that ‘making possible the impossible is down to human will’. I think that’s what the production kitchen is all about.”
4. July 2018, Mugaritz, Spain: sommelier training
After gaining experience in the production kitchen and in the service kitchen, Liu spent a few days with Mugaritz’s world-renowned sommeliers to practice her front-of-house skills. While she initially felt out of place outside the kitchen, she soon started enjoying the process of learning about wines, especially with Mugaritz’s 70-page-strong wine list available for tasting.
“I gained so much wine knowledge in just three days that I felt as if my head could explode at any time,” says Liu. “Another challenge for me was to open wine bottles. I had never done it before, but fortunately, I made progress: from spending 30 seconds per bottle to about 10 seconds now. I tried different wines such as German Riesling, Canadian Ice Wine, Japanese Sake, French red and Portuguese port. After, I knew better how to describe different flavours and I felt like I could explain those amazing drinks with more personal feelings.”
The aspiring cook even got to taste a sip from a precious bottle of sherry dating back to 1728, which was dug out of an abandoned cellar in the heart of Spain. “I teared up when I savoured the liquid in my mouth,” she says. “The taste was too profound to put it into words. In short, I was not drinking sherry, I was drinking history.”
5. August 2018, Mugaritz, Spain: Andoni Luis Aduriz
Working at the restaurant led by Andoni Luis Aduriz, Liu had the chance to sit down with the great chef in order to ask him questions and discuss his food philosophy. Here are two quotes from the Spanish cook as they were told to Liu.
"There are not enough women in the industry. We need a more feminine force to balance the masculinity. I hope to see you inspire more young female chefs.”
"The common idea of success is usually people with good connections or abundant economic resources, but the definition of success has to be very personal. You have to find it by yourself, and for me it is the proximity between what I do and what my heart tells me to do. If the things I do now are what I feel like I should do, then for me this is success.”
Liu describes the experience as “one of the most memorable and inspiring moments in my life”.
6. August 2018, Atelier Crenn, US: poetic culinaria
Following her six-week experience in the Basque Country, Liu flew to San Francisco, US, for the second stage, this time at restaurant Atelier Crenn. Here, she had a chance to deepen her understanding of ‘poetic culinaria’, chef Dominique Crenn’s unique cooking style that marries poetry and cuisine.
“Before I went, I had no idea why or how food could be related to poetry, but I was very curious to find out,” says Liu. “It was only after I’d personally seen, tasted, and even learnt to create some of the dishes that I could grasp the essence of the phrase. I’ve never seen dishes with such exquisite presentation. To witness and be a part of the creation process was very inspiring, and I will keep this experience in mind forever.”
7. August 2018, Atelier Crenn, US: dinner service
Inside Atelier Crenn’s small and diverse kitchen, food prep starts from 7am. Liu worked a combination of prep shifts and service shifts at the restaurant in order to get an overall view of the inner workings of the restaurant.
“I was surprised by how many things have to be done repeatedly on a daily basis. Every day we bake fresh tarts, squeeze fresh juices, pick fresh herbs, simmer different stocks and cure fresh fish. Every item on the menu is made from scratch. We only serve dinner for 30 to 40 guests per night, but we start to prep before 7am and continue all the way until 5pm, so imagine how much time and effort is put into each dish. The daily mise-en-place list was really long, but we managed to get everything done in time.”
8. August-September 2018, Atelier Crenn, US: Dominique Crenn
“I admire Dominique Crenn as a person, not just as a chef,” says Liu of her experience working alongside the cook who was nominated The World’s Best Female Chef in 2016. “The world knows she can make amazing poetry-inspired dishes, but there are so many aspects to her. She is cool, kind and full of good vibes.
“Every time she comes into the kitchen, she greets everyone with ‘rise and shine, chefs!’ or ‘ready to rock and roll?’ She dances, shouts and chats with everyone to make sure we are all having a good time. She is the soul of the restaurant, the kind of person who cheers everyone up at work. I hope one day I will have the same level of confidence and charisma.
“Before I left, [Crenn] signed my book and wrote: ‘Life is a journey full of discoveries. Keep dreaming, keep dancing, and be you!’ For me, that is the best advice.”
9. September 2018, San Francisco, US: #50BestTalks Voices for Change
Towards the end her three-month long scholarship, Liu attended a stand-alone edition of #50BestTalks held in San Francisco, US, focused around the theme ‘Voices for Change: Championing a Diverse Future’.
“I was so happy to see the 50 Best team again after we’d met for the first time in Bilbao,” says Liu. “This year’s theme was very meaningful and the speaker line-up featured some of my favorite chefs: Virgilio Martínez, Lara Gilmore, Daniela Soto-Innes and Enrique Olvera, Gaggan Anand and Dominique Crenn herself.
“I think kitchen life is often about doing repetitive tasks day after day, and sometimes it can get frustrating, but if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture, we might find a new perspective or new goals to strive for. I was really glad I got the chance to step outside the kitchen to hear these chefs share their philosophy.”
10. October 2018, Taipei, Taiwan: final reflections
Asked if she would recommend other students to participate in the scholarship, Liu says: “Definitely! This is the best opportunity for a young chef to learn, to see the world and meet amazing people in the same industry. The three-month experience is pretty intense and not for the faint-hearted, but you’ll be rewarded with unforgettable adventures, badass friends, tasty food, culinary knowledge, and so many good stories to share. Trust me, you’ll have the time of your life!”
Header image: Andoni Luis Aduriz, aspiring cook Jessie Liu and Dominique Crenn. The images on this page are courtesy of Jessie Liu, Mugaritz, Atelier Crenn and 50 Best.
Stay tuned for the announcement of the 50 Best BBVA Scholarship 2019, which will see another aspiring cook get experience in some of the world’s best kitchens, to be announced soon.
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