Mom’s cooking inspires top kitchens – and yours

Chef Hugh Acheson’s favorite childhood meal was his Mother’s Chicken Piccata. Now the proprietor of three Georgia restaurants, Acheson remembers the meal as a simple celebration. Enlarge photo

Matthew Mead/Associated Press

Chef Hugh Acheson’s favorite childhood meal was his Mother’s Chicken Piccata. Now the proprietor of three Georgia restaurants, Acheson remembers the meal as a simple celebration.

When he was about 12, Hugh Acheson’s mom went through a cooking phase: recipes from magazines, nice pots and pans, and exciting new dishes, such as her signature chicken piccata.

“It had that tenderness and crispness and this very simple but very bouncy sauce,” Acheson says. But it wasn’t the pop of lemon and capers that impressed the now acclaimed chef-proprietor of three Georgia restaurants as much as the meal’s large dash of happiness. “That’s one meal that was always welcomed by everybody and it was a simple celebration.”

Even though most moms won’t cook on Mother’s Day, their food often holds unparalleled sway over their children, even as adults.

Maybe your mom was a good cook, like Acheson’s, and maybe she wasn’t. But whatever your mom made for you – and how you felt about it (and her) – can transform plain old meatloaf into your special birthday meal, or a steaming empanada into your go-to comfort food. And world-class chefs are no different.

“These foods gain their power on us based on associations with primary caregivers, usually moms,” says Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo who co-authored a 2011 study about comfort foods. “These foods that moms make for us give us a little ability to bring up that love whenever we want. They’re really psychologically powerful.”

In other words, context – where you ate something, how you ate it, whom you ate it with – can be as powerful as the food itself.

For Chicago chef Stephanie Izard, the best part of her mother’s moo shu pork was the monthly pancake-making session, where Mom and her friend Mrs. Cole would sip cocktails, talk girl talk and churn out dozens of paper-thin Chinese crepes. Izard and her sister got to make the filling, messing with mushrooms and all sorts of then-unfamiliar ingredients. But the best part happened when they sat down to eat.

“We each made our own pancakes and got our hands dirty,” the season four winner of Bravo’s “Top Chef” said by email. “Interactive dining I would say. Those are always the best meals. How it should be.”

Sometimes a person’s “mom food” isn’t even one that mom made, just one that’s associated with her. Gabrielle Hamilton’s mom was a great but “challenging” cook, says the chef-owner of Prune in New York’s East Village. Weaned on the wartime cooking of her French parents, Madeline Hamilton regularly laid her table with “cheese that really stank and oozed and had mold,” her daughter says, plus “oily stews, innards and offal.”

“What’s now called ‘nose-to-tail,’ that was naturally her from 45 years ago,” Hamilton says of her mom.

That may explain why Hamilton’s favorite food memory is not of something her mom made, but of the peach Melba her mom treated her to during a trip to Greece.

“She would buy it for me every day and we would sit in the plaza in Athens,” says Hamilton, who was perhaps 7 at the time. “To be on vacation with her and be allowed to have ice cream with peach and raspberry sauce, I was like, ‘This is rather gentle and delicious.’ That’s what’s cherished about it.”

And who did most of the cooking when Jamie Bissonnette was growing up? “Mario’s Pizza around the corner,” says the chef-owner of Boston restaurants Coppa and Toro. Monday was pizza, Tuesday was “gross-me-out” night, he says, which often involved American chop suey with canned mushroom soup, and Wednesday was “fend-for-yourself.” But now and then, Bissonnette’s mom would make a big, beefy chili stuffed with beans, bell peppers and Budweiser.

“I’d hang out in the kitchen doing homework and she’d be making chili and the whole house would start to smell from the Crock-Pot,” he says. “Even before I knew what it was going to taste like, I knew I wanted it.”

That is no surprise, say food psychologists. The part of your brain that processes smell also processes emotions. A bit like Marcel Proust and his famous madeleine, the mere whiff of a beloved food can take you back to that special time or place.

“It’s often called ‘smell brain,’” says Marcia Pelchat, associate member at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center. “Smell brain is also the emotion brain. And odor memories tend to be more emotional than other types of memories.”

Bissonnette still makes chili at least twice a month, he says, upscaling his mother’s version with seared pork belly, piment d’Espelette and craft beer.

Many Americans associate certain qualities with comfort food, for example, warmth, sweetness, starchiness. But SUNY Buffalo’s Gabriel says the perception of something as “comfort food” is very culturally specific.

“For one person it’s sushi, for another person it’s chicken soup, for another it’s lasagna,” she says. “Within our work we found the most important thing tended to be what the foods were that you ate when you were a child.”

Take the empanadas Magdalena Garces used to make for her son, Jose, a James Beard award-winning chef who presides over an empire of six restaurants in Chicago and Philadelphia. Garces still gets lost in the thought of hot, melty cheese swathed in crisp, fried dough and sprinkled with sugar.

“It’s just one of those sensations,” Garces says. “It brings back a Sunday afternoon in Chicago, probably a cold afternoon, watching a Bears football game, and my mom making empanadas that we’d eat at half time. It brings me back to a good place, to a good time in my life.”

Marcela Valladolid’s comfort food involves a big, fiery splat of hot sauce. Valladolid’s mom, Lucha Rodriguez, was a formidable cook of all the Mexican classics – posole, enchiladas, chili rellenos. But more than anything, Valladolid says she still craves the simple quesadillas her late mother laid in front of her each morning.

“She would cut it into triangles, and I would pour a whole bunch of hot sauce on the plate, dip the quesadilla and eat it,” she says. “That was my breakfast my entire life. That was comfort food for me.”

Sometimes a mom’s cooking – for better or worse – is the reason a person becomes a chef. Bissonnette realized early that if he wanted to eat well, he’d have to cook for himself, he says, and he credits his mom “a thousand percent” with inspiring him, however dubiously, to his profession. In contrast, Jacqueline Winch, mom to “Ace of Cakes” Duff Goldman, was a skilled and adventurous cook, her son says, and her beef fondue is the dish that made him a chef.

“The biggest memory, the first thing I think of when I think of dinners at home as a child, is beef fondue,” Goldman says, recalling the way he experimented with temperature, cooking times, and skewering techniques around the communal fondue pot. “That process – discovering that I could alter what I’m eating to suit my taste – at that young of an age stuck with me.”

When these chefs cook in their restaurants, they are performers, public figures being judged, weighed, called out, praised. But at home, many of them are simply moms and dads, creating food memories for their own children the way their moms did for them.

Prune’s Hamilton suspects her two children will remember – though perhaps not fondly – parmesan omelets, which she confesses to serving for breakfast, lunch and dinner (though not usually all in the same day). Valladolid makes her 7-year-old son an organic version of the quesadillas she grew up on. But perhaps no one is recreating childhood food memories for his children as closely as Garces.

That’s because his mom lives around the corner and cooks for his kids every day. And what does she often make? Those very same empanadas that her son loved.

“I think their fondest food memories will be the meals my mom has cooked for them,” he says. “When I see her with my kids, and see her in the kitchen, it brings me back to my childhood.”