BY EMELL DERRA ADOLPHUS
Jared Peña on learning to throw the cookbook out the window
Jared Peña likes to cook from cultural experience. He’s traveled to more than 50 countries, including India, Peru, Thailand, Burma, Morocco – most recently Russia, where he fell in love with “anything with caviar.” And he follows a simple philosophy when it comes to expanding his palette for different foods: Ditch the cookbook. Get to the country.
“That’s where all this cooking comes from, my past travel,” says Peña, 30, who regularly feeds his social media followers with snapshots from his food adventures abroad and at home in Detroit. “I think you take back a bit from each place.”
Peña comes from a longstanding generation of cultured men. His Mexican-American father lived what Peña calls a “semi-nomadic” lifestyle, following the harvest and traveling around the U.S. in between migrant camps. His grandfather was a cowboy (vaquero), a “very old school one at that” he says, and would travel with groups of men across the country to work on ranches.
“In the vaquero lifestyle it isn’t uncommon for the men to stay at a ranch for months on end, away from their families, doing all their own cooking,” he says of the tradition. “So, the men were heavily involved in cooking on that side of the family and watching them care deeply about it and how food was handled really fascinated (me).”
Learning the value of knowing how to prepare a good meal from his father, Peña worked in kitchens from ages 16 to 25, but felt cooking was too personal for him to do it professionally.
“Truthfully, cooking (in a restaurant) is physically draining and not that rewarding,” he says. “The hours are horrendous and the pay is usually pitiful. When I was in college, I watched a lot of my friends really go all in on culinary school and cooking jobs. Watching them fail and have massive debt from some of those for-profit schools was really a deterrent for me.”
Peña chose to go into finance over food — he works as an FHA underwriter at Quicken Loans — and he says it was the best decision because it means only cooking for the people he loves.
“Food for me is all about sharing it with others and creating a moment or experience,” he says. “Other than a few events I’ve done, I really don’t care to cook for people I don’t know or have a connection with. For me, it’s a labor of love that is an added perk for my relationships.”
Follow him on Instagram at @JaredTPena
Peña’s Recipe: Camarones y Quinoa al Ajillo + Salsa Criolla con tomates
1 lb. Shrimp -important this is unpeeled and raw a count between 18-25 per lb. is the ideal size
2 cups Quinoa
2 Red Onions
6 cloves Garlic
1 bunch Cilantro
1/2 tsp cumin
Agave nectar or sugar
Thai Fish sauce (optional)
Visit PrideSource.com for the complete recipe instructions.
Kevin Sharp on growing great food
From his childhood spent grazing U-pick farms, baking bread from scratch and snapping beans in front of the TV, Kevin Sharp learned that great tasting food starts in the ground.
“My father taught me to grow food. Each spring, he’d till a little 3 or 4-inch square patch of dirt, and we could choose whatever we wanted out of the seed catalog to plant,” remembers Sharp, 55. His parents grew up during the Great Depression and were excellent food producers out of necessity he explains. What his dad grew, his mom spent the summer preserving.
“That was magic to me,” he says. Now, Sharp spends most of his time cooking up some magic of his own and has attracted a local following of other foodies from sharing the fruits of his labor in photos.
“‘We eat with our eyes first’ as they say,” Sharp says, who is a professional photographer. On the picturesque land he shares with his partner, Rusty, located just outside of Ann Arbor, he grows a seasoned list of photogenic fare, including blushing red tomatoes, wild blue grapes, glossy eggplants, green garlic and summer squash.
“We have a couple of big vegetable gardens and some fruit trees and raise nearly all our own poultry,” says Sharp, explaining that he and his partner are committed to sustaining the land in its natural state. “Rusty and I are committed to being good stewards of the land, so about a third of the property we’re restoring back to (its) native habitat we’ve dubbed the ‘Gay Prairie.'”
And when you grow your own food, your favorite dish to make tends to depend on the season, he says.
“Autumn is a great time because we’ve got the end of the summer crops overlapping with winter squashes and apples and root vegetables,” says Sharp. “So, maybe a gratin with apples and fennel and rutabaga. In winter, I make a lot of savory tarts and pies and of course hearty stews.”
Sharp says he got his penchant for cooking from his mother. “During family gatherings and church get-togethers, I was always drawn more to whatever was going on in the kitchen,” he says. “The men were always watching a game on TV, but in the kitchen there were aromas and good food being created and there was talking and laughter.”
Seeing the kitchen as a hub for laughter is why it was the selling point in his home.
“It was the selling point when we were first looked at our house,” he says. Although his kitchen includes an impressive view — “rolling hills and fields and woods” — the best view is the kitchen table full of family.
“I’ll trade that for amenities any day. It’s true everyone always gravitates towards the kitchen, don’t they? Whenever we have friends and family over I vow we’ll use more of the rest of the house, but we always all end up around the kitchen table.”
Follow him on Instagram @Kevmsharp
Favorite dish: “I guess if I had to pick just one favorite dish it might be a rustic fruit tart of some sort; maybe an apple galette. They’re easy for me to toss together and everyone loves a good galette.”
Dream dinner guests: “As with any successful dinner party, the mix is important. I guess for starters I’d go with Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’d love to hear more of his perspective on current events and he’d help us all keep it real and keep the conversation going. Next might be British food writer Nigel Slater. Third, I’d invite filmmaker Julie Dash. She did “Daughters of the Dust,” about three generations of a Gullah family off the coast of South Carolina. Fourth might be Diego Rivera. He’d be the only not currently living person, but I doubt he’d let that get in the way of a good time. I’d love to hear his take on art and politics and learn more about his time in Detroit, painting the frescos at the DIA. Last is another food person, Michael Twitty. He’s a black, gay, Jewish food historian whose work fascinates me. His blog “Afroculinaria” is totally worth checking out. I’d have him in the kitchen with Nigel and me, or maybe we’d just make it a big potluck affair and everyone can bring a dish to pass, family style. I’m all about casual entertaining and I think this crowd would really go for it.”
Philip Rivera on learning to love cooking as a hobby
Philip R. Rivera was just shy of his 30th birthday when he decided he wanted to be more than a food enthusiast. He quit his corporate career to become a chef.
“Much of my early adult life, I dreamed of becoming a chef and owning my own restaurant,” he says. “As I was turning 30, I had what I refer to as an early mid-life crisis and decided to abandon a corporate career to go to cooking school.”
After a year of culinary school and working in restaurants, Rivera decided he wasn’t meant to live a chef’s life. “I had lost all interest in cooking, subsisting on a diet of Hot Pockets and Goldfish crackers,” he remembers fondly. “It takes a special person to cook for a living, and I was not that person.” But that experience did open the door for Rivera to really appreciate his culinary cooking as a hobby and make food fun again.
Rivera’s Instagram page is peppered with homemade pies, food preserving, pickling, and other Filipino-inspired recipes, like Ube Bundt Cake with coconut milk icing, that celebrate his family’s roots, which is where his love of food began.
“Growing up in a Filipino household, food played a huge part in my upbringing. As in many cultures, food equals love to most Filipinos,” says Rivera, 44, who lives in Ferndale with his partner, Todd. “Traditionally, our first question after greeting each other is ‘Have you eaten?’ I grew up with my grandmother living with us, so she often prepared dinner weeknights while my parents took over the kitchen on weekends. We ate almost every dinner together, in and out of the home. Even today, most of our family gatherings center on eating.”
In a Filipino household, Rivera says he started sharpening his cooking skills at an early age from craving American food.
“Most meals cooked by my family were Filipino or other Asian-inspired, but my brother and I often craved ‘American’ food, so we would sometimes experiment if we didn’t want what my parents and grandmother had prepared,” he remembers. “One of my earliest masterpieces was this mysterious dish I’d only heard about on TV … tuna-noodle casserole. I used to borrow cookbooks from the library weekly and page through them for inspiration, something I still do to this day.”
Rivera spends most of his day surrounded by historic creativity as the director of volunteer services at the Detroit Institute of Arts and makes a point to carry that creativity into the kitchen.
“It’s where I get to exercise my creativity and express my love of family and friends through food,” he explains, and says there is a lot of truth to “the way to the heart is through the stomach.”
“I think there’s a lot of truth in this saying. As I mentioned earlier, food equals love in my culture and I think it’s the best way I know to show someone I care. When someone cooks for me, it means infinitely more to me than they could know.”
Follow him on Instagram @Philebutante
Dream dinner guests: “My culinary heroes: Julia Child, Lidia Bastianich and Jacques Pepin. First Lady Michelle Obama, for obvious reasons, as long as she’d be willing to suspend her healthy eating campaign for the duration of dinner. And Patti LaBelle for entertainment … and her pies.”