Have you ever caught yourself breathing deeply when you smell something familiar in the kitchen? Awash in memory, you’re transported back in time to a remembered place. Maybe you’re a little kid sitting on your grandma’s counter, dangling your legs off the edge and whisking a bowl of scrambled eggs or rolling out paper-thin cookie dough. Or maybe you’re stirring a pot of something bubbly and delicious.
It’s just a flash, but you’re there with that special person who helped you create these memories. And it’s all because of that faint smell of something familiar. For many of us, a particular dish or recipe is all it takes to travel back and time and connect with family.
When I talked with Hayley Gibbons, a local cooking instructor, about her own line of healthy cooking sauces, Help from Hayley Sauces, it was clear that the secret to her sauce is family. “From a very young age, I recognized how food brings generations together and that is powerful. I knew I wanted to be part of that kind of relationship with people and their families and to help them make special memories with their food,” she said.
After spending years in the restaurant industry as a manager, Hayley knew it was time to move from the front of the house to the back of the house in order to fulfill her lifelong passion of connecting families over the dinner table through healthy food. And just like that, help had arrived.
JA: Thank you so much for speaking with us. Can you tell us about how you made your way into the restaurant industry?
HG: My body was hard-wired for this. I had two strong events in my life that spoke to me about the power of food. I never got to meet my Grandma Lupe, but I taste every bit of her love for me every time I eat or make one of her recipes. As a young girl, my dad would take me on special lunch dates to restaurants and would let me order anything I wanted from the menu, but he’d also make me order something I’d never tried before.
The first time we went to an Italian restaurant and I ordered spaghetti and meatballs and he said, “Okay but you also need to order something you’ve never tried before.” So, I ordered eggplant parmesan and he told me, “You have to eat at least one bite.” I closed my eyes, I plugged my nose, but as I began chewing, he said, ”You love it, don’t you?“ And I did! And I never touched my spaghetti again.
My dad was killed one year later in a car crash. As time goes on, I cannot remember every single detail of his face—it fades over time. But every time I want to remember my dad, I make eggplant parmesan and I can see every detail of his face. My dad and grandma taught me from an early age how important food is for our memories, for our health, for our emotions, for love. It was a given that I wound up in the food industry.
JA: What a beautiful connection between you and your family. Why did you begin making your own healthy, low-sugar sauces? Why is this so near and dear to your heart?
HG: For years and years I was in the restaurant industry as a manager, and I saw whole families coming in, multiple times a week, which was great for our business, but I also noticed they were rarely interacting with each other. And that really hurt my heart. And I thought, “What’s a way to help families get connected at the table?” Because clearly the smart phone did a number on us as far as connecting as families. It connects us in other ways but doesn’t give us the grounding we need.
My sister, Polly, is a wonderful entertainer and loves food but doesn’t like cooking herself. She was always asking me for easy short cuts. But she would say, “That’s too complicated, I can’t do that.” So, I thought, “I’ll bottle it!” Polly is self-proclaimed cooking impaired, but with my sauces she doesn’t need to know how to cook. All she needs to know is how to brown meat or veggies and add my sauce. I thought back to these families at the restaurant and thought, “If they can make dinners themselves, they can get connected at the table.” Then I thought, “Let’s make the sauces healthy too!”
I started sourcing out fresh ingredients and I use a lot of herbs. Your pallet can’t figure out that it’s low in sodium, or low in fat. It’s just layers of flavor. So I’m giving families the tools needed to get dinner on the table fast and easy.
JA: We know you make low-sugar sauces, which is something that we value in the oral health industry. Sugar can do so much damage to our teeth—why do you make nutrition a priority in your sauces?
HG: Being a chef, my weight yo-yoed for years. As you get older the yo-yoing down part gets harder, so I had to stay consistent. But I wanted to celebrate with food. I didn’t want my food to be boring; that wasn’t a life worth living. Developing healthy sauces became important to me. I was able to get to a healthy weight and maintain it. I donated one of my kidneys, and there was no way I could have done that when my weight was yo-yoing. I was only able to do that through a healthy lifestyle, healthy eating and doing it consistently.
So that was my big win. May 8,, 2020, was my 1-year anniversary of donating. It was the most glorious thing I could do outside of myself, and that again was through healthy living. It was as if my body was building up to that moment before I even knew I was going to do it.
JA: Could you tell us a little bit about your creative process? What does it look like when you get into the kitchen and start dreaming up new healthy sauce recipes?
HG: A lot of the best recipes utilize what I have in the fridge, particularly now. I’ll think, “How can I substitute and use products that I have right now?” I think this is one of our more interesting times because we do have a lack of certain ingredients right now (due to COVID-19). It was difficult for me to learn how to put recipes on paper because I cook so intuitively, so I’ve now learned how to write my recipe before I ever get into the kitchen. Then I start to follow it, and then adjust and mark down my adjustments easily as I’m going.
JA: We know you’re a fourth-generation Arizonan, which is so rare! What do you love about Arizona?
HG: Really, I love the state in general because we have so many different climates all in one state and all in a couple hours’ drive. We get that throughout the year. I get why people move here from other states because Arizonans know how to welcome people. I think we’re an outstanding group of people who look out for each other. The old western kind of thought process is still ingrained in our DNA: say what you mean and mean what you say. And that makes us authentic.
JA: I’m a native as well, so I appreciate that sentiment. What’s your favorite cuisine to cook or to help others learn to cook?
HG: I really like to zoom in on the lifestyle of the person. If they have a hectic lifestyle, I immediately go to the Instant Pot or Crock-Pot. If it’s somebody who wants to use their food as an expression and art form, I love an old-fashioned skillet on the burner, sautéing, combining and layering ingredients to create flavor. People like my sauces because you can make a meal out of the sauce by adding one ingredient. Other folks use the sauce as an ingredient and not the main flavor profile. The possibilities are endless.
JA: How do you stay healthy? What do you do for overall wellness and self-care?
HG: Tennis is my game. I love it! And I love how you can just focus on the yellow ball and hit as hard or soft as you want—just get the ball over the net. By the end of that time on the court, any issues you had in your head suddenly become crystal clear. That is my go-to. If I’m struggling with something, I go hit a basket of tennis balls. I’m either training for a future life or in a past life I was a dog. I will do whatever to get to that yellow ball.
JA: Who do you admire? Who keeps you on your toes and pushes you forward creatively?
HG: Honestly, that’s my Grandma Lupe. I love how she used her victory garden to make dinners. One of our family recipes is Grandma Lupe’s tacos. The garnish on her tacos is radish and peas, and that’s probably what she had in her victory garden. Everybody is like, “Really, peas?” But now the tacos will never not have peas; it just works. Rooting myself down through food, I know where I come from with every bite of one of her recipes. Not everybody has that kind of iconic person in their past. That’s my goal with my sauces—that somebody someday has chicken marsala and they think back to their mother, that even though her sauce came from my jar, it still gives that person a loving memory.
JA: When you’re at work, what are you happiest doing? What brings a giant smile to your face?
HG: It’s those teaching moments. It’s when I’m doing a presentation or demo where I can show how anybody can cook a healthy, low-sugar, low-sodium meal fast that they’re proud of. I have a lot of regular customers and some of them are newly divorced dads. And they’re self-proclaimed cooking impaired. I met one great guy at a farmer’s market who had the kids for the weekend and he didn’t want to order take out. He bought some jars of my sauce and I explained how to use them in an easy way.
At this market we were at, he got some salmon (which is packed with vitamins and minerals) from the guy next to my booth. I told him how to use the sauce over the salmon. He took it home and he sent me a message through my website asking for the recipe again. Then he sent me a second note asking how to turn on the broiler. I created a little video of myself turning on my broiler to show him. The next thing I got was an updated picture of the beautiful salmon he’d made. And this was a guy who a few minutes before didn’t even know how to turn the broiler on! I love when people can experience wonderful meals that they never would have tried before.
Hayley’s Recipe for Mexican Shrimp Cocktail Dip
This dip is the perfect appetizer for holidays and family gatherings, plus it’s low in sugar and high in protein. You can kick up the heat by adding more of your favorite chilis for an added punch of flavor and mouth-healthy nutrients like potassium and vitamin C.
- 12-ounce bag of small, cooked shrimp
- 8 ounces of chili sauce
- 8 ounces of pico de gallo (you can find this fresh in the grocery store produce department or make your own)
- 3 small to medium avocados, diced
- 2 tablespoons of lime juice
- ½ teaspoon of garlic salt
Mix the chili sauce, pico de gallo, lime juice and garlic salt together. Add the shrimp and stir to combine. Gently toss together with diced avocados. Serve with chips.
For more cooking tips, inspiration and a behind-the-scenes look at other local chefs we’ve interviewed, check out the entire Food for Thought blog series.