Having led a fast-paced life of a glamorous model who graced many a fashion cover, Danielle Peita Graham first comes across as you would any celebrity – confident, cool and perhaps a little reticent.
But we are here to talk to her about motherhood, and once the subject gets well underway, the beauty warms up with a twinkle in her eye, laughing easily and often about what she goes through with her two children – Ben and Sophia.
She also speaks of her new career as a cookbook author with wide-eyed excitement, tying her love of food and cooking with her dedication to family life.
And despite her seemingly picture-perfect life, Graham was open to sharing her vulnerabilities as a mother and woman with candour and grace. When queried by makchic, she confirms that she is currently a single mother and that it hasn’t been easy.
“Yes, I’m a single mum. It’s been hard. It’s been very difficult. But you know, I choose to focus on the good things in my life, people I love,” Graham said.
We are still a family
Her divorce from banker Patrick Khoo in 2016 was never reported in celebrity-obsessed Malaysia, where personalities’ private lives and the breakdown of their relationships are usually exposed, sometimes with excruciating detail.
We tell her that’s something of a feat, that she managed to navigate all that with a dignified and elegant silence. Graham viewed it as a no-brainer.
“For me, I think the best interest of the children is most important, you know, to protect them. Because they didn’t want that to happen, and it was already hard enough to deal with all of that,” she said.
She said she only released a short statement in Hong Kong, where she was based for many years as a model and where she has a fanbase, around the same time as she launched her cookbook ‘On the Table at Home’ in 2016.
Graham said the breakdown of her marriage was very painful as she herself was a child of divorced parents, but that she was approaching things as best as she could.
“Who wants their family to break up? I came from a broken family – you don’t go in thinking it will happen to you, you know. That wasn’t on the cards.
“But it happened – after a while, things are not working. It was very hard for the kids. But you know, we are still a family. I tell the kids he is still your dad. And I always tell them ‘You know what? You still have two grandfathers and you have two grandmothers – I try to remind them that they are very lucky,” she said.
Motherhood and its Challenges
Graham said she always wanted to be a mother and was ready to have children from the get-go.
“I wanted the baby so badly, I was ready. I was turning 30 and everything happened so fast – I was engaged, and then married and then I had Ben, all within a year. And that was 10 years ago!” she said.
She admitted her birthing experience was quite tough with her firstborn. During labour, she had to endure a second epidural needle as the first one was not inserted in properly. But everything turned out well in the end, she said, and she was overjoyed with the birth of her beautiful baby.
Her breastfeeding experience, although tough at first, turned out well as she had the help of an “amazing midwife” who helped her with the entire post-partum process.
“I couldn’t get him on at first, and there were cracked nipples, engorgement and everything. It was awful. But Jennifer was incredible and taught me how to let baby latch properly,” Graham said.
However, she said she did suffer from post-partum blues after the first six months.
“I was a mess with Ben because I felt so attached to him, and I felt like my whole life had stopped. I was quite depressed for a while. But I talked to friends and I had a good support system, with my mum and best friend coming over.”
Having children also made her want to take better care of herself, especially with keeping healthy and exercising.
“I only really started exercising 7 years ago! In my 20s I was modelling in Hong Kong, and I was partying and travelling here and there. It was life in the fast lane and very ‘me, me, me’, but I’m glad I got that out of my system. Now exercise keeps me sane,” she said.
Cooking with Love
With all her emphasis on her children, it does not seem surprising that the cool model, who once worked with legendary director Wong Kar Wai, has reinvented herself somewhat as a passionate home cook, devoted to her home and family.
After repeated requests from followers and fans on Instagram for her family-friendly recipes in a book, she took her love of cooking for her family and friends to the next logical step. She published her book in 2016, and it contains over 70 delightful Asian and Western recipes she often cooks for her own children.
I told her that her Chicken Karaage and Chicken stew recipes are a huge hit with my own children and husband, and we immediately started chatting about other recipes that do well with children and that are easy to make.
She also shares that she caters for friends and other clients and is going to launch her own range of kitchen products soon. With all this excitement happening in her life, she still takes the most pride in cooking at home every day for her children, who clearly enjoy their meals.
Just how did she get her kids to eat so healthy?
She said she set good eating habits with them, especially the routine of sitting down as a family for meal times. “Also, I make sure they don’t leave the table until they finish their food. My dad was strict about that, so I am too,” she said.
The kids also come along with her to the market as she involves them in the selection of food, so they can appreciate and love their food.
But she faces challenges just like any mum and professes to sneak in vegetables in some dishes.
And as much as they ate well, Graham said her children also drove her a little mad with their behaviour at times. The terrible twos, she said, were particularly difficult.
“Oh, they can drive me freaking nuts. Like last night – they wouldn’t sleep for about an hour! I thought ‘Why can’t you guys just go to sleep?”
Taking Care of Ourselves
Just like any other mum, Graham said she struggles with guilt too. As a single mother who needs to work, she said she also tries to achieve a balance with the children.
But she said it was very important for all mothers to have a little break with friends or have a night out away from the kids.
“I think I need to have that. Even if it’s just one hour or half an hour, it helps me manage things and manage myself. We get caught up with taking care of everyone else and everything, so I think that’s really important,” she said.
She also feels it is important for mothers to not spend too much time worrying about what other people thought of them.
“I just don’t think about all of that, or I would get paranoid. I prefer to focus my time and energy on other things, not what other people think of me. There were negative comments when I was engaging someone lately on Instagram – I just stopped and ignored them. I had to put the brakes down.”
Despite attending the best and glitziest parties in town (she is still a much sought-after model), what’s central in her life inevitably pops up again as the conversation veers back to food.
She becomes animated when talking about taking her children to the local wet market, where she is friendly with the fish traders to get the freshest fish.
“That’s very important to me!” she says emphatically.
The fish traders, as well as other market traders, often pop up on her Instagram account, and her children are often involved in the selection of fresh produce for their weekly shop.
Single Parenting is No Walk in the Park
We talk about Graham’s positive mindset and her many smiles and happy posts on her social media platform, but the Irish-Malaysian Chinese beauty assures us nothing is ever so perfect and delightful.
Graham said single parenting was a challenge and there had been many tough and painful times she had to deal with in private.
“I had a therapist for a while, and that really helped me a lot. I had time to breathe, to heal. Of course, on some days, I’m a mess, I cry, I’m in my room, but I just don’t need to share that with the whole world. That’s taking care of myself, allowing myself to have those feelings.”
Having gone through these tough times has also shaped her outlook on raising her children.
She worries about the possibility of her children getting bullied because she was bullied in school too, especially after she started doing television commercials when she was 14.
Most of all, Graham said she always tells Ben and Sophia that it is very important that they are kind and that they work hard.
“They don’t need to be the prettiest or the smartest in class. I tell them – you need to be the most hardworking ones and you need to be nice. It really doesn’t matter if a person is not nice to you, you just walk away.”
By Laych Koh
Chicken Stew with Potato and Carrot Recipe from On The Table At Home
Serves 4-6. Total preparation and cooking time: 45 minutes
500g organic chicken thigh fillets, skin on
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 thin slices of ginger
1 red onion, cut into wedges
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
3 potatoes, cut into wedges
2 carrots, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 cups chicken stock
2 spring onions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon coriander (cilantro) leaves
Steamed rice, to serve (optional)
1. Rinse and pat the chicken dry with paper towel. Cut into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the vegetable oil in a large saucepan over high heat. Add the ginger, onion and garlic and cook for 5 minutes, or until fragrant. Add the chicken and cook for 3 minutes, or until browned on all sides. Transfer the pan contents to a bowl and set aside.
3. Heat the remaining oil in the same saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the potato and carrot and cook for 2 minutes, or until slightly golden. Return the chicken mixture to the saucepan and stir to combine. Add the sugar, white pepper, sesame oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and chicken stock. Stir gently to combine. Cover, bring to the boil and cook over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 20 minutes, or until the chicken is tender.
4. Arrange the chicken stew in bowls and scatter over the spring onion and coriander. Serve immediately with steamed rice, if desired.
Win win win!
The limited edition family set is now available to purchase from www.onthetableathome.com. It is priced at USD$89 for online orders to South East Asia (Malaysia included) and will include:
- A signed copy of ‘On the Table at Home’ cookbook
- A 7-inch Japanese Santoku all-rounder adult knife
- 5-inch Child-friendly round tipped knife
- A pair of lightweight multi-purpose kitchen shears
They are made from high-quality German steel and feature a modern grey soft thermoplastic rubber handle for easy use.
One lucky winner will be able to win the limited edition family set. All you need to do is fill up this form and tell us ‘What is your go-to one pot dish or meal that your whole family enjoys, and why?”
Be sure to submit your entries before 26th April, 2019!