Q&A: Chef Hal Jasa on Food and Culture
In celebration of our Iowa State Fair food contest, the Great Iowan Recipe, we spoke with Hal Jasa, sous-chef at Proof in Des Moines. Hal shares with us all of the happy memories of cooking traditional dishes with his family, growing up around food and the importance of passing down culinary traditions to stay connected with his culture.
How do you get your kids interested in the kitchen with you?
Reverse psychology. Sitting and eating something and just enjoying, a bit exaggerated in the moment, until they ask about it. I will just say "Oh you don't want this, you will not like it." I will continue this for a bit until they really want it. Most of the time this works. Also just going to the store and getting excited about what we are making, having them help choose ingredients and be involved with the process. When we get home I will ask how much of this or that we should add while pointing out how well they did choosing ingredients and how amazing [the food] will be because of their help. The whole time, tasting each thing as we go. The smiles in these moments are priceless.
What kind of stories do you share about the recipes?
I always have spoken to my little ones like adults, so the story may have hints of historic attributes on how a dish came to be. Other times I will turn into a child myself and start talking about the foods I love and the love they were made with by my parents or grandparents. A good one is my grandmother's Jello mold. Strawberry Jello, crushed pineapple and sour cream layered together. Nothing special to most, but it is a core memory for the entire family. She would make one whole one just for my brother as it was his favorite! It is still made for every major event and it simply just brings joy. Another was her pickles. I still have an unopened jar she had made before she passed away. That was almost 20 years ago. She grew everything herself and we would help pick the cucumbers for this. She was everything when it came to food. She never said no, no matter the time of day or how old I was.
Do you have a favorite memory about cooking with your parents or grandparents?
Baking Christmas cookies with my mother. I still demand them every year and we always make hundreds, all frosted with the richest, thickest butter frosting. My mother would have us help her choose all the shapes from her vintage collection of cookie cutters, and while they were baking we would steal little tastes of the frosting. When the cookies were done and still warm, she would make us one covered in frosting to eat before we finished frosting the rest. I remember having a really rough time when I was younger and asked her to make them [in the] dead of summer. She took the day off work and we sat and baked all day. It brings tears to my eyes thinking of that moment and that love she shared with such a simple gesture. Even today when we make them I will look over at her and always have a couple tears because of that moment as each time we do it together that same feeling of love is there. I have made these on my own, but only my mothers’ taste right, as it is her love in them that creates that memory and flavor.
What is your favorite family recipe?
I went to contemplate this, but there is only truly one above all else. It is my grandmother's pecan rolls. Our family is Czech, Finnish and Irish. My grandmother was 100% Finnish. Her recipe used kolache dough to make them rich in lard, yeast and just a hint of sugar. She would sometimes make the dough and put it in the back of her station wagon while running errands, and her kids would get out and punch the dough down during the fermentation stage. When she rolled them out, they would be dipped in butter, rolled in cinnamon and then tied in knots before being put into a pan covered in her caramel and pecans. When I was growing up and my dad went to visit her he would bring back enough for everyone. I think 90% of the time they never made it back. [It’s] still a running joke, as my mother would call up grandma and my dad would get in trouble. I can still see the smile of my father eating them.
In your opinion, what is the importance of keeping culinary traditions alive?
With time, we lose our culture first, language second and food is usually our last connection to our family and culture. Each time you cook these things your children hear the stories of family and the stories of these foods being served. The words are foreign, but being raised with them, they understand that connection to their past and where they come from.
What or who inspired you to have a culinary career?
My grandmother Jasa. Everything was homemade, we never even ate bread from the store when we were at her house. The freezer was always stocked with our favorite desserts and some would be packed up in uncle Ben’s tin rice containers to be sent home once we left. [There were] kolaches, pasties, perfect scrambled eggs and then there was her fried chicken. Always served with mashed potatoes with pan gravy and peas. My dad taught me the trick for the peas, as I did not like them: fold them into the mashed potatoes. Worked like a charm. [Grandmother Jasa’s] food and especially her chicken are stories of legend, and at one point my uncle jabbed my Dad's hand with a fork for the last piece.
Do you have a favorite traditional recipe to make with your kids?
We will make some of the aforementioned recipes here and there, but my little one reminded me of her favorite one we do. Pizza night! I make up a simple dough and pre-cook pizza crusts. Then I will cook up sausage, hamburger, peppers, onions and every ingredient you can think of, as well as three to four sauces. Everyone makes their own pizza, and we’ll do this all night, making more here and there. I found that my little one loves this because they have the chance to make exactly what they want. Just like I mentioned above, that excitement of being involved helps them love food and the act of cooking themselves, and I have to say, some of the things they have created have even surprised me so much that I have used their combinations later. Of course I let them know [when] their idea is on the menu. All smiles in those moments.