Food & Drink

Famous Chefs Recount Heartwarming Stories About Their Moms

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Ask anyone about their mom, and they are bound to start talking about her cooking -- a favorite family recipe, a holiday dish they look forward to all year, or how they still keep their freezer stocked with emergency portions of her chicken soup. In honor of Mother’s Day, we decided to ask some of your favorite chefs about the maternal figures who gave them the literal first taste of their passion: be it by inspiring a dish or inspiring them to pursue their dreams. They confirm that no matter how great you get in the kitchen, there’s always going to be that one recipe Mom makes better.

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Alex Guarnaschelli, Executive Chef of NYC’s Butter, judge on Chopped & competitor on Iron Chef America

On her cooking: “[My mom] has been a force of nature for me. She leads by example as much as by teaching. She is always cooking something and my dad and I are always eating it! My mom has cooked so many tremendous meals. She’s a natural (so is my dad for that matter), but she also occasionally makes mistakes. She made ratatouille only once that I can remember and she used these large eggplants and zucchini. She roasted them all in the oven and the result was a super bitter mix of flavors. And not in the good sense. It was the first time I realized the importance of using the right ingredient, in the right form and at the right moment. A lesson I retained and call upon to this day.”
On her influence: “I have so many standstill moments while working. Times when I doubted myself or my choice of profession, she would always tell me to forge on. She would recount her own experiences and give examples -- analogies that help me see things more clearly. She tells me the truth I sometimes don't want to hear and delivers the message bluntly. Invaluable.”

Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson, Executive Chef of Minton’s

On her cooking: “My grandmother was Puerto Rican, so there were a lot of Puerto Rican dishes like pasteles and rice and beans and stewed chicken. She’d make her own chicken stock throughout the day and made stew that would have Guinea hen in it and potatoes and yams and okra. So they were always filling, chef-driven meals. Nothing was ever pulled from a can, from start to finish. Being in the kitchen with my grandmother from the ages of 5 to 9, I wasn’t really watching cartoons, I was just cooking in the kitchen or peeling onions and crying or running around grabbing spices for her. I was her little helper.”
On her influence: “I do make my own pasteles, and pasteles are really similar to tamales, which are made of masa. Pasteles are made from raw plantains and cassava wrapped in banana leaf. So I do that dish, reminiscing about my grandmother… my mom would always preach, ‘You should always do what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about.’ My mom was a kindergarten teacher; she just recently retired. She was never tired of going to work, and she always preached that you should do what you love. You should go out and be the best that you can be in your passion, and make your passion your career. It was always my passion, so that’s why I cook.”

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Guy Fieri, Restaurateur & host of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives & Guy’s Grocery Games

On her cooking: “My mom and I [always made granola together]. Everybody thinks they’ve got the perfect granola recipe, but my mom makes the BOMB granola. (Don’t forget, we were hippies living in California). The most trouble I ever got in as a kid was if I didn’t turn the granola in time on this old stove we had and it burned.”
On her influence: “Anything with quinoa is a direct influence from my mom. I try and cook things she’s a fan of, and the same went for my sister, who was a vegetarian when she was alive. To this day, [my mom’s] the one I try and impress. Since my parents live next door, whenever we cook I’ll ask if they want to take home leftovers. If she says no, I know the recipe might need reworking!”

Marc Murphy, Owner of Landmarc & judge on Chopped

On her cooking: “My grandparents lived in the South of France, so their way of life was very influential to the way I grew up and how I first learned about food. [My grandmother] would always make [ratatouille] in the summer using all the ripe vegetables, and I’ve adapted her recipe into my own. It’s really one of my favorites. I even included it in my cookbook, Season with Authority: Confident Home Cooking.”
On her influence: “Her genuine love of food piqued my interest and opened the door to what being a cook was. When we were eating breakfast, we were talking about what we’d make for lunch, and when we ate lunch, we were talking about what we’d be eating for dinner. Food was the epicenter of the family and so was enjoying great memories around those meals. That made me happy and helped me know that making that part of my job is something that keeps me happy so many years later.”

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Rocco DiSpirito, James Beard Award-winning chef, healthy lifestyle crusader, & creator of Rocco’s Organic Protein Powder Plus

On her cooking: “[I’ll always remember] how [my mother] reacted when we had unexpected guests. Remember those days? The ‘drop by,’ or ‘I was in the neighborhood!’ Today we would cringe and/or pretend we weren’t home. She didn’t flinch! After a warm welcome and a seat at the table was offered, she produced delicious fresh food like magic. She was the ultimate [quick service restaurant]. Even if we had nothing on hand, she made guests feel as if she’d been planning this meal for days. Many of my favorite dishes were dishes she made on the fly. Often so simple it staggers the mind. ‘Pizza Fritta,’ aka fried dough, ‘Spaghetti Aglio e Olio’ which sounds fancy but it’s literal spaghetti, garlic, and olive oil. And of course she usually had meatballs in ‘gravy’ stashed away somewhere behind the leftover bread in the freezer.”
On her influence: “What I learned most was that we cook for people -- not for a paycheck, but as a form of tribute. She was a public school lunch lady and I know every one of those students felt the same warmth and affection I did. Feeding someone isn’t only the act of preparing a meal and serving it, it’s also nourishing them, investing in them, telling them that they are valuable and matter. And don’t forget the moment you give a person when you sit them down and cook for them. It can be magical if the intention is there. That concept is at the heart of true hospitality, and our great restaurateurs like Danny Meyer, Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali, and Richard Melman understand this deeply.”

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John Tesar, Owner of Knife, competitor on Top Chef

On her cooking: “My mom would do the Feast of the Seven Fishes every Christmas Eve, and to this day I recreate the memory every year in my restaurant Knife. Guests love it!”
On her influence: “[Both my mother and grandmother] introduced me to fresh food, gardens, ethnic cuisines, old-world techniques, and the wonders of the ocean -- not to mention the social aspects of enjoying great food. My mother’s love of food helped me develop my palate and a view of food -- and the world -- that have helped me be the chef I am today. Food = Love.”

Dominique Ansel, Chef/Owner of Dominique Ansel Bakery & Dominique Ansel Kitchen

On her cooking: “It’s a little bit the other way around. When I was just starting out in the kitchen and learning how to cook, it was my mother trying my cooking that I remember ... I grew up in quite a poor family in France, in a town north of Paris, my father worked in a factory and my grandmother lived with us. Oftentimes, we didn’t have much to eat as the family was living off the salary of just one factory worker. My mother was actually a horrible cook, and I don’t really remember times when we sat around a table eating a hearty delicious meal together.”
On her influence: “When we were kids, I remember we only ate cassoulet out of a can. But these days, I make a proper cassoulet every year for Christmastime for my friends and family -- I call it Three Day Cassoulet, because it takes three days to make (soaking the beans on the first day, braising all the meats on the second, and then a long day of simmering until it’s thick and flavorful and ready to eat), and I make so much of it that it takes three days to eat. Last Christmas, I made a huge pot for my team too, and somehow or another, it reminded me of home and how grateful I am today.”

Courtesy of Fabio Viviani

Fabio Viviani, Restaurateur, author of Fabio’s 30-Minute Italian, fan favorite on Top Chef & competitor on Top Chef: All-Stars

On her cooking: “[My grandmother] was wheelchair-bound, so she really couldn’t do much of the cooking. So I have memories of me standing in between her legs, getting wheeled around the house and helping her accomplish tasks in those parts of the kitchen where she couldn’t reach. I remember stirring everything. Because when you stir something, it’s usually on your lap or on the table. But when you have me standing between your legs you can’t have a pot of anything there, so I remember she was arming me with spoons and whisks, and I was stirring butter and sauces and whipped cream for the longest time.”
On her influence: “She always taught me to keep it simple. Less is more, less is more. You know, she taught me restraint, and she taught me not to go overboard with everything. [Instead], to just keep it simple and just kind of highlight the good flavor of simple main ingredients, rather than try to embellish every dish with a bunch of useless additions and sauces and drizzles and everything else that just ‘makes it prettier,’ but is useless from a taste perspective.”

Chef Maneet Chauhan, Owner of Chauhan Ale and Masala House & judge on Chopped

On her cooking: “Some of my favorite memories are from when my grandma, my dad’s mom, would come to visit us during summer time. We used to have two mango trees in our backyard that I was never allowed to climb (you know, because it’s dangerous). Every time my grandma would come she would make me climb the trees to break off some mangos, and we’d collect them and take them to the farmers market. We had to take them there because there was a lady who had a knife that was sharp enough to cut through the fruit. We would come home and she would make mango pickles for us. Those are some of my best memories.”
On their influence: “The women in my life have been very strong and have always stood on their own feet. Just seeing that has inspired me to know that being a strong woman is the way to be. I think it was the constant drive to succeed they placed in me, and that is what encouraged me to step outside the boundaries of cultural norm.”

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Franklin Becker, Co-Founder of Hungryroot.com & contestant on Top Chef Masters

On her cooking: “My mother’s Passover meals were epic. Latkes, matzoh ball soup, brisket, sponge cake -- all recipes passed down from her mother. From the time I was seven I helped [her] in the kitchen. I loved to eat matzoh balls as fast as she could make them. She had to make extra just for me.”
On her influence: “My mom was not a well woman, so when she cooked it made me feel special. No matter what she went through personally, we always had delicious hot food on the table. Her heart was made warmer by making us feel more loved. She always taught me to cook from the heart; the best food is made with love for loved ones.”