When I was thirteen years old, I took over the task of cooking Christmas dinner for my family, and I have been in charge ever since. Not only do I enjoy preparing the meal itself, but I think the best part about Christmas dinner is the people you spend it with. Christmas dinner is probably my favorite meal to make because of all the different parts, each being its own masterpiece: The turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, the roasted vegetables. There was also the Christmas Pudding, which until recently, I did not know was strictly a British thing that other cultures did not know about. I love deciding which dishes to make, adapting them to be healthy, and shopping for all the ingredients.
For many years before snowboarding became my life, and before I wanted to go to the mountains every day in the winter, my parents, brother, and I would fly to England to stay at my grandma’s house a few weeks around Christmas. She liked to watch British soap operas, and I would sometimes join in and watch an episode or two. Around the holidays, every episode of every show was the same: people screaming at each other while cooking Christmas dinner, stressed to the point of tears. To me, instead of feeling pressure while trying to get every dish together on time and at top quality, I feel freedom; freedom to do my own thing and to tackle the challenge.
2012 was the first Christmas that my family did not spend back in England, since we had planned a trip to the mountains instead to ski with the Peters, another family who often went on ski trips with us. We rented a cabin in Kirkwood, a ski resort in California south of Lake Tahoe and usually only three and a half hours away from our house. However, that time it took us over twelve because of the conditions. I remember driving up there two days before Christmas, with ski equipment, four people, a dog, and twelve days worth of food packed in our car since there were no grocery stores in this remote location. It was complete snowmageddon. Between December 23rd and 25th that year, it probably snowed about eight feet. This made for one of the best days of my life that I can remember. Not only was the pow-riding so good that Christmas day, but we had a wonderful evening with amazing people and delicious food.
Before going out and shredding powder that day, I put the turkey in the oven on timer so that it would be cooked by the evening. It was a tiny, old kitchen that I was not familiar with, but it was all I needed. I had prepared a few of the dishes before hand such as the liver and sausage stuffing that was my own adaptation of my grandma’s recipe. I figured I could pull of a full day of snowboarding and still have Christmas dinner on the table by six. Challenge accepted.
I came in at four when the lifts closed and started my Christmas dinner adventure. That’s how I see cooking big meals like this — as a journey that I am excited to embark on. I chopped the vegetables for roasting — carrots, sweet potato, butternut squash, parsnips, beets, and brussel sprouts still on their branch. I put the stuffing in the oven to warm up. I checked on the turkey I had put in earlier. It was difficult because this kitchen was not designed to create banquets. I’m very strict on serving food piping hot, and that can be difficult when there are so many dishes and so little oven and stove space. Somehow, with magic perhaps, it was all ready at the same time and served hot.
It sounds like I’m doing all the work, but Christmas dinner is always a family effort. My mom would help me chop and wash vegetables, and would help me clean up as I cooked. My dad would entertain the guests while the chef was busy. Everyone pitched in to laying the table. We would put out knives and forks, nice, square, paper napkins, and Christmas crackers, yet another thing that I thought everyone knew about besides the pudding that was actually just a British thing. Christmas crackers are like a cardboard tube that you have to pull open with another person, and they make a loud “bang”, like a party popper. They look like a big piece of candy, and are usually the size of a water bottle. Inside are a collection of small gifts, usually including a corny joke written on a piece of paper and colorful, paper hats. What comes to my mind thinking back to Christmases in the past is a rainbow of those hats all around the table, and everyone telling bad jokes.
After starting to cook the meal, we found out that four more people would be joining us, so I was cooking for twelve. They were friends of the family that was originally planning on joining us, and they had no plans for Christmas evening. We invited them in because that is what the holidays are about — opening your doors to people and spending time with family and friends. And besides, who cooks “just enough food” on Christmas day? I sure didn’t.
What else was memorable about this evening was the sharing of cultures from around the world. The dessert I made was the aforementioned Christmas pudding. The Christmas pudding is like a fruitcake that I made from scratch out of dried fruit, carrots, coconut, eggs, cinnamon, and walnuts. What you then do is douse it in rum and light it on fire. The fire burns up all the alcohol and caramelizes the outside of the cake before extinguishing itself. Here we were, in America with a Taiwanese family, watching the beautiful blue flames swirl around the traditional British Christmas pudding. After a full day of the twelve of us skiing together in some of the best conditions I’ve experienced, it was truly magical.
Interesting things happen when you leave a bunch of kids alone in the kitchen. One of the first times I remember cooking for my parents and friend’s parents was when we were on vacation in Mexico. It was me, my younger brother, my friend who was also my age – about 11 or 12 – and his younger sister. We decided we would make pancakes. Not just regular pancakes, but a Chinese recipe for green onion pancakes, where you put green onions into a dough and roll it up like a spiral before flattening it out into a pancake and then pan-frying it.
Well Anyway, I just remember one of us dropping a piece of dough on the stove and lighting a small fire. It was a very small fire, no bigger than a candle flame really, but it was still that familiar, flickering orange of doom that no beginner chef wants to see. Now the four of us were freaking out. The parents were all downstairs, waiting for a nice meal. Here we were, a bunch of 9 and 11-year-olds in a house that was not even our own, on a fancy, new stove, in a foreign country, the parents with our full trust that we would cook a nice meal. What if we burned down the kitchen? What if we burned down the whole resort? What if we burned down Mexico? The fire kept extinguishing itself, but then re-igniting again just as fast.
Many people who claim they suck at cooking often follow up with a remark like “I once burned water”, or “I lit the macaroni on fire”, or “I can’t even pour cereal into a bowl”. If people were rated on how good of a chef they were based on how many times they failed – how many fires they lit – how many times they’ve undercooked meat – how many unintentionally grey-mush-looking-dishes they’ve served – I would be a miserable statistic. That list, by the way, was inspired by things I myself have done. (Water is easy to burn, OK? What other food magically evaporates like that?)
So what makes a great chef? I believe the greatness of a chef is determined by the opinions of the people who eat his or her food. I have served up Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners to my extended family and friends, and they would rave about my creations. I cooked dinner for my family almost every day in High School just because it was something I enjoy doing. I would make grand meals on weekday nights, such as slow cooked lamb shank or stuffed portabellos. Judging by the fact that they continued to let me cook every day, I’m guessing they liked it. When my family has guests over, I become the one in charge of the food.
When I was sixteen, I decided to extend my cooking beyond family and friends and start earning some extra money. I also had a passion for health, and wanted to demonstrate through the art of cooking that healthy food could taste great and not break the bank. Instead of marketing “Health food”, my slogan was “Great food that just so happens to be healthy”. I was grateful some of my parents’ friends and co-workers were willing to trust me. Turns out, I got great feedback. I have made sushi for the Japanese, curry for the Indian, and clam chowder for the New-Englander. They all loved it. I didn’t declare myself as a “gourmet chef”, my customers did. I even had one of my own recipes published in a cookbook called Futurechefs, featuring chefs under eighteen years old.
Cooking is like a fun puzzle to me. How can I use up everything? How can I get every plate of this Thanksgiving spread on the table hot at the same time with only a small oven, 4 stoves, and no hot plate? How can I shop more efficiently? How can I adapt this clam chowder recipe to be healthy? How can I make a great dinner with only half an hour to spare? How do I hide the melted handle on my parents’ favorite knife?
So anyway, back to Mexico. In the end, we did not burn down the hotel, and the fire did not get any bigger. After it finally went out, we resumed cooking and completed our mission of making those pancakes. We look back on it as a funny moment, one we’ll remember years to come. Since that early stage of my cooking life, I have flubbed many more times. I have made glass dishes explode, and served up a sub-par meal or two. I have learned that the more you cook and experiment with food, the more you’re going to mess up. It’s just basic math.
So go forth – experiment! Play with flavors and ingredients. Burn more water Try that cool thing you saw on Facebook or Pinterest. . I hope this attitude I have about cooking spills out into other areas of my life, because those who succeed must learn to fail first.
Update: Hanalei started working as a cook at a high-quality seafood restaurant in 2018. She still hasn't stopped learning and experimenting, and has only lit one large fire at work (no permanent damage though)