The Ilocana only began formal culinary training in her late forties while raising her family.
Surprisingly, Chef Vallerie Castillo-Archer, the first-ever female executive chef of Los Angeles’ Japanese restaurant Yamashiro, didn’t even think she’d get hired when she started as its pastry chef.
“When I began my career as a chef, I had no idea that I would ever be given the title as the executive chef of an iconic restaurant,” the Ilocana recalls.
In 1914, Yamashiro’s building was initially owned by Dolph and Eugene Bernheimer of New York. The hilltop mansion turned restaurant sits 250 feet above Hollywood boulevard.
After being home to 400 Club, the watering hole of A-list stars of the golden age of Hollywood in the 1920s, the former home was later converted into a restaurant in the sixties.
“First of all, I had no aspiration to be even in the restaurant industry,” Castillo-Archer continues. “I was content doing catering here and there.”
But when the opportunity came to give a presentation as a pastry chef for Yamashiro, she felt that that was a big deal in itself. “Never did I imagine that I would ever be considered nor hired,” she says.
Leap of faith
Despite her bouts of self-doubt, Castillo-Archer was hired within 15 minutes of her job interview.
“I thought it was a dream,” she muses. In 2019, six months after being appointed as a pastry chef, Castillo-Archer continued her climb through the kitchen ranks when got promoted to executive sous chef.
“Then by June 2020, [when the restaurant] reopened after the first pandemic shut down, I was named Yamashiro’s first female executive chef,” she proudly shares.
The significant role requires sharp skills, discipline, and complete focus—something Castillo-Archer knew before entering the culinary industry. And it’s why she’s glad she only began training in the Academy of Culinary Education in her late forties.
“If I had started my career as a chef at an earlier age, I don’t know if I would [have taken] my career seriously,” the chef reflects. “I don’t think I would have been disciplined, or maybe I would have gotten bored, or would not have been able to handle all the pressures in the kitchen.”
Although she has always had a deep passion for cooking, something she credits to her grandparents, the idea to enter culinary school was merely to hone her craft.
Yamashiro is a go-to spot for Hollywood a-listers, attracting stars like Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Dolly Parton, and Ben Affleck.
“Everybody I meet from celebrities to [regular guests], they are as equally memorable because I get to do what I love,” Castillo-Archer says when asked who she was most starstruck by.
What she says she loves the most is “walking out of the kitchen and seeing so many Filipinos is the most amazing feeling. To hear Tagalog being spoken, to have your kababayan support you, it is the most amazing feeling in the world.”
Although Yamashiro boasts contemporary Japanese, the classically trained chef reveals that she has a “secret Filipino menu” for specific guests.
Beyond utilizing Filipino native ingredients, applying cooking techniques gained from experience, and exercising tenacity in her executive position—Castillio-Archer mostly involves what her grandparents taught her: cooking with love.
Carving her path
“I have always been a mom, and that is all I knew,” she says on her life before taking on the culinary world.
It wasn’t until Castillo-Archer started cooking and baking for her kids’ school functions, charities, and social gatherings that she comprehended she could kickstart a new career path.
“Hearing not just friends but strangers talk about my creations, asking me what restaurant I worked at or if I had a store, that is when I realized that maybe it was time to pursue my career as a chef,” she shares.
Now that she’s established herself professionally in the kitchen, Castillo-Archer’s encouraging others who are afraid to make career pivots because of their age. After all, her professional journey is proof that it’s attainable.
“Don’t be afraid; you don’t want to constantly have that doubt and ask yourself, ‘why didn’t I?’” the chef encourages. If she had not pursued her career and didn’t make that change, she knows she would be kicking herself and regretting it.
“Even if you try and find out [and learn that] it’s not what you want,” she says, “at least you gave it a chance, and there is nothing wrong with that.”
This story first came out in the October 2021 issue of Lifestyle Asia.
Banner Photo by Max Milla, courtesy of Chef Valerie Castillo-Archer