My first culinary endeavor, Streatery, became known throughout the Bay Area for serving what I called Glorious Peasant Food.
The notion of “Peasant Food” conjures up so many different dishes for so many people. That’s because peasants exist across all cultures and generations. I believe creating peasant food is not just cooking a type of dish, but following a way of life. Subsisting with limited resources, to me, necessitates the ultimate spirit of creativity. By my definition, my father was a true modern day peasant; not because we were refugees or that one of his first jobs was as a strawberry picker in the fields of California, but because he was a genius at making a little go a long way.
Like any immigrant family, mine was faced with the hardship of limited resources. My parents worked long hours to make ends meet. They had little time to cook family meals but refused to buy pre-made foods or dine out, simply because they believed that home-cooked meals were the most economical way to feed our family and extended family. Without time to both work and prepare meals, my parents enlisted me as the family cook at age 12, with my father as my teacher.
And what a tough teacher he was! His method was structured and strict with a low-waste policy, scarcity and efficiency were lessons taught in every meal. He believed in making things from scratch—a more economical approach than the mass-produced fare of the modern era. Most importantly, his adaptive style taught me to be mindful of seasonal provisions and to use creativity to make do with what’s available at hand. Wasting food was taboo in our household, and preparing meals within these parameters forced this frugal cook to create inventive dishes from leftovers and scraps, always taking advantage of the bounty of the season.
We often had ongoing debates about the true cost of making things from scratch. In my first years in the kitchen, I implored my father to buy ready-made products—pre-formed hamburger patties for large family barbeques come to mind—in order to minimize labor. Pre-formed hamburger patties were “so perfectly round and so, well … easy!” I would argue. “Then use your brains to find an easy way to form your perfectly round patties,” he would challenge. I could never resist his challenges and before long, I found myself slapping out dozens on dozens of patties from a jar lid lined with plastic wrap. I secretly loved it when guests arrived, watching me, my father’s young cook, fastidiously throwing down patty after patty like a pro.
What I loved even more was seeing guests bite into the hamburgers that I had made from scratch. Sure, they were just hamburger patties—a small culinary feat—but these experiences taught me an important lesson in developing efficient methods in order to maintain the value and integrity of a meal made from scratch, by hand. Made-from-scratch food is a genuine labor of love, and artisans, crafters, and cooks alike struggle with this when trying to place a monetary value on their work.
At the time, I saw little value in my father’s classroom. As a teen, I had more on my mind than coming up with five different ways to prepare greens. Though my father was systematic in his cooking lessons, he also had an artistic side and was passionate not just about cooking for sustenance, but crafting great food from instinct and ingenuity. We didn’t own a single cookbook. No measuring cup or device was ever used for its intended purpose. Instead we would use them as ladles, divvying up homemade broth for his creamy chicken and rice porridge, or his luscious, falling-off-the-bone braised oxtail and leeks. The dishes my father created taught me that the real art of cooking lies in the ability to make the simplest, most humble ingredients wonderful.
Fortunately, many of us never face the same adversity or economic hardship my parents experienced as immigrants. But we can all learn from living like a peasant. To this day, I don’t have my father’s recipes documented, but I do have a lesson I always carry with me: the core of a dish is not just in the ingredients or gadgets; it’s the skills, resourcefulness, and above all, the inventiveness of the cook that helps create food not only to nourish, but to please, regardless of wealth.
In everything that I create, this passion for made-from-scratch cooking, a knack for creating inventive dishes, and a refusal to associate deliciousness with wealth shines through. It’s with these ideals held strong that I am able to create food that’s nourishing, hearty, delicious, inventive, and above all, a labor of love.