Jack Waller

My mom has a photo of me dressed in a red shirt and a little white chef’s hat. I am standing on a stepstool rolling dough. It didn’t occur to me at that time the role that food would have in shaping my life. In elementary school, I began my cooking journey by making tuna melts. Any time my mom was in the kitchen, I would stand right behind her watching every move she made. I am lucky that mom is an excellent cook -- she can follow the recipes in cookbooks, but she also adds her own touch to make the recipe better. As I got older, I slowly started helping in the kitchen by chopping onions or measuring ingredients before eventually being able to complete a full dish all on my own. I had shown enough interest in cooking that my mom signed me up for a cooking class in Pasadena. I thought that it would be set up so that everyone would watch the instructor and then each participant would try to duplicate the task on their own. But that is not how it was at all. We were divided into groups of 3 or 4 people and we given one dish to create as a team. The members of my team worked together and we all added our own little touches to the dish. For example, the recipe might say to add salt and a team member might choose to add Himalayan salt. From this experience, I learned that the people in the class had more of an impact on the outcome of the dish than the actual ingredients. Each member brought his or her own personality and culture to the dish.

Another experience that shaped my appreciation for cooking was travelling. When I was five years old, I took my first solo flight from LA to Portland. My mom met me at the airport and we immediately went to Papa Haydn for a good old bowl of mac and cheese. Portland is a Mecca for food -- it has a very hip culture and you can taste that in the food. For example, there is a great restaurant called Pine Street Biscuit right in the center of the Arts District. Each morning, they make their biscuits fresh following their philosophy of no measuring -- for them making biscuits is an art. No two biscuits there are ever the same, and that’s what makes it special. All that matters is that the biscuit goes into the oven, it rises up, and you can stick a piece of chicken into it. Watching these bakers reinforced the idea that making food is not about measuring out how much flour goes into that biscuit, but rather it is the heart and soul that the baker puts into it.  It is about putting your own spin on the food.

The summer of my freshmen year I took a trip to Europe.  My mom was looking forward to all of the amazing cities we were going to see. All I was thinking about was the food, I have always heard it was amazing and was eager to try it. I traveled to Italy and was worried about the language barrier because I was planning to take a cooking class in Florence. I learned that the language you speak doesn’t matter. Cooking has a language all its own. When I arrived at my class I was greeted by an older Italian woman who didn’t speak a word of English. I wondered how the food would turn out and whether the day would be boring since none of us would be able to interact with each other. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The food brought us together in a way I could never have imagined. The artistry of the kitchen came out--it didn’t matter that we came from different backgrounds and cultures and that we didn’t speak the same language. We all spoke the language of cooking. Throughout the rest of my trip as I continued to travel to France, Ireland and England, I could feel how special food was to the people culturally and socially. Americans tend to interact in small groups over a home cooked meal, but in Europe it is much more common to see everyone coming together at restaurants. There are more communal tables where people share food and conversation.

One of the ways I brought some of these experiences home was when I began meat smoking with some of my friends. Part of this process is very scientific, and that feels to me more like American cooking. I brought some of the European attitude home with me and introduced it to my meat smoking buddies. We have made this a very social experience open to new ideas. We have traveled throughout Los Angeles hunting for great restaurants and butcheries. Whether you are a great cook or not, everyone can find something to contribute to the cooking process -- even if it means you are just standing in the kitchen and keeping the cooks company. As I begin my next chapter in college, I won’t be afraid to meet new people and share my love of cooking. My passion for cooking will always help me connect with others around the world using the universal language of food.