Martha Bialek incorporates culture into cuisine



For senior Martha Bialek, preparing dumplings brings her joy and allows her to carry on family traditions.

Hands dusted with flour and folding the corners of dumpling wrappers, senior Martha Bialek carefully sets her money-shaped creations down on a steamer. It’s a typical day for her; Bialek often spends time in the kitchen, both creating and watching others bake and cook food.

Cooking has always been a part of Bialek’s life, both at home and at the high school. It’s become intertwined with her culture and is influencing her career. Bialek, who will be attending The Culinary Institute of America in the fall, has previously worked at the Tappan Green Restaurant, where she helped diversify the cuisine served.

From the beginning, food has helped Bialek connect with her family, especially her maternal grandmother, who has remained a strong culinary influence for Bialek.

“My mom always used to tell me stories of the food that her mom cooked—she’s originally from Taiwan,” Bialek said. “Right before I decided to apply to [culinary school], she was telling me a story about how her mom had always wished to open a restaurant. She didn’t end up doing that, so my mom was telling me, ‘Oh yeah, I’m sure she would’ve been so proud.’ I was pretty young when [my grandmother] passed away, but her talent for replicating food just through flavors has always stuck to me.”

Bialek hopes to carry on her grandmother’s legacy through continuing her education in culinary school, and keeping her family’s foods alive.

“My mom doesn’t really have recipes, so she just cooks whatever she feels like at the moment,” Bialek said. “I’ve been trying, over the last five or six years, to cook with her more so that I’m able to keep recipes with me, just write down whatever she does just so that, when I get older, I’ll still have all of [her recipes] with me. It’s important to me that I can keep cooking the food that I ate growing up for my friends and family, even when I’m older.”

Senior Vi Lee, one of a handful of friends who have tasted and cooked food with Bialek, said that cooking is not only a form of cultural expression for Bialek, it’s also a way to destress.

“For her, just like with any other art, it’s something that is very fun and brings joy,” Lee said. “Food in general for most cultures—and specifically Asian culture—is huge. And I could imagine that making it yourself kind of brings that even farther.”

According to both Bialek and Lee, in Asian cultures food is a common way to connect. However, it’s not often respected as a profession.

“I’d say some people see going into culinary arts as kind of like a riskier thing,” Lee said. “I have a lot of friends who are going into creative fields and one of my friends gets a lot of, ‘Oh, what’s your backup plan for theater?’ So I would imagine a lot of the same applies [for Martha]. But that’s still a totally valid, good career path, especially if it’s something you’re passionate about.”

Both Lee and Dean of Student Support Systems Brian Poon said that Bialek is passionate.

“I had [Bialek] in my Asian American Studies class, fall semester this year. We connected very early on just about how food related to our identity and how that was an important part of her’s,” Poon said. “She’s pursuing her passion, which happens to intersect with her identity, and I think there’s real grace in that.”

Bialek also influences the cuisine served at the Tappan Green Restaurant, helping plan and change policies surrounding the menu offered.

“In sophomore year, I got asked by my cooking teacher to come in on extra days to help plan what the restaurant would be like in the future,” Bialek said. “So, for the past three years, I’ve been helping organize different events, like the Lunar New Year menu takeover. I helped plan the recipes both this and last year.”

Bialek has also helped prepare a more diverse set of recipes during Black History Month, as well as preserve authenticity with the recipes Tappan Green Restaurant does include. During the 2021-22 school year, most recipes chosen for special menus were selected by the restaurant’s head chef. Bialek said this raised a concern to her about how representative the restaurant was being.

“This year I thought it was really important to get recipes from the groups of people that we were trying to show the food from,” Bialek said. “So, when we did the special recipes for Black History Month, we went and asked people in Scholars and the BSU to bring forward family recipes.”

According to Bialek, it’s important for her to not just mindlessly “copy and paste,” but rather thoughtfully curate accurate representations of culture.

“It’s not just Google searching [recipes], it’s what food would actually showcase the culture,” Bialek said. “It’s really important that, when we do our special cooking weeks, we’re not just cooking the food, but we’re actually respecting the way people have cooked the food.”