Bec Hawkins-Valadez' Thai Chicken can be served over rice or as a soup. It is one of the most popular recipe's in a cook-book she's re-releasing with four new recipes and which will be sold at The Garlic Press in Uptown Normal.
By Colleen Reynolds
I recently wrote about the Cultural Dinners at Illinois State University but I had no idea until later that one of my dinner companions was also the former owner of Bec’s Far East-Texas Grill which was at 207 Broadway in what is now Uptown Normal.
Rebecca (she goes by Bec to most) Hawkins-Valadez does not consider herself a chef but rather a good cook. She is releasing an updated version of a cook book she put out a few years ago and she’s including four new recipes. Its called, "All Good Things: Old Favorites & New Ideas from Bec's Kitchen." You can see her preparing four new dishes in a cooking demonstration she’ll be doing from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday, December 8 at The Garlic Press. Store owners have ordered 100 of her books and they’ll sell for $10, just in time for the Christmas holidays. Hawkins-Valadez says people can come for a bit, sample and be on their way and she’ll sign books as time allows. (Make sure you scroll to the end of this. She's sharing one her favorite recipes).
Hawkins-Valadez credits her very diverse customers for the success of the restaurant. “I had the most diverse customers -- diverse in ethnicity, economic status, education, age and lifestyle, just to name a few,” she said. “Every day those wildly different people inspired me to create more and different dishes.It was because of my customers that Bec's became what it was.”
Interview with the Chef:
Colleen: Tell me about your culinary background. When did you start cooking?
Bec: I grew up in a farming community in northwest Illinois. I can remember butchering hogs and raising and eating our own chickens. I was brought up with a respect for food- where it comes from and not to waste it. My father was a cheese maker for 35 years for Kraft Foods and my mother was an artist in every aspect of her life, from food to painting to gardening. I grew up tending gardens and shadowing my mom in the kitchen. She worked in the summers for the canning factory nearby and learned authentic Mexican cooking from the migrant workers. I was eating real Mexican food from a very young age. She LOVED ethnic food.I think I got her creative side and then my dad’s work ethic. I started working about 12 in local restaurants. I loved the life.
Colleen: What is your style of cooking?
Bec: Well, Dr. Robert Dirks who wrote the book “Come &Get It!,” (p.259) credits me with me with bringing fusion food to McLean County. The McLean County Museum of History did an exhibit on his book and I was part of that exhibit as well. When I developed the concept of Bec's Far East-Texas Grill I was creating a job for myself (and at that time my first husband David Merritt). My "style" is based on flavors and spices that are common in ethnic foods. None of my recipes are authentic. They are my versions of Indian, Mexican, Thai, whatever. I look more to texture, 3-D taste, aroma and visually appealing. Basically, I like it to taste and look exotic but be simple to prepare and also very good for you.
Colleen: How long did you have your restaurant and what happened? What were the challenges?
Bec: From 1992-1996. I started it with David, but we divorced after the first year. He named it Bec's Far East-Texas Grill and developed the recipe for the Chicken Chili that was a staple. I did all the rest. Restaurants are a labor of love. If you don't love to work hard and work like a mule, forget it. I was really blessed to have GREAT people work for/with me. All were college students who nearly all stayed with me through the four years. Several have gone on to food/ service related careers. One is an owner of The Coffee Hound(s), one an owner of Two Blokes and a Bus, another manager of Fat Jack's. The rest were smart and choose other careers!! Ha Ha!
Colleen: What happened to Bec's?
Bec: I was and still can be a very stubborn Irish girl and I made financial decisions on my own when I should have accepted the advice I was given. So, I had to close for financial reasons. We all have our talents and strong points. Mine were not in finance but in the creative aspect.
Colleen: Tell me how the fist cookbook came about?
Bec: My dear friend Ruthie Cobb thought it would be a great idea. So she helped me get the recipes out of my head and on to paper. I never wrote anything down, and people who worked for me had to cook the same way. They had to memorize it.
Colleen: How would you describe the recipes in the book in terms of how complicated they are. For example, on the degree of difficulty scale with one being lowest and 10 the highest?
Bec: Nothing is higher than a four. My philosophy is -- it has to look and taste like you are a gourmet chef but it is easy as pie.
Colleen: How do you feed your “Jones” for cooking now?
Bec: I cook every day from scratch. I love to cook. It is as natural and part of my life as breathing. Any opportunity I can find to cook for other people, I do.
Colleen: Why are you putting out another edition?
Bec: Demand, mostly. People will call Ruthie or me, especially around the holidays, and ask if we have any books. The Garlic Press has been asking me to do a cooking class or demo for a while, so it all just came together. They all were very regular customers of mine and also good friends and just fun people. I love working with them.
Colleen: Who is you culinary idol?
Bec: I have two. Anthony Bourdain- he understands food and culture. He is able to be respectful and irreverent at the same time and he is charming. I would love to meet him. I think I could out talk him. Rick Bayless-great work ethic, has incredible passion for Mexican food and culture and he is very humble and philanthropic.
Colleen: What type of cuisine would you like to cook that you feel is out of your comfort zone?
Bec: I go in and out of my zone all the time, that is what creativity is about for me. I do not use recipe books. I am inspired by what is in season, looks good at the market or what vision I have for a new dish.
Colleen: Where is your favorite place to eat in B-N?
Bec: Truth be told, we don't go out to eat much, but when we do (don't laugh) Big Daddy's Dawgs I love a good Chicago dog! El Porton for Mexican if I am too tired to make it at home, and The Garlic Press Market Cafe. They do variations of some of my dishes which are awesome and they make REALLY good soup and salads and sandwiches. They are very fresh as I would do. When I was in the hospital three years ago, I refused to eat the food. I would have my husband, Sal Valadez, go to the Garlic Press for my food. I credit them for helping in my recovery!
Colleen: Do you ever think about re-opening Bec’s?
Bec: People ask me all the time either why don't you open a Bec's again or do you ever think about opening Bec's again? I think about it all the time. However, it is kind of like a really passionate and all-consuming love affair that ends. I don't think it could ever be replicated again. I am satisfied it did happen and I’m grateful for the success it had. Also, I am now a three-year lung cancer survivor with no evidence of disease. I do not have the physical capability of working an eight-hour day and certainly not the 12-16 hour day it takes to run a restaurant. But, when I get a chance to do some cooking for people and watch them eat, laugh and enjoy themselves, I am the happiest cook on the planet.
Bec's Thai Chicken Recipe:
2 lbs. boneless chicken thigh meat, cut in chunks
1 10 3/4 oz. can chicken broth
4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon ground ginger
1 10 oz. can coconut milk
1/4 cup sweet Thai chile sauce
1/2 cup chopped scallions
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup lemon zest (grated lemon rind)
In a stock pot, cover chicken chunks with broth; add a little water if needed. Add bay leaves, garlic and ginger and cook over medium heat until chicken is tender. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 20 minutes.
Colleen can be reached at Reynolds@wjbc.com