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)