Juneau cooking prodigy sails to White House on a crêpe

Denali Schijvens, serving a recent dinner for 12. Nancy Hemenway, right, says he planned and executed the meal while she served as sous chef. (Photo courtesy of Sander Schijvens)
Denali Schijvens, serving a recent dinner for 12. Nancy Hemenway, right, says he planned and executed the meal while she served as sous chef. (Photo courtesy of Sander Schijvens)

An amateur chef from Juneau has won a White House-sponsored recipe competition, and he’s just 9 years old. Denali Schijvens will attend a Kids’ State Dinner in July, hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

His winning entry is a whole-grain crêpe filled with sour cream, red lettuce, and pan-cooked halibut topped with a tart blueberry sauce. He calls it “wrapped Alaska, Denali-style.”

What? You were expecting grilled cheese? Not from Denali Schijvens.

“My dream job is to be a chef at a successful restaurant,” he says.

His original vision for this recipe called for salmon, but the store had fresh halibut, and Denali went with it.

“I was aiming it to be kind of nice, like homey,” the soon-to-be fourth-grader explained.

“Because it’s supposed to be a school lunch challenge, and at school you’re always missing home. So kind of homey, so you wouldn’t be homesick.”

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Surely he had a parent’s help.

“You know, I tried to help with the recipe,” says his mom, Meilani Schijvens. “I gave lots of input and he wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say.”

She and her husband, Sander, don’t know where this interest in cooking originated, but it’s been with their son since at least age 2.

Denali says ideas just come to him, so he tries them out.

“I have a friend named Nancy, and she helps me,” he says. “Nancy is a bit older than me. She’s a grown up.”

That’s Nancy Hemenway, a retired state worker who likes to cook and bake. For a present, Denali’s aunt gave the boy cooking lessons with her. They started when he was 8, making Napoleons, tiramisu and, later, pork loin and zucchini-wrapped salmon. Hemenway says Denali brings focus, curiosity and style to his work.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she says.

Once, at the end of their regular Saturday lesson, Denali found ingredients in her fridge and made what he called “a pie within a pie.” Another time, he came late, saying the birds were singing so much he had to walk slowly to listen.

“I initially thought it was going to be a lot of work, which it was, to give lessons,” Hemenway says. “But it was the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

After she taught him all she could, she took him to Chef Lionel Uddipa, of Juneau’s upscale Salt restaurant, for a lesson.

Denali and his mom will fly to Washington for the Kid’s State Dinner, where he and winners from other states and territories will dine with at least some members of the First Family. Denali is psyched to go to the White House.

“I definitely want to shake hands with the president. And I don’t even know what’s going to happen there, so it’s really just up to destiny now.”

Destiny, it would seem, is clearing a path to a kitchen for Denali Schijvens.

Site notifications
Update notification options
Subscribe to notifications