Christina Halstead, executive chef, Cafe at Williams Hardware
Christina started at this Travelers Rest institution five years ago, bussing tables and washing dishes, and now she’s the executive chef. The fact that she just recently won $50,000 from General Mills for one of her own recipes in their “Neighborhood to Nation” contest throws a big old spotlight on how this might have happened so fast. This lady works hard, from server to supervisor to sous chef to now. You can find her BLT on Pimento Cheese Buttermilk Biscuit with Red Pepper Jelly regularly on the menu at the cafe, and taste what that means for yourself.
We caught up with Christina after a busy lunch shift in the kitchen to get her answers to Last Bite.
What’s the first thing you cooked that made you want to be a chef?
There really wasn’t a single dish that launched me into my love of cooking. It’s the endless variety of ingredients that dazzled my imagination. I worked for a Thai chef in Asheville years ago, and still think about the kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, how everything was wrapped in rice paper.
What’s the best kitchen trick your mother taught you?
My mother worked in a mill. In the kitchen, she taught me how to make something out of nothing. Like rice. It’s the most basic of things, but the most important of things to do right. She also taught me how to make my dishes pop, adding a zing of lemon here or a dash of cayenne pepper there… how to add the surprise “wow” factor to my cooking.
What’s the most impossible, nuttiest, most creative food idea you’ve had lately?
This was a great one! Peach Chipotle Ribs (sous vide then grilled), served with cucumber salad and sharp cheddar toast topped with cracked black pepper.
(There’s the wow factor.) The salad is cool and crisp, the ribs have the smokiness from the chipotle and sweet from the peach, and the cheddar toast really sets it off.
You wouldn’t think that would go together.
What’s the one problem in your kitchen you wish you could solve?
The ever-present challenge of making a dish easy to expedite, to do a fifteen-minute procedure in five minutes. A lot of times, you can’t make certain dishes because of how fast people want their food. It limits what I can do.
What’s the one tool in your kitchen you could never live without, and why?
Definitely my immersion blender. It’s exhausting to emulsify a fabulous salad dressing with just a whisk.
If you could share your kitchen with two other cooks, living or dead, who would they be, and why?
Amanda Freitag, because she is such a great person and I would love to cook with her. We met when she gave me the award from General Mills. In her cookbook, the food is super simple and she tested all the recipes in her tiny New York City kitchen because she wanted to make them not intimidating for the home cook. Also, Chef Amy Visco, who I worked with years ago at the Westin Poinsett, because she was so kind to share so much of her knowledge with me, and I have always yearned to learn more from her.
If you could be anything else in this life other than a chef, what would you be, and why?
An astrobiologist, for sure. When I’m not cooking, I’m researching habitable exoplanets and studying extremophiles, microbes that live in the most extreme environments here on earth. I’m a huge space nerd!