Staff Spotlight: The Unstoppable Diana Yu
When then-district manager Michael Aquaro (now regional manager) first hired Diana Yu to be the chef/manager at a small corporate account in Georgia in 2011, he immediately knew she was a keeper. “You can count on her to get things done,” says Michael. “She wants to learn and grow, and she does a great job at whatever she takes on. I wish I had 50 more of her.”
Born in Korea to Taiwanese parents, Diana moved to the United States when she was 11. She grew up in the restaurant business: in Korea her father ran a bakery and her mother ran a restaurant; they opened a Chinese restaurant in Indiana. After graduating from high school, she decided she wanted to learn more about Western-style cooking, including the French foundation, so she attended Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts in Chicago.
The transition between cuisines was a little rough. “My first culinary job, at a Greek restaurant during culinary school — the whole staff walked out because the chef had hired an Asian female. In Chicago they just weren’t that open back then,” recalls Diana. “I also knew nothing about Western cooking. The chef sent me to the walk-in to get rosemary, and I had no idea what it was, so I grabbed some of every herb!”
After culinary school, Diana apprenticed at Bittersweet Bakery in Chicago, and decided to go back to Taiwan to learn about Chinese-style baking. (She wanted to work in the hotel business, but Taiwan did not allow women to do so then.) Working at a Taiwanese bakery for four months, “I met some great people and made a lot of mooncakes,” she laughs.
An executive chef job at Pacific Rim Bistro in downtown Atlanta and some pastry chef work followed — and then Bon Appétit. After the corporate account, Michael sent her to Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus as a sous chef and assistant baker. Then when Bon Appétit opened Emory University in 2015, she moved there.
“I do NOT take no for an answer. I am stubborn. I thought, ‘I am going to be a chef by age 30, you just watch.’ And I was.”
She’s now executive sous chef, and Resident District Manager Kellie Piper has put Diana in charge of setting up order guides and other tasks designed to streamline purchasing. “To me, it’s a fun challenge to hit our numbers every week,” says Diana. “Setting up systems, that’s one of my strengths, and training people on them. I also like talking to the farmers. Our lettuce guy has been with me since SCAD. I love his product, and we’ve worked out a standing order that helps him anticipate how much and when we’ll need it.”
Diana now manages around 80 people. She admits that it was a challenge at first. “She’s really grown into her role as a manager and a mentor,” says Kellie. “She has a team under her now who really want to learn to cook; they respect her and her skill.”
Her kitchen skills are a little different than everyone else’s because Diana only has one working hand. A difficult birth resulted in the loss of all the nerves in her left arm below the elbow. While she can move her left hand, she has no feeling in it. But she grew up believing that she could do anything she wanted to, thanks to her parents: “My mom never said you can’t do this: ‘No, you tie your own shoes. Go chop this.’ They never treated me like I was disabled, they pushed me out there.”
“Don’t let anybody or anything stop you. Just do your thing. Get in there and just work your best.”
Which is why Diana was stunned when her favorite professor in culinary school told her she should drop out because she would never be able to keep up. Her response? “I do NOT take no for an answer. I am stubborn. I thought, ‘I am going to be a chef by age 30, you just watch.’ And I was.” Not long ago she went back to Kendall to teach a class, “and I was like, ‘Here I am!’ Ha.”
Diana says the only thing she can’t do in the kitchen is stretch pizza dough — she has to use a rolling pin. “But she can work a wok station like nobody’s business,” confirms Kellie.
If there’s one thing Diana has learned in life, which she tries to pass on to her staff, it’s this: “Don’t let anybody or anything stop you,” she says. “Just do your thing. Get in there and just work your best.”