Hana Etsuko Dethlefsen was just nine years old when she began to cook.
Chef Hana Etsuko Dethlefsen stirs up an Italian-influenced soba dish, inspired by a local restaurant, in a Vancouver kitchen. Photo by: Kayla Isomura
Her mother, Etsuko, was an air flight attendant and as a result had to leave home for several days at a time to work.
While she was away, Hana took on making the family’s meals.
She made simple things at first: soup and sandwiches; pasta or potato salad. Looking back on the experience she feels like that was the beginning of what would become a culinary career inspired by family and friends.
“As a kid, you really love doing things like the dishes and anything that makes you feel grown up,” Dethlefsen tells Nikkei Voice from her home in Vancouver.
“For me, cooking was the ultimate of that feeling,” she says.
And it was a feeling that she brought with her when she lived in Japan for three years starting in 2001. Her mother and her family were able to give her hands-on experience with Japanese food and Japanese taste.
She also shared this knowledge with the other Canadian ex-pats who were living in Japan and who found it quite difficult to navigate home cooking there.
Sometimes her friends would accidentally buy yogurt instead of milk for their cereal or use the wrong ingredient for a specific dish. These foibles spurred her to create a blog to help her friends find accessible recipes they could make at home.
This led to publishing her cookbook Let’s Cooking after a successful Indiegogo campaign almost a decade later.
Dethlefsen workshopped the recipes in the book with her family and friends in order to make it as user-friendly as possible.
And now as an instructor with the continuing education program at the University of British Columbia and a television cooking show host with GustoTV, Dethlefsen is bringing even more awareness to just how easy and fun cooking Japanese food can be.
Dethlefsen has seen an explosion of interest in Japanese food in Canada.
And it has gone far beyond just sushi with izakayas and ramen shops popping up everywhere in her hometown Vancouver.
However, the cookbooks that help Canadians get more familiar with Japanese cooking are often geared toward more complex restaurant-style food rather than homestyle meals.
“I think now with that familiarity people want to make Japanese food at home.” Dethlefsen says.
“But without understanding where to get the ingredients or what the labeling might look like or how to prepare the dishes, there’s just that little stumbling block between eating out and enjoying all these really great diverse authentic Japanese dishes and doing it at home,” she says.
So it’s with a lot of excitement that Dethlefsen watched the first episodes of One World Kitchen when the television show debuted in May.
After a national call for auditions, Dethlefsen was brought in for an interview and then another. She never expected to get the job and says she was bowled over when she was chosen as a host.
“Everybody was super talented, super strong, and they are really amazing women,” Dethlefsen says. “It’s been very flattering to be part of that group.”
The show stars five female chefs from a variety of backgrounds including Vijaya Selvaraju, Natalia Machado, Vanessa Gianfrancesco, and Pailin Chongchitnant.
Over the course of six days in December last year, Dethlefsen filmed her segments.
Each was a long day of shooting, she says, but the proof is in the pudding with television critics commenting on how easy the show’s recipes are to follow.
“It’s really exciting to see the results of it,” Dethlefsen says.
Along with her work at UBC and GustoTV, Dethlefsen also hosts in-person lessons to help familiarize people with Japanese cooking.
She believes that having hands-on experience – much in the same way her family and friends provided to her – is the best way to help people overcome thinking that Japanese food is too complex to cook.
And she says her favourite part of that is when her students bring in their own culinary experiences and cultures into her recipes.
“What makes me happy is when they take my recipe and they change something or an ingredient, and I see they’ve really internalized it and made it their own,” Dethlefsen says. “That’s when I know that they really understand how to make that dish.”
“That’s when I’ve known I have done my job,” she says.
And she hopes that One World Kitchen will help pass on her knowledge to audiences nation-wide because there’s a big difference, she says, from reading a recipe in a book and actually being able to see the culinary creation take form right in front of you.
As for the future, Dethlefsen is hoping to find another opportunity to work on television to introduce people to Japanese cooking, and she also hopes to keep publishing cook books.