Sydney's Omelette

Koel Chu reflects on the notion of cooking as labour of love and act of service.

Part of The Stakes of Naming, a series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live.



My mom makes bland food; she claims that she does not season her food because “it’s better for your body that way.” My brother and I often talk about how our mother hardly ever says any words of affirmation, let alone expresses her affection to us directly. She seems to think that her love materialises in food preparation. Our freezers are always filled to the brim with plastic containers and Ziploc bags of raw meat, each meticulously labelled to indicate its content, place of origin, and date of purchase.

Every two weeks, she brings back bags of whole chickens, breams, croakers, and threadfins, and then spends her entire afternoon deboning them. Every last bit of flesh is painstakingly scrapped from the bone, so no meat “goes to waste,” as my mother always says, because meat becomes dry and tough after being used for bone broth. Once she has accumulated enough bones, we enjoy the luxury of having chicken or fish soup. Another reason for her meticulousness is to ensure my brother and I never get bone fragments stuck in our throats.

I was conditioned to accept and give love as tacit knowledge: a dead fish on the chopping board, tip of the blade angled horizontally, a firm incision just behind the gill. A love to the bone. A love that exists in abundance but expressed in scarcity. A love that burns like a signal fire on a deserted island—and you are the fuel. 


*   *   *


I used to think my parents constitute who I am, and to love myself, I have to cling onto their notion of love as the only form of affection I’m able to give and deserve to receive—love manifested in silent dinners, cooking as apology, and eating as acceptance of apology. Whenever I’m at home, I can never be hungry and angry at the same time, because my acquiescence to my parents’ way of loving is as imminent as my hunger. 

Except this is not another saccharine story about food being an unspoken love language in a dysfunctional Asian family, a form of writing that has since become a norm within memoir writing by women of the Asian diaspora. Food and cooking can certainly act as vehicles to navigate themes of identity, family, and love, but the toxic flip-side of this narrative’s ubiquity is that we internalise the evasion from outward affection as our cultural specificity—something that we should take pride in instead of being critical of.

At family dinners where I had never met or even heard of half the guests (my “extended family”), we never paid attention to the food we were eating. No matter how bad the food was or how full you already felt, finishing your meals was more your filial obligation than choice. We could be eating grass, and no one would notice because we were too preoccupied with making small talk with people whose names we would forget the day after. It’s uncommon for my family to get together simply for the sake of food or to try new restaurants; in fact, we invariably eat at the places we’ve already been to because as the saying goes, “it’s less about the food and more about the company.” But I’m not sure where this saying comes from, or if it exists at all.

My childhood experiences have determined how I chose what to eat. They were less questions of what, and more questions of where and who—good food was not so much a criterion than a bonus to me. You would catch me eating the same dish over and over just because it had become part of my routine, regardless of how (bad) it (often) tasted. I would claim to have astonishingly unrefined taste buds, because then I could avoid considering what I actually wanted to eat—to avoid, in other words, my own desires. But when you were young, the question of desire rarely popped up in your mind, at least not with urgency. You were always reminded that you still had time to figure things out. But what were those things? No one ever told you. Time, in one’s salad days, is constant, and desire non-existent.


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My brother and I went to the same primary school when we were young. He is four years older than me. When he graduated from primary school and transitioned to secondary school, I moved up to primary three. In my school, you had the same home teacher and classmates during your first two years, so the third year always represents a critical time of change and growing up. Unaware of why, just a day or two into school, I started feeling nauseous every morning. I soon stopped going to school, bawling my eyes out at the school entrance every day, unable to set foot in the campus for weeks.

As a kid, you feel things intensely without knowing why. Maybe I was anxious about going to school without my brother (not that we saw each other much at school as the pubescent him was embarrassed by my “uncool” presence). Maybe I found the new home teacher intimidating. Maybe I missed my friends who got sorted into other classes. By the time I got to meet the paediatric psychologist assigned by the government after more than a year of waiting, my anxiety had already subsided and I had been attending school without any difficulty.

I remember telling my mother that there’s no need for a consultation because I felt fine and I was able to endure school again. My mother characteristically shot back that I should talk to the doctor anyway or else “all the waiting time would be wasted.” As we sat waiting in the reception area, I began peeling the sofa skin and rehearsing potential conversations with the psychologist in my head. When it was finally my turn, she asked me to draw a portrait of my family. In my head, I had a vision of the perfect nuclear family.

I may have found my way back to school, but the intertwining threads of food and anxiety linger. Despite feeling nauseous for reasons still unbeknownst to me, from then on, I find it hard to disentangle food from responsibility, as if eating is not enjoyment but a problem to be solved. Be it desire or repulsion, I used to attribute my family dynamics to my gastronomic inclinations. But I’m tired of being trapped in a cycle of stuckness in exchange for consistency, and I’m tired of navigating my life with the looming presence of unspoken love like a cloud hanging over me.

Ever since my brother moved to New York, our exchanges have mostly consisted of my complaints regarding our parents, whom I still live with. Once, my brother texted: “I wonder if every one of my issues is because of family.” His message reminded me of what artist Rosemary Mayer wrote in a letter to her sister, the poet Bernadette Mayer: “Maybe we have similarities in some part of our nervous systems, our mental-set-ups or whatever one would call whatever induces particular views of, or sensitivities to, the world.” It’s easy to think that your toxic family dynamic is so deeply ingrained in your body, like an epigenetic mark tattooed on your genes—impossible to erase. But in a missive responding to her sister, Bernadette Mayer mused: “Our past is extreme + we have the world to deal with as well.” I’d like to believe—or start believing—that one day, I can replace the plus sign (“+”) with a less-than symbol (“<”).


*   *   *


In the penultimate episode of The Bear’s second season, chefs from a family-run sandwich shop struggle to transform their store into a fine-dining restaurant. As the staff frantically gets ready for their friends-and-family debut that’s due to start in a few hours, chef Sydney offers to cook for the shop’s pregnant project manager Natalie, who hasn’t eaten and looks very much distressed because of the opening. Natalie initially turns Sydney down, but she ends up asking for an omelette anyway. Sydney goes on to whisk the eggs through a sieve with meticulous swiftness, squeezing a precise line of Boursin cheese in the middle, before topping it with a handful of chives and crumbled sour cream and onion potato chips (“The type with the ridges,” she points out). Natalie, upon taking her first bite, says: “I could cry.”

As Sydney later recalls to the restaurant’s head chef Carmy, on an important day like this, making the omelette for Natalie is still the best part of her day.

Trapped in the stressful and chaotic kitchen, Sydney makes the omelette with such assertive, stoic resolve. Perhaps this is what draws her to cooking in the first place: food as hospitality. In return, this care is acknowledged with words of appreciation, a mutual desire for genuine connection. I want to make that omelette one day.


Screenshot from The Bear.



Koel Chu is AAA's Associate Editor. 

Banner illustration: Jocelin Kee. 



Koel CHU

Fri, 13 Oct 2023

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The Stakes of Naming
Part of series

The Stakes of Naming

A series that asks an array of writers and artists what they need to say to live