“That meal was epic, and now we have a question for you, Chef Alison Wonderland Tucker. Is Alison Wonderland your real name?”
It was New Year’s eve, 2009 I think, and I had just served a multi-coursed meal featuring, among other things, fresh lobster salad on baby greens, seared duck breast with lingonberry sauce atop a truffled polenta, and a hazelnut cloud cake with chocolate sauce. The host was pretty well lit by a lot of very expensive wines I know nothing about and had finally found the courage to bring his query to my attention.
“Well,” I began, “I was born without a middle name. I was just Alison Tucker when I was born. And when I was little, other kids used to tease me. They would say “Alison…Alison Wonderland Alison Wonderland.” I searched for years for the perfect middle name and then realized the kids were right all along. It suits me. I have been Alison Wonderland since I was about 18 years old. It’s who I am. It’s my name.”
“AH HA!!!!” he screamed, pointing at me as if he had just cracked the biggest news story of this century. Wonderlandgate.
“I KNEW IT! I KNEW IT WASN’T YOUR REAL NAME!!!”
I put my hands up instinctively, to disarm him and explain that it really wasn’t that big deal, but his Bordeaux persona was larger than my measly sober one, and I gave up as he marched back to the dining room to share his breakthrough discovery.
This has happened before. People feel very passionate about this name thing. I think the big deal is that people feel it’s a joke. They think that no one would actually name their child Alison Wonderland and that, by claiming it’s “real” when it’s my own doing, I’m making a mockery out of the whole middle name establishment. Or maybe they think my name is a marketing tool, and therefore they feel kind of conned. My catering/ private chef company is called “A Wonderland of Food,” which is something I came up with almost 20 years after I decided to add Wonderland to my full name. I wasn’t a chef then. I was a theater student. But people think that my name is a lie or a joke or something that they can catch me in. People frequently say “ah ha! Wonderland isn’t real! It’s not your REAL NAME.” But who’s to say what’s real and what isn’t? I was given a blank space and I filled it. That was my prerogative. Guess what? I’m not a natural redhead either.
The truth is that the “chef” part of my title is the actual lie. Technically, I’m not really a chef. I’ve never been through a full-time professional chef training, I’ve never studied abroad, I’ve never trained under the wing of a restaurant’s executive chef to further hone my skills, I’ve never worked the line in a restaurant, I’ve never been a chef de cuisine or chef de partie or garde manger. I use the title to describe the confidence I have in my own talent and skill set in the kitchen. Am I a fraud because I’ve called myself a chef without enough formal training? Maybe, but it’s been over 25 years of me in people’s homes; dicing, brunoising, caramelizing, deglazing, flambeing, serving, clearing, and washing people’s fancy china dishes with a smile on my face. You can call me a chef. You can call me a cook. You can call me a dishwasher. You can call me Princess Pebbles Flintstone of Tomatosauce Alley as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a name. What I do is what matters. I cook. And people ask me to do it again and again.
There are many aspects of this life that I’ve chosen for myself that I love. One is that, since I’m not tied to a restaurant with a set regional cuisine, I can experiment with the food of many regions, worldwide. My clients love that my repertoire is so varied, as do my friends.
One of my biggest struggles this year has been to be without the small group of friends who would regularly come to my apartment in New York and guinnea pig the new recipes I was trying out. Luckily, Francis has a wonderful gaggle of friends who have known each other for decades and were brave enough to be the new guinnea pigs in my life. We hosted New Year’s Eve dinner with a focus on Asian comfort food. The menu was: okonomiyaki (sweet potato and brussels sprout fritters); a Thai lasagna (with sautéed onions, carrots, red peppers, sweet potatoes, zucchini, cauliflower in a red curry paste with lime leaves and a coconut milk béchamel with asiago cheese); green beans with white miso, garlic and lime juice; and a bibimbap topped with garlic stir fried broccoli, carrots, bean sprouts, kale, shiitake mushrooms, and a fried egg.
The bibimbap is so easy to make and SO delicious. This Korean crispy-rice dish is the perfect thing for a cold winter night because anything can go on top of it. It’s basically leftover rice seared in sesame oil and topped with stir-fried leftovers from your fridge. After you grab a few staple ingredients, you’ll be set to make your own bibimbap whenever you want. It’s so comforting with just a little (or big) spicy kick of yummy gochujang (Korean red pepper paste) sauce. Everything in life should be this satisfying.
So, thank you to my new guinnea pigs for being such a joy to ring in 2017 with and a big kiss to all my buddies in New York (and around the world). Wherever I am, there will be a seat for you at my table.
Happy New Year!
I got a lot of guidance for this recipe from Cook’s Illustrated. Their recipe undercooks the rice by about 10 minutes, leaving it disappointingly under-crisped. Everything else is great and shown below. The vegetables I’ve listed are mere suggestions. You can top the bibimbap with anything you like, veggie or meat. Also, I prefer brown rice so that’s what I’ve listed, but of course if you prefer white rice, go for that. Whichever rice you choose, add a bit more water than usual because the rice will crisp up better if it’s a little sticky.
For the rice
- 2 cups long grain brown rice
- 4 1/4 cups water
- pinch of salt
- Add the rice to the water in a pot. Add salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer covered for 45-50 minutes. Take the lid off and bring to room temperature.
For the sauce
- 1/3 cup gochujang Korean hot pepper paste
- 3 tablespoons water
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Whisk the ingredients together in a bowl and set aside.
For the vegetables
- ½ cup water
- 3 scallions, minced
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil, plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil, separated
- 3 carrots, peeled and julienned
- 8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced thin
- 1 bunch broccoli, cut into florets
- 1 bunch lacinato kale, torn into bite-sized pieces
- 4 baby bok choy, sliced into bite-sized pieces
- 4 ounces bean sprouts
- kimchi (optional)
- 6 eggs
- Place the water, scallions, soy sauce, garlic and sugar in a small bowl.
- Heat one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a large well-seasoned or nonstick saute pan. Let the oil get hot and then toss the carrots in. Sprinkle ¼ of the water/scallion/ soy sauce/ garlic mixture into the pan and stir fry for 1-2 minutes. Put the carrots in a bowl and return the pan to the heat.
- Add a little more oil into the saute pan and add the mushrooms. Sprinkle the next ¼ cup of the water/ soy mixture into the pan and stir-fry until the mushrooms are soft and tender, about 3-4 minutes. Place the mushrooms in another bowl and return the pan to heat.
- Add another bit of oil into the pan and stir-fry the broccoli, adding the sauce mixture after about a minute. Let it stir-fry for another 2-3 minutes and then transfer broccoli to a bowl.
- Continue with a little more oil in the pan, adding the kale and bok choy and the last of the water/ soy blend and stir-fry for 1-2 minutes. The kale and bok choy will wilt and become bright green. Put them in a small bowl.
- Stir fry the bean sprouts in whatever oil is left in the pan for about a minute. Transfer them to a small bowl.
- Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil with the 2 tablespoons of sesame oil, swirling them around the sides and bottom of the pan.
Press the cooked rice into the pan over a medium flame. Cook the rice uncovered for about 15 minutes, making sure that the rice isn’t burning (you can peek under the rice or just use your nose to know).
- Transfer the now crispy rice into a large bowl for serving, showing off as much of the crispy parts as you can. Drizzle a little bit of the chile sauce over the rice (it’s spicy so you don’t want people to commit to more than they want) and then place the different cooked vegetables on top.
- In a medium non-stick pan, heat the 2 tablespoons of oil. Crack eggs into a small bowl and then pour the eggs into the pan. Cover and cook for about 2 minutes. Place the fried eggs in the center of the rice with vegetables and serve. (Or you can make a separate plate of fried eggs for each guest to place on top of the veg and rice mixture they’ve been served.)
- Serve with extra sauce on the side.