Just moments before her dinner party begins, Jaden Hair is nowhere near the kitchen. Instead, the food blogger and cookbook author is strolling down to the pond on her east Manatee property, marveling at the bird-filled sky. As old friends and new neighbors arrive—among them food-blogging siblings Nate and Mary Kate Tate, as well as her husband Scott’s parents—Hair and Scott greet them on the deck with hugs and glasses of wine. The couple’s sons, Nathan, seven, and Andrew, eight, lead the visiting children to the shore of the pond to look for turtles.
“My [entertaining] philosophy was so different before I simplified my life,” says Hair, seated on colorful cushions near the dock. “It was all about spending all my time in the kitchen, creating the most perfect dinner party.” As she speaks, guests help themselves to Asian tapas: Chinese dumplings, firecracker shrimp and Korean beef on rice crackers.
Born in Hong Kong and raised in Nebraska, Hair moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2002. Many of the meals she prepared for her family featured traditional Asian dishes made with everyday American ingredients. In 2007, Hair began sharing these family dinners—in the form of photographs and recipes—on a blog she called “Steamy Kitchen.” The site was an instant hit, garnering more than 1,000 followers in the first few months. Within six months, she had a cookbook deal.
The website and cookbook led to television appearances, trips to foodie events around the country and, eventually, meetings with Food Network to develop her own cooking show. But Hair’s constant travel kept her away from her family. In December 2010, she sat down with her husband to reassess their goals. “If I’m so close to my dream,” she asked him, “why am I so unhappy?” They decided then and there to redesign their life and “make the business work for us instead of the other way around,” Hair says.
She opted out of the television show, and by August of 2011, the family had moved into their dream home in a quiet neighborhood off S.R. 70, near Myakka City. The boys fish in the pond for their own dinner—tilapia, blue gill and carp. For the first time in her life, Hair can have “as big a garden as I want,” she says, where she grows her own ingredients—Chinese broccoli, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, lettuce and more. She works the soil and waters the plants to the sound of clucking hens in the nearby chicken coop that Scott built himself. Now Hair’s Chinese marbled eggs dish features eggs harvested that same morning. Soon they’ll have chickens for meat, too. Hair plans to teach herself how to slaughter them by watching videos on YouTube.
“We’re building our own little homestead,” she says. Like Martha Stewart, she’s creating a lifestyle that will drive her various food platforms, only hers is less about achieving domestic diva perfection than living simply and close to the land and enjoying fresh, creative food with those she loves.
Though their new home’s kitchen awaits renovations—Hair wants to replace the spectator-style bar area with a giant island, so that everyone can cook together—the family hosts gatherings almost every week. An outdoor kitchen on the lanai allows for pool parties in the hottest months, while a kitchen in the guest cottage serves open-air meals by the pond. The food is always interactive, with everyone joining in to prep and cook over tabletop burners or in steamy hot pots. Dinners are unstructured and improvised. For the first Thanksgiving in her new home, Hair and two friends selected, planned and prepared their six side dishes—including roasted chestnut and sausage dressing—just two hours before dinner was served, using ingredients Hair already had on hand.
“Building the business is still very important,” emphasizes Hair. Unlike most bloggers, she quickly learned how to monetize her work, mastering the complexities of Internet advertising and marketing her persona. She says the business is providing the family with a more than comfortable living already, and she and Scott intend for it to grow.
The new home includes space to build a kitchen television studio, so she can film TV spots without leaving her property. Her blog now gets up to 3 million views a month, her second cookbook manuscript is due in March, she’s sponsored by Thermador, and she still travels—just not as frequently, and now her family comes with her.
In November, when she and singer Jewel shot a series of Hallmark holiday videos together, they all spent time together at Jewel’s Texas ranch. In December they visited friend and Food Network “Pioneer Woman” Ree Drummond in Oklahoma.
At the party, the guests have gone from nibbling and mingling on the dock to seated conversation. The stories are longer now, but the laughter no less hearty.
Sunset gives way to starlight, the glow of orange, hanging Chinese lanterns and the splash of a lighted fountain, like liquid fireworks in the pond. Then the hosts present a surprise—hot-air lanterns. The delighted adults and children unfold and light them, and the lanterns quickly inflate. The guests raise them high and then let go. One by one, the glowing, three-foot orbs drift up into the sky. Soon they’re no more than points of light, fading smaller and smaller until they blend into the stars. As darkness closes in, the world beyond the dock and water disappears entirely. Finally, family, friends and food are all that can be seen.
Cook the Photo: Korean Beef on Rice Crackers
Your butcher may sell steak that’s already thinly sliced (for cheese steak sandwiches). Look for rice crackers in the Asian food section. Kimchi is sold in glass jars, refrigerated in the produce section.
½ pound flank or sirloin steak
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce or San-J Organic Tamari Wheat-Free Soy Sauce for gluten free
1 teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 clove garlic, finely minced
½ teaspoon freshly grated ginger
24 rice crackers
½ cup prepared kimchi
1 stalk green onion, very thinly sliced on diagonal
1. Thinly slice (as thin as you can!) the steak into 24 (or more) pieces. If you are using flank steak, make sure you are slicing across the grain for the most tender steak. In a large bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, garlic and ginger. Add the steak and mix to coat. Let marinate for 10 minutes at room temperature or up to overnight in the refrigerator.
2. Heat a grill pan over high heat. When hot, grill the steak, 1-2 minute each side depending on the thickness of your slices. Make sure you don’t crowd the pan. You’ll grill the steak slices in 2 or 3 batches.
3. Layer on the rice cracker a slice of steak, kimchi and garnish with green onion.
Styling and Production: John Dickson
Furnishing courtesy of Decor Direct Wholesale Warehouse, 2333 Whitfield Park Loop Sarasota, FL 34243, (941) 751-4180, http://decordirect.net, http://facebook.com/decordirect
This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Sarasota Magazine.
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