It’s true that the house Dahlia Haas bought and completely renovated on Kauai’s Secret Beach is breathtaking, but a house is just a house until it grows its personality, claims its character. Dali Hale is overflowing with personality, not in small part because of its effervescent owner, culinary wizard, Dahlia Haas. When she and her family are in residence in their Hawaii digs (they are based in Seattle) the kitchen, which Dahlia designed herself, is bustling. Traditional Hawaiian music fills the air along with the aromas of coconut, ginger, and chili as the popular teacher/chef transforms vegetables from her organic garden into some surprising and inventive new recipe.
“I felt completely at home in Hawaii from the first moment I stepped off the plane twenty-three years ago,” she says. That might not sound unusual. Many people in southern California have an attachment to Hawaii. The islands are to Californians what Florida is to New Yorkers, a familiar escape to a lush tropical environment. But in Dahlia’s case, the journey to Kauai and her sense of Hawaii is absolutely the “right” place is not so run of the mill. That’s because Kauai is exactly 8,696 miles from Alexandria, Egypt where she was born and then, along with her family, forced to flee a hostile political climate. The refugee family’s first stop on their search for a home was Paris. Though she was quite young at the time, Dahlia remembers shopping in the boulangeries and patisseries of Paris. “I am sure my love of food comes from there,” she says laughing. “I remember as a little girl having French bread, chocolate, and café au lait.” But the Paris years were few before the family moved and finally settled in Seattle, a place they knew nothing about but had been told, Dahlia says laughing, that it would be a lot like Egypt.
Needless to say, Seattle was a surprise. “Back then Seattle didn’t have ANY food scene!” But there was a food and entertainment scene at the Levy family’s home. “My mother always gave parties and we all helped.” She remembers her mother making Coquilles St. Jacques, delicate chocolate cones and fine, almost transparent filo dough that Dahlia still makes with her mother on visits home to Seattle. Cooking was such a passion for young Dahlia that as a little girl, she admits, she would pretend to be sick just to stay home from school and watch Julia Child. “I learned to cook from that TV show!”
For culinary-obsessed teenage girls in those days, there weren’t a lot of opportunities to fill in for Julia Child, nor were there many high profile female chef role models. The closest thing to her interest that Dahlia could find to study was nutrition. While it was an important learning experience, her passion was, like her mother’s, “to entertain and serve food to an appreciative audience!” It was only a few years later in L.A. that she finally found a way to do that. She found a job with legendary L.A. caterer, Moveable Feast and as fate would have it, one of her first assignments was catering for the opening of the King Tut exhibit at the L.A. Museum of Art. “All of a sudden I was the expert on Egypt and Egyptian food.” It this first experience, followed by a growing confidence that led her to strike out on her own.
The swift and growing popularity of her cooking classes was a bit of a surprise, and propelled her to develop even more recipes to share with her admiring students…and there are many! The multi-award-winning chef is a regular at Rancho La Puerta, a popular wellness retreat near San Diego, and travels widely giving classes and talks about food. Those trips often take her to her beloved Hawaii and her Kauai home, Dali Hale. It is there, she says, her imagination and creativity flourish.
When she and her husband first discovered the Hawaii house, her decision to buy it was instant. “It was the view of the lighthouse,” she says of the 100-year-old Kilauea Lighthouse. “Our family lived near Egypt’s oldest lighthouse and seeing this one in Kauai anchored me. I just knew I had to have the house.”
Villa Dali Hale, once a yoga retreat for popular San Francisco spiritual teacher, Shakti Gawain, had a well-worn, lived in feeling, but for Dahlia, it was a blank canvas. She remembers thinking, “If I am going to own this house I will make it perfect!” The nine-bedroom home, plantation-like and overgrown with its lush banana, cherry and mango trees and long veranda (lanai) surrounding the building, was beautiful. And Dahlia set out to make it even more beautiful. “For a year I couldn’t sleep I was so busy choosing furniture, linens, fabric, fan, and art and traveling back and forth,” she says. There was so much to do to get the house in shape and she was making progress. “And then I broke my hand,” she says without a bit of self-pity. Did she stop? Absolutely not! “I was like a bird with a broken wing, but I had to just keep working.”
She chose a palette of blues, grays and greens. “If you look at the view outside you always know what colors to use inside,” she advises. “I looked at the mountains the ocean and the sand. It was easy.” She wanted her getaway home to feel like Hawaii; not the classic ‘Hawaiiana’ cliché but something modern and airy, using indigenous materials such as teak and koa. She selected a pearlized oyster color for the walls, again referencing the sea, and eschewed more formal fabrics such as silk and velvet choosing instead cottons and linen.
It was also important to Dahlia to use the work of local Hawaiian artists such as Pepe Patrick Conley. His subject matter and use of saturated colors and intense light reflect the Hawaii where he grew up. Another favorite artist’s work, that of Betty Jean Nativio, welcomes visitors in the entranceway. It is a large painting of a Hawaiian woman, her neck draped with flowers. “There is a romance particular to Hawaii in that painting,” Dahlia says.
Dahlia Haas uses the word “welcome” frequently in conversation and she says, in revitalizing the former yoga retreat, that her goal was to create a kind of inviting easy coziness that speaks hospitality. She chose sofas, both indoors and outdoors, that are so huge each can seat ten. “They face the ocean so everyone can have a view of the sea,” says the woman who, like her mother, has a passion for entertaining. And the dining room table? “Fourteen people can sit comfortably, and it is so big,” she pauses and chuckles, “that it took nine people just to carry it into the house.” And, “yes,” she says, of course that table has a view of the ocean.
Her design philosophy? When you are inside, you should feel like you are outside! “You look out one window and you see the powerful, immense, green mountains. Look out another window and you can see dolphins and whales in the blue ocean below.” And from the windows you can see that lighthouse that Dahlia Haas believes brought her from Alexandria, Egypt to Kauai, Hawaii.” My mother told me, ‘When you are born, everything in your life is planned’ and I believe finding this house in Kauai made me realize that.”
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