Petaluma cook’s ‘Welcome Winter’ is the perfect cookbook for spreading holiday cheer

Lance Lew, a local legend in and out of the kitchen, loves great food and the traditions surrounding them.|

Those of us who know and love Lance Lew, a local legend and master cook who recently retired from a career in broadcasting, have been requesting for years that he write a cookbook – or for that matter, many cookbooks – and now his first one is out, just in time for the holiday season.

In fact, what Lance has produced is more than a mere cookbook. Just like his parties, “Welcome Winter: Making Friends with Taste and Traditions” is a welcoming three-dimensional experience meant to bring people together and spread good cheer.

If Lance’s name sounds familiar – and yes, as his friend I’ll be calling him by his first name in this piece – it’s because of his successful career in broadcasting, first for KPIX, then at NBC Bay Area as a community marketing director and producer. As mentioned in our article from earlier this year titled “‘We are what we eat’: Celebrating Lunar New Year with Petaluma’s Lew family,” Lance also has strong ties to Petaluma, having grown up, raised his family, and now retired here.

His parents owned and operated the very popular Petaluma Grocery Supermarket, at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard North and Lakeville, from the 1940s through the 1970s, giving Lance his first introduction to food and to how it can bring communities together. Lance developed a strong connection to food, both through family but also when, as a young man, he earned extra spending money by teaching cooking classes and giving cooking demonstrations during college.

Upon retiring, Lance was asked by colleagues what he wanted as a retirement gift. He told them he wanted help with his first retirement project: writing a cookbook.

In a recent interview, he laughed as he told me that part of the inspiration for his first cookbook was not wanting to seem like a slacker as he transitioned into retirement.

“Everyone was asking what my plans for retirement were, so I figured this would be something to fill my time,” he says. And it did, starting with his retirement on Oct. 31 of last year and seeing the first copy finally published exactly one year later, on Oct. 31 of this year. As far as the process, he wrote the book in real time, using last holiday season as a template and then, with the assistance of his designer John Finn, polishing it up over the ensuing months.

Firsthand experience

We met Lance and his wife Roberta, who is also an expert host in her own right, a couple of years ago through social media while doing research for a Lunar New Year article. I was coming at the topic with nothing more than a passing understanding. He was generous with his time and patient with his explanations, familiarizing me with the cultural significance this event holds for Asian cultures even beyond his own Chinese heritage.

It was a pleasure to share Lance’s insight and enthusiasm with readers, yet never once did he ask to take, or require that he be given, any kind of credit. That is the type of person Lance is. Neither in my own personal interactions with him, nor in his cookbook, is there any hint of ego, even though he clearly has good reason to take pride in his work. He simply enjoys sharing with others, always with openness and positivity and in the hopes of connecting people with each other, their community, and the wonderful food traditions that surround us and play into our everyday lives.

Across cultures, a common love of great food and shared experience with great company certainly helps to make these connections and strengthen communities.

All in the family

Lance and Roberta share smiles as they tell people that part of their marital bliss has come about due to them having two kitchens. Interestingly, there are two bookmarks in “Welcome Winter,” indicating that you and your partner can each have a favorite recipe marked without losing the other’s.

Both Lance and Roberta are accomplished cooks, although Lance is quick to deflect accolades for their talent in the kitchen by pointing out that he has no formal culinary training and so is not technically a “chef.” I respect his deference to classically trained chefs, but have had the honor of the epicurean emersion that is a Lew family dinner and have found it on par with the best restaurants we have dined at, only much more fulfilling.

This is because it ends up being about so much more than just about his and Roberta’s incredible food. A dining experience always means more, and the memories last longer, when we learn why something is served the way it is and are treated like family, even when one is a guest at someone else’s table. At the end of an evening with the Lews, guests have had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The particular dinner we attended was one of the Lew’s special Chinese New Year’s dinners this past year, where we were blown away by both the food and the care Lance took in telling the story behind each dish’s cultural significance. We not only came away with our appetites satiated but our minds expanded regarding the importance of the various New Year’s customs.

As regular readers might guess, my favorite dish was the five-spice duck confit with bao buns, which Lance makes using Liberty Ducks, a local farm started by Lance’s childhood friend and fellow local legend Jim Reichardt. This was one of the best duck dishes we have ever had, and to this day, it is still all a blur, but I have it on good authority that I devoured nearly a half-dozen duck baos before the wife noticed and suggest that I save room for the next course, and maybe a little more room for dessert.

Not just a cookbook

As with everything Lance puts his mind to, a lot of thought went into “Welcome Winter.” We knew it would be great, but upon receiving our copy of the first run, we found it to be one of the most interesting cookbooks we’ve ever read.

Some might say you don’t really “read” a cookbook, but I disagree. For someone like me – an eater, not a cooker – my favorite cookbooks are the ones that not only offer up great recipes, but also tell a story. They go beyond simply sharing recipes, delving deeper into the cultural significance of the various ingredients, dish names and presentations, so they read more like a story than a static list of instructions.

And when a cookbook includes personal anecdotes, that’s even better and makes it feel like the author is actually there with you in your kitchen.

“Welcome Winter” has a uniquely independent spirit and is one that you will return to whether searching for a new recipe or simply looking to learn more about the cultural significance behind the recipes and the holidays they are most closely related to. I have been known to spend an hour in the kitchen reading the background, history and culture behind certain recipes without ever opening the pantry or preheating the oven, and this book offers that enjoyment in spades. If ever I was going to turn to a cookbook for inspiration, it would be this one.

For those that follow Lance on social media, do not let the glossy, delicious-looking photos intimidate you. Lance’s recipes are approachable, and he will be the first one to tell you that there’s no such thing as perfect. You simply do your best and enjoy the experience, because that’s what cooking and sharing food with friends and family is all about.

“Welcome Winter” starts with a chapter on decking the halls, which is one of Lance’s passions. “Winter starts with the holiday decorations after Thanksgiving,” he says. Given Lance’s level of creativity, Halloween and Thanksgiving would surely wear him out had he started the book’s subject matter any earlier in the season. But this book follows the holidays from Christmas to New Year’s Day to Japanese and Chinese New Year, and all the glorious holiday traditions in between, such as Christmas parties and cookie exchanges.

Lance has a nice mix of both the Japanese and the Chinese New Year traditions within the pages of “Welcome Winter.” He grew up with the Chinese traditions and hosts a slew of parties throughout the 15-day festival each year, to which invitations are highly coveted. The incorporation of Japanese New Year in Welcome Winter speaks volumes to Lance’s sense of inclusion and lack of ego. He tells me that as a member of the local Buddhist community he is often a guest at Japanese New Year events and so has been able to learn about this culture’s traditions from the other side of the table. And of course, his talent in the field of floral design and decorations allows him to contribute to the events even though he may lack first-hand culinary chops in this arena.

Event therapist

With a vast array of first-hand organizational knowledge gleaned from years both in front of the camera and behind the scenes, as well as putting on very successful nonprofit events, Lance’s clients have aptly crowned him with the moniker of “event therapist.” He not only helps clients with tangible event planning, but also has the intangible qualities that only someone with his experience, poise, and appreciation for storytelling could have. Just like with his cookbook, Lance helps clients delve a bit deeper to help them tell the story that will make their event meaningful and memorable.

As such, “Welcome Winter” is a passion project for Lance. Due to the high cost of self-publishing these days, along with other contributing factors, there may be no additional printings of this book, so you’ll want to grab your copy of the second printing, which can be ordered through his website right now at lancelew.com. When asked if there will be follow-up cookbooks representing the other seasons, Lance says he has given that some serious thought, but if it does happen, it will have to wait for another year as it takes at least that long to put it together.

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