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A taste of tropical paradise

Eileen JoycePriska Hillis makes seafood satays at her Nevada City home Tuesday. Hillis is starting a business as a personal chef specializing in the cuisine of her native Bali.
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For Priska Hillis, home is a warm monsoon breeze, where matriarchs prepare exotic, spicy cuisine served to the neighborhood masses in villages surrounded by verdant mountains and rice fields.

In Bali, away from the tourist traps and four-star hotels lining the island’s coast, women in earthen abodes chop ginger, boil rice stickier than a postage stamp and fry tender morsels of chicken, wild boar and delicacies from the sea in preparation for a traveling neighborhood feast.

It is a world Priska Hillis knows well as she ponders her homeland dozens of time zones away from her family’s downtown Grass Valley furniture shop.



“I cried every single day for two weeks,” said Hillis, 26, who came to America in February 1999, “but I learned quickly that I had to accept this environment.”

Hillis and her husband Mike have tried to bring a bit of the tropical island to western Nevada County. In their retail store on Mill Street, Bali Sierra, the fruits of the couple’s trips to Bali are reflected in the teak tables, elaborate tapestries and vibrant rugs and baubles for sale. Mike Hillis and his family spend up to several weeks at a time in Bali before returning to the States.




The couple and their children keep a home in Bali, close to Priska’s relatives.

But after years of playing the retail game, the family plans to close the store at the end of the month. Mike Hillis, who met his wife at Bali International Airport when he was studying anthropology and writing articles for the Taiwanese English-language China Post, plans to embark on a teaching career.

His wife will be bringing a taste of Bali into the homes of adventurous Nevada County residents as a personal chef, providing the sustenance for the festive and home-spun culture she grew up with.

Priska Hillis has been cooking for her family since she was a child. In her new endeavor, she and her mother Aminah will be preparing complete dinners for parties of up to 20 guests. They’ll be bringing all the utensils and plan to cook, serve and clean up. Aminah is here on a special visitation visa from Indonesia, in part to help her daughter start the business. Priska Hillis’ two brothers and father are back home on the island.

“The women in Bali are born to be housewives…so like it or not, you have to learn to be domestic,” Priska Hillis said. “All women know how to cook, clean up. They don’t see it as a duty. This is something they want to do.

“I’m hoping that I can introduce people to this culture, to try different foods, to be adventurous. It’s not like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro,” Priska Hillis joked.

Priska’s mother Aminah said most people are unsure of the culture and cuisine of her homeland. They need to be adventurous.

“I’m happy to bring someone my culture. Bali is not just about partying and going to bars,” she said.

Balinese food is heavy on rice, pork, chicken and spices of all kind: ginger, coconut, cinnamon, cardamom, peppercorns, garlic and a host of things foreign to the American palate: palm sugar, candle nuts, shrimp paste, lime leaf, tamarind pulp.

These ingredients are melded into delicacies such as clear chicken soup with shallots; suckling pig, spiced beef, roast duck surrounded by banana leaves; beef in coconut milk and a variety of satays: skewers of barbecued and spiced fish, beef or poultry.

Much of the preparation takes hours; in this endeavor, some of the food has to be prepared before visiting a person’s home.

The personal chef industry is booming, according to David MacKay, executive director and founder of the United States Personal Chef Association, which offers personal-chef training, recipes, references and related services for a burgeoning industry MacKay says has thousands bringing personal cooking styles into people’s homes.

The purpose is to teach people and help them find clients.

“You don’t have to be culinary trained, but you have to have a knowledge of cooking,” said MacKay, who worked and owned restaurants before beginning the organization with his wife in 1991.

“Being a personal chef allows you to create things like personalized meals for about the same price as a restaurant,” said MacKay, who counts more than 5,000 clients worldwide. Those with ties to MacKay’s organization have offered classes for chefs aboard Air Force One and produced television specials on The Food Network.

Carolyn Michelsen and her fiance, David Hood, are planning a dinner party Friday prepared by Hillis for 20 of their friends.

Michelsen visited Bali 10 years ago. “The people are so totally sweet. It’s very magical how the people have been able to maintain their culture. It doesn’t seem contrived,” said Michelsen, who teaches culinary arts at Lyman Gilmore Middle School.

The dinners cost $35 per person and include appetizers and a meal.

In bringing a bit of Bali to locals, Hillis and her husband hope to spur enough interest so they might be able to help Priska’s father, brothers and extended family back home on the Indian Ocean island.

Since suspected terrorists bombed a nightclub on the island last Oct. 12, killing scores of tourists and natives including Americans, Priska Hillis’ family has struggled. Her father, a chief engineer at the Bali Rani, a four-star hotel, lost his job two weeks after the attack. Her brother’s import-export business ended as well. Now, Priska Hillis said, she’s hoping to use the business to send some much-needed money back home.

Said Mike Hillis: “The impact has affected lots and lots of people. They’re so desperate for tourism, because some of them don’t know how they’re going to get their next meal.”

Priska Hillis said she hasn’t told her family much about her new endeavor.

“I told them ‘I’m just doing this little catering business. Just wish me luck.’ “

Since the bombing, her younger brother was denied a visa into the United States because of tensions over Bali and suspected links from the Balinese and various terrorist organizations.

Priska Hillis, who said she first felt like an American after receiving her driver’s license a year ago, is hoping to show Nevada County residents some of the delicious flavors and foods of her native land.


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