Chefs Love What Mom Used to Make

Clockwise from top left, Pichet Ong, Jean Adamson, Sue Torres, Alex Ureña.
Clockwise from top left, Pichet Ong, Jean Adamson, Sue Torres, Alex Ureña.

We’re into foams and deconstruction as much as the next guy, but nothing satisfies us more than our mom’s simple yet singular gazpacho (this is the half-Spanish half of Grub Street talking). We’re not the only ones prone to such nostalgia: Pichet Ong’s mother, Ruby, who to this day frosts the cupcakes at his bakery, raised him on a roasted-eggplant dish that will make an appearance on the Mother’s Day tasting menu at P*ONG. We asked a handful of chefs which childhood dishes they remember most fondly, and which ones, if any, they’ve reinvented as their own.

Clockwise from top left: Ignacio Mattos, Anita Lo, Akhtar Nawab, John Fraser

Pichet Ong, Batch and P*ONG
“My mother is from Shanghai. She doesn’t follow recipes — it’s always a pinch of this and a pinch of that. That’s the basic principle of Asian cooking. Every day she comes into the restaurant and makes the family meal. She braises pork neck, which is layered in fat, in a stewlike format with soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, garlic, onion, or scallion. It’s braised for a long time. It’s kind of salty and sweet at the same time, with a little bit of black pepper. These days we’re trying to eat healthy, so she serves it with brown rice, but when I was growing up, white rice was the norm. Sometimes she’ll hard-boil an egg and braise it together at the same time.”

Jean Adamson, Freemans
“When we were growing up in Salt Lake City, my mom was kind of a hippie, and it was really fun being around when she was into [cooking]. She made everything, from the bread we put our hot dogs on to canning pickles and peaches and pears. She’d dehydrate fruit leather and make her own yogurt and granola. She chose to get up early morning and chop wood and cook in the wood-burning oven. My mother’s family was pretty religious, Mormon. She made this dish called chicken roll-ups. You took boneless skinless chicken breasts that you poached. You mix in cream cheese, cream of mushroom soup, and scallions — so it was a stuffing. Then you took Pillsbury biscuits, rolled them out, stuffed them, then dipped them in butter and then cornflakes. (Mormon cooking uses a lot of cornflakes, canned soup…) Then you bake them. At Freemans we have an iceberg wedge with homemade ranch dressing that’s something my mom used to make all the time.”

Sue Torres, Sueños and Los Dados
“My mom is Italian so our traditional Sunday was to get up, have a light breakfast, go to church, come home, and eat at 3 p.m. I would wake up to the smells of meatballs frying — sausage, gravy … She’d make either ravioli or baked ziti or lasagne or manicotti. My dad’s mother taught her how to cook Puerto Rican food, so she actually made some mean pernil. It has to marinate for 24 hours in a ton of garlic and then she cooked it at 250 degrees for six to eight hours. It’s mostly garlic and oil, slowly roasting it, and she makes the rice. I liked that because we put bacon in it.”

Alex Ureña, Pamplona
“My father and my grandfather used to have a farm outside of Santiago in the Dominican Republic. My mom used to make yogurt out of the cow’s milk. That’s what we used to eat every day, going to school. For Christmastime we’d always have goat — my mom used to braise it with rum instead of wine, and she marinated it with garlic and oreganos. We do Spanish food from Spain at Pamplona, but I have a braised short ribs. We cook with red wine, but to finish I reduce it and add a rum to it, which gives a kick to the sauce.”

Ignacio Mattos, Il Buco
“My grandmother was Italian, and my mother was born in Uruguay. Growing up in Uruguay, it was always my grandma who made the food. Every Sunday my mom would try to convince us she was going to cook, but it turned into a torture. She always ended up making raviolis with ricotta and spinach, and she always did it with four-cheese sauce — the kind that’s in crappy Italian restaurants. She made the sauce nicely. That was her way of saying, “Okay, I’m taking care of you guys.” It was good for one, two Sundays, but after that I just remember complaining. It finally ended but only after a few riots…”

Anita Lo, bar Q
“My mom comes from Malaysia but came to this country when she was 18. She spent some time in Tennessee. Growing up she used to work twelve-hour days and then came home and cooked for us. She used to make a roast duck that I loved — it had orange peel, some fermented soybeans in it, and it was roasted. Sometimes on Sunday she’d make stir-fried noodles and a little pork crackling. One of my favorite dishes, which I have on the menu at bar Q, is her spareribs. We’re doing baby back ribs. She would bake a little barbecue rib with some ketchup and some hoisin. I’ve heard ketchup originated in Malaysia, but she used Heinz. I take them a little bit further: I grill it first, add a couple of other items to the sauce, and I cook it slower than she did and I use Berkshire baby back ribs.”

Akhtar Nawab, Elettaria
“My mother, Sahro, is from a town in India called Lucknow, which is a great food city, sort of like New York. The food is a little bit more flavorful and richer but still very tasty. She used to make keema mattar, which is like the duck we’re doing now. It’s ground lamb or beef with onion and ginger and garlic and chilies, cardamom, and cloves and a little saffron. The ground meat is cooked together for hours, and she’d add the peas toward the end and stew it together. We’d eat it with rice. At Elettaria, the basic components remain the same — the onions are cut and we mince the chilies so that everything melts together a little more whereas my mother would just fry everything. We add potatoes instead of peas and carrots, and we make a duck jus with a little bones left over. We add that to the stewed meat and braise everything together. It’s a little more like a ragout.”

John Fraser, Dovetail
“My mom is half-Greek and half–Northern European — she used to make this béchamel-based tuna-fish casserole out of shredded canned tuna with olive oil and herbs and crushed salted potato chips on top. It was one of those ghetto-fabulous kind of dishes. My parents cooked every day, but we weren’t gourmands by any stretch. We raised chicken and had a garden in the backyard, but it wasn’t exactly about a romantic idea of growing our own produce. A friend had a coop for pigs, and so we had the butcher come and kill them. They still send me care packages with chile peppers and stuff — not even my Latino guys in the kitchen can handle those. My parents only started to understand fine-dining food when I started cooking it — we never set foot in a fine-dining restaurant when I was a kid. The closest we got was Red Lobster.”

Chefs Love What Mom Used to Make