I’ve been cooking my whole life. There are early pictures of me asleep in the kitchen, playing with pots and pans. I was always collecting cookbooks, helping my Grandma cook, watching her prepare Lebanese meals, gardening with Grandpa. I even had a miniature toy “restaurant” stand where I would take orders from my parents as they watched the nightly news.
Growing up, I ate everything from raw lamb meat (nayeh) to brown beans and cornbread. My parents were well traveled, so my brother and I were introduced to different cultures and foods from the get-go. My mother raised us to be super healthy eaters, but grocery store Chinese was a staple too. They raised us to like everything, so the brushstroke of influence was quite broad.
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I loved cooking without realizing I was passionate about it. You could say I was just drawn to it. It never really hit me that this interest was so ingrained until much later in life.
I’ve always worked in restaurants. One day, while working as the hostess, the pastry chef called in sick and the executive chef showed me the basics of what needed to be done. It was so cool to be in the back of the kitchen, working alongside these hardworking chefs.
Another time, a friend passing through Lawrence stayed with me and said “I’ve always thought that you’d have your own cooking school one day.” It was like the career aspect was slowly starting to reveal itself to me.
Once I was in NYC and toured the French Culinary Institute, everything fell into place and I thought, I was meant for this. I love the brigade atmosphere, the creativity, the teamwork. Even to this day if I’m doing something mundane, I have to remind myself how lucky I am that something as little as peeling carrots is part of my job. I love it.
As an executive chef, you have to strike a delicate balance between leader and teammate, creative and cooking, administrative and simple knife-work. I call it the spinning plate trick. It’s all consuming all of the time, and I’m perfectly happy to “work” in my off time.
My go to meal at home is soba noodle salad. I don’t eat a lot of meat and soba noodles are high in protein. I can use whatever green veggies I have on hand, I also like that it’s a room temperature or chilled dish. Nothing like cooking away in a hot kitchen and then trying to eat something hot, that never appealed to me. The dish is simple, clean, with a few amazing ingredients, and can be as easy or complicated as I want, which is basically my whole approach to cooking.
Soba Noodle Salad
A.K.A. my go-to. Enjoy late at night with bad TV.
2 wrapped bundles soba noodles
1 package snap peas
½ cup frozen edamame, shelled
1 head of broccoli, cut into florets
Ponzu sauce, to taste
Chiu chow chili oil, to taste (available in Asian groceries)
Dry roasted peanuts
Bring a pot of water to boil. Cut the vegetables to your liking.
Add the soba noodles to the boiling water and simmer for 5-8 minutes. Halfway through simmer, add the broccoli and edamame. When both are bright green and the water starts to boil again, remove from heat, strain, and rinse under cold water.
In a bowl, add your snap peas, scallions, ponzu and chiu chow. Top with dry peanuts.
Brown Beans & Cornbread
1 pound bag pinto beans
2 onions, finely chopped
1 cup roasted garlic
2 carrots, finely chopped
Celery, finely chopped
½ pound bacon
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon thyme
Medley of dried peppers, I use arbol, pasilla, & ancho
Brown bacon and remove from pan, leaving grease. Sauté the mirepoix (onion, carrot, celery) in the grease for 5 minutes. Add all the ingredients to a slow cooker. Cover and cook for 4-6 hours.
Grandpa’s way of eating it was putting the cornbread in a glass of milk and eating the beans and cornbread “milk” side by side. With a raw jalapeño.
2 cups cornmeal
2 cups flour
1½ cups buttermilk
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup butter, melted
1 teaspoon baking soda
Butter a baking dish (or a cornbread pan if you have one). Combine all ingredients and whisk until all lumps are gone. Pour batter in pan and bake for 30-45 minutes at 375 degrees until done.
Slow Cooker Chicken
I like to make this at the start of the week so I have it on hand. My favorite way to eat it is with sautéd collard greens and fettuccine.
1 whole chicken, broken down
3 carrots, cut in large pieces
5 celery stalks, cut in large pieces
2 yellow onions, large dice
1 bay leaf
1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Brown the chicken pieces (include the back) in a large pan. Once browned, remove pieces and place in a slow cooker. Add vegetables to the chicken fat remaining in the pan, sauté for 3-5 minutes. Add vegetables to the cooker along with the bay and thyme. Cover with water. Cook on low for 4-6 hours. Strain when cool, reserve stock, pick meat. I use the stock in everything else I cook throughout the week.
After graduating from the University of Kansas and the Universidad de Seville with degrees in Spanish and journalism, Ayesh worked in public relations in New York, but her love for food prevailed and she enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). In New York, she worked as an executive sous chef and competed on Food Network’s Chopped. She later moved to Chicago where she consulted as an executive chef on multimillion-dollar projects and was named to the Top 12 Tastemakers in Chicago. Ayesh returned to Kansas City to be the executive chef of The Oliver and was recently named the executive chef at Café Sebastienne inside the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art.