From stay-at-home mom to Yamashiro’s first female executive chef
UP until four years ago, Vallerie Castillo Archer was a stay-at-home mom of three, but had a burning desire to do something food-related.
Following her formal culinary education, Archer landed her first job in 2019 in the industry at Yamashiro, the historic Hollywood Hills landmark that serves sushi and Asian-inspired dishes and boasts a stunning view of the Los Angeles skyline.
Starting out as pastry chef, Archer ascended to executive chef in less than a year, helping steer the restaurant during the pandemic.
“I was about to give up on a career. When you’re a stay-at-home mom, you might not consider having one. When this opportunity came up, I knew it would be long hours but I told myself, ‘You always wanted to do this. Don’t give up. Do it for yourself,’” Archer told Asian Journal in a recent interview.
After all, cooking and baking are part of her lineage with her grandfather owning a bakery back in San Nicolas in the province of Ilocos Norte, Philippines. It’s the same bakery where Archer’s story begins — literally, as she was born inside.
“It was a hometown bakery with pandesal and cakes,” she said. “All my mom told me was that I was born at 3 o’clock and the bakery was really busy. It was like my home as a child.”
Archer spent her early childhood years at the bakery, observing the dynamic of running a business. She and her sister were raised by her grandparents, who later closed the bakery, while her parents immigrated to the United States.
At the age of six, she joined her parents in Hawaii, where her father was stationed in the Air Force and was later reunited with her grandparents when they were petitioned to the country as well.
As an adult, Archer trained to be a nurse, but did not pursue a career in the field.
While raising a family of two sons and daughter, she recalls the joy she felt when she would cook and host parties at home — presenting dishes as if they were made by a professional catering company.
Baking was also a way for her to connect with her then-teenage daughter who was bullied in high school and had a history of depression.
“What really got me into culinary and pastries was that whenever my daughter would get depressed, those French macarons would cheer her up, but they’d of course add up. I knew how to bake so I went on YouTube to try to learn, but I was like, ‘Screw this. I’m going to go to culinary school,’” Archer said.
She received a certification in culinary arts and pastry from the Academy of Culinary Education, which is led by fellow Filipina chef and educator Cecilia De Castro.
Archer then started her own catering company and would donate her services to charities and her children’s school. A friend later told her that Yamashiro needed a pastry chef.
She did a tasting for the restaurant during her interview and was hired right away as the executive pastry chef in September 2019.
Coming to Yamashiro, in cliché terms, was a “full-circle” moment for Archer as the restaurant was where she and her now-husband went for dessert — ordering the entire sweets menu — during their first date 20 years ago.
“Now, I’m here as a chef. It hasn’t been an easy ride, but it doesn’t feel like work. Every day, I have the same excitement as I did when I first came here,” Archer said.
Those who dine at Yamashiro can attest to the restaurant being associated with memories or special occasions. That feeling was what the Pinay chef attempted to create with her dessert menu, which features items like a yuzu panna cotta (an ube version was on rotation, too).
“I want to make sure that every time my dessert touches the table, the guests are blown away,” she said. “I wanted that experience to last. For me, it’s about capturing that first impression.”
Transitioning from her own catering business to working with an entire kitchen staff was a learning curve, she admits. Another layer was being the only female chef in the kitchen.
“In reality, there aren’t a lot of women in our industry, let alone female executive chefs,” Archer said. “Coming in and working with an executive chef and four other chefs who were all male was a challenge. I started questioning myself about whether I was able to handle the pressure or long hours.”
Shifting during a pandemic
By March 2020, Archer marked her six months at Yamashiro and was promoted to executive sous chef, wherein she not only took care of the dessert menu, but was now helping out with the savory dishes.
When COVID-19 hit the city and the restaurant industry was faced with dining restrictions, the chef had anticipated that she would be one of the first to be let go.
“Here I was, just starting my career and then the industry was being devastated,” she said.
To Archer’s surprise, however, she was kept on staff and was tasked with revamping the menu to adjust to take-out and delivery options. She was also named executive chef, becoming the first woman in the role.
“It’s an honor to be the first female executive chef and to be a Filipina and Asian executive chef. To be an immigrant coming here and leading is surreal,” she said.
Partnering with Heal Los Angeles, Yamashiro donated a meal to a health care worker at a neighboring hospital with every bento box purchase.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, Archer recounted that one to two orders were placed on average, with no orders coming in on some nights.
“It’s a fine dining restaurant that you can’t box up and have the same experience. Everyone comes here to see the view and scenery and learn about the history of the restaurant,” she said. “But we didn’t want to fall into the category of other restaurants who couldn’t make it and had to shut down. We kept orders going to support our employees and keep our name out there.”
By late spring and early summer, take-out orders picked up steam and the restaurant later converted its driveway into an outdoor dining area, allowing for more guests to come back in person for dinner service.
A year into the pandemic, and with eased dining restrictions, the crowd at Yamashiro is back and bustling with around 400 to 500 covers a night, sometimes even more on weekends. Despite the busyness, Archer makes it a point to get out of the kitchen and visit tables throughout the evening.
Archer pays tribute to her grandfather’s barbecue recipe with the soy ginger pork rib dish. In addition to the sushi, other popular orders have been the Tomahawk steak (a 36-oz Wagyu steak served with a lobster tail and broccolini) and the Samurai burger (which also uses Wagyu beef with miso sauce, cucumber, fried onion rings and cheese served with furikake fries).
Apart from the regular menu, Archer also hosts private dinners, usually for celebrities or seasonal occasions, which allows her to continually experiment and test out new dishes.
And being in Hollywood, entertaining high-profile clients is the norm. Some personalities she’s cooked for include Nick Cannon, Cardi B, Danny Green, who was previously with the Lakers, and most recently, Miss Universe Philippines Rabiya Mateo.
“Yamashiro has given me the freedom to create a menu the way I want to. I think the reason why I enjoy coming here is because I’m not tied down,” she said. “I’m trusted with curating a special menu for these clients so I can show how creative I am. It takes me back to how I cook with my family and seeing how they react to these new dishes.”
As for what’s next for Archer, she’s in it for the long haul.
“I want to be remembered as someone who is approachable. I’m not this famous chef that you can’t say ‘hi’ to. Like I said, every day is like my first day of work. I don’t think I’ll ever stop cooking,” she said.