Cooking party photo gallery
How I learned to cook
Chris’s pasta recipe
Chris’s pasta recipe (text version)

By Chris Lee, 16, Walnut HS
Print This Post

Chris (center) posed with his friends (from left) Casey Yin, Annie Tung, Jessel Villegas, Alison Au, Liane Quon and Andy Liu before they enjoyed the steak, sautéed peppers and pasta they made themselves.
Photo by Eric Au (Alison's dad)

After finishing the grueling week of AP testing, my friend, Alison, asked if I would teach her how to cook as a celebration.

"Yeah sure, anytime," I replied, not taking her seriously.

Then she asked if I would teach four other friends how to cook, too. She called it a "cooking party." I gave her a HA!-you-gotta-be-joking look. Then she told me it would be tomorrow, after school. How was I supposed to teach people how to cook on such short notice? Cooking with five girls who I don’t normally hang out with wasn’t my idea of a party. It sounded like a night of awkwardness. But Alison claimed that I was an expert chef and that I had to come. So I dragged my friend Andy for support.

Somehow the word had leaked out to the underground network of Asian moms that I liked to cook—and was an expert. I should have expected this since I grew up with Alison, and our moms were good friends.

The next day at Alison’s house, I felt nervous. When we entered the kitchen to start cooking, the girls stared at me as if I knew the answer to an impossible question. Giggles erupted suddenly, setting the mood for the rest of the night. I had brought steaks, bell peppers and balsamic vinegar rather than plan a particular menu. Alison had broccoli in the fridge and pasta in the pantry, but black pepper, basil or spice rubs were nowhere to be found.

I assigned each person a task: Andy needed to get the pasta and sauce going; Alison prepped the broccoli; Annie and Jessel sliced the bell peppers; while Liane was busy taking pictures. Everyone worked around the kitchen island while I moved around helping my hesitant friends, by setting the proper pans and pots on the stove to preheat, and making sure the steaks were properly seasoned since they could easily be undercooked or worse, overcooked. I had no intention of making beef jerky. Knowing what perfectly cooked meat looks and feels like took me the longest time to master, and by no means was I letting novices attempt it.

The steaks were ready to cook and I put one into a pan to sear and noticed that the water in the pasta pot wasn’t boiling. I told Andy to watch the pot and salt it.

"How much salt do I put?" he asked.

"Add, until I say stop, and find some herbs for the sauce," I replied.

"Aren’t there herbs in there already?" asked Andy, giving me a perplexed look. Before I could answer, he sprinkled a pinch of salt into the pot.

I laughed, "Dude, you’re not the dust fairy. Add more salt."

The girls laughed, too.

Right after, Alison’s mom entered the kitchen and saved me some grief by pointing to a rosemary bush outside, which would have to do.

Chris didn't really become a full-fledged chef until he got his own herb garden.
Photo by Charlene Lee, 13, Walnut HS

The rosemary bush was covered with dust and cobwebs. I looked at Alison’s mom sympathetically and said that I should have brought some herbs from my herb garden. Surprised that I even had a garden, she wanted to know more about it. Fresh herbs are ridiculously expensive, so I decided to grow my own. Convincing my mom to get rid of her barren lemon tree and dead roses in a crusty corner in the backyard was not difficult. I started with oregano, which requires little maintenance and grows like weeds. Then I bought what sounded tasty—basil, tarragon, sage, chives, mint, chili plants, and a few tomato plants—from Home Depot. Ever since, the garden has accented my cooking.

My friends were clueless

I came back inside with some dirty, olive-colored rosemary and gave it to Liane to wash. I glanced over to the sink and saw that Alison had been dipping the whole broccoli head in and out of the water for the past five minutes. I had no idea what she was doing, so I approached her.

"Can we eat the stalk?" Alison asked.

Apparently, she had been waiting for me to show her how to slice the broccoli into edible bites. I joked about her "washing" method, and we laughed her embarrassment away. I found a paring knife and showed her how to remove the broccoli trees by cutting at the end of the little trees. I grabbed a vegetable peeler and ran it down parts of the stalk that looked tough and then handed the knife and peeler back to her.

I suddenly noticed the faint odor of vinegar and heard a sizzling sound, which meant I needed to flip the steak. Luckily it had caramelized perfectly to a leathery brown crust. At that moment, I realized that cooking in a group was harder than cooking by myself. I looked around and saw everyone lagging behind. Andy stood there like a block of wood; Alison held half the broccoli head; Liane decided to contribute by gazing at the broccoli head; Jessel and Annie had prepared only one of the eight bell peppers. They looked hopeless.

Cooking requires order, meaning the pan needs to preheat while you prep the meat, and while the meat is cooking, you start preparing other things because different foods require precise amounts of time and specific ways to cook. Remembering how difficult it was for me to cook things when I first began, I patiently showed Jessel and Annie how to prep the bell peppers: cut off the top stem, remove the seeds, slice down a side to lay the bell pepper flat, and slice it into strips.

However, I struggled to re-create the magic and ease of the Food Network cooking shows during the party. The bell peppers were diced into green, yellow, and red confetti instead of sliced into thin strips as I told them. The pasta still needed draining and the pot of tomato sauce bubbled over. Alison’s dad came home from work, took a sniff, and told us that we better make something good because he was getting hungry.

Surveying the pots and pans of food, he asked how I became an expert chef. I laughed. I told him that watching chefs on the Food Network had helped me the most: caramelizing onions by sautéing them in low heat, searing a swordfish steak in a hot pan or slowly braising lamb chops with velvety wine. By watching chefs use these strange cooking methods, I understood when, how and why to use them. Cooking can’t be learned solely through recipe books; instead, cooking must be seen and then, afterwards, done. The Food Network website had helpful video clips. I wished they had a video on teaching hopeless friends how to cook.

Two hours later, we finished cooking and had prepared balsamic glazed steaks (seared in a pan and finished in the oven to retain the juices), angel hair pasta in a marinara sauce with a delicate aroma of rosemary and sautéed bell peppers, and broccoli in garlic. At a white tablecloth restaurant, they could easily charge $16 per plate. Other than a fancy name and intricate plating, we did just as well—even Alison’s dad was impressed. The cluttered kitchen yearned for cleaning, but clean-up did not give us a headache since we all helped, unlike at home where my sister does the dishes after I cook.

Other stories by this author:

A cool medical job. Chris interviewed a junior pathologist’s assistant. (Nov. – Dec. 2006)

Dowloading dilemma. Chris says that music companies need to embrace digital music. (May – June 2006)