When you’re a kid watching the elder members of your family preparing food in the kitchen, the lessons you learn there can affect the rest of your life. You might’ve picked up skills, techniques and recipes that you’ll pass to the next generation of your family. Some young folks become so inspired they make a career out of cooking for others.
In honor of Mother’s Day, we asked notable chefs from across the country to tell us the best cooking tips they picked up from their moms and grandmas.
Mary Sue Milliken, chef/co-owner of Border Grill
As the chef and co-owner of Border Grill locations in California and Nevada, Mary Sue Milliken has been preparing modern Mexican cuisine for some time. But her aversion to trashing food comes from another era.
“My mom grew up in the depression and it had a huge effect on how she cooked and handled food,” Milliken said. “She taught me to waste nothing! We washed and reused all our plastic bags dozens of times, which is something I still do today. We put washed lettuce and greens with a thin dish towel into airtight plastic bags and they would last for over a week. When all the heads of cabbage in our garden matured in unison, she taught me to make her mom’s sauerkraut. She also taught me to braise unpopular (but affordable) cuts of meat like beef tongue, brisket, lamb neck or breast and turkey thighs.”
Adrienne Wright of ‘Top Chef’
This past season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” featured Adrienne Wright, the executive chef of the Boston Urban Hospitality group. While she didn’t win the challenge in the garden, it’s clear she has a reverence for fresh produce.
“My mother Mandy is the queen of coleslaw and quinoa,” Wright said. “We were eating health food way before it was trendy. She taught me how to incorporate vegetables into every meal, including endless salad variations. Her coleslaw always has the perfect texture ― half the cabbage is sliced thinly with a knife and half is grated on a box grater. She also always grates the onion so that you never get too big of a bite of raw onion, one of her least favorite things! It’s always first dressed with vinegar to start breaking down the cabbage, and then finished with a touch of mayonnaise to round out the flavor. I have her to thank for my love of fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and acid; all of which have become signatures of my cooking as I’ve found my own path in this industry.”
Sohui Kim, chef/owner of The Good Fork
“One of the many cooking tips I learned from my mother is the use of fruit in savory cooking,” Sohui Kim, the longtime chef and owner of The Good Fork in Brooklyn, New York, said. “The balance of sweet, salty, spicy and the umami is encapsulated in the essence of Korean cooking. For instance, I use apples and Asian pears in marinades for meats and vegetables for the grill. With the addition of Chung Jung One Gochujang sauce, it packs a punch in the final product. My favorite recipe incorporates CJO Gochujang, apples, onions, garlic, ginger and mirin into a marinade for skirt steak. It’s been on my menu as my signature dish for 13 years and counting. Try as I might, I can’t take it off!”
Gio Osso, chef/owner Virtu Honest Craft
If you travel to Scottsdale, Arizona, and peek in the kitchen of executive chef and owner of Gio Osso’s Virtu Honest Craft, you’ll find him still using one of his mom’s techniques.
“She’s the one who taught me the cork trick for our octopus dish,” said Osso, who cooks perfectly tender octopus by adding a cork to the pot. “She had no idea why it works either, as her mother showed her.”
Her influence on him was undeniable in other ways as well. “She taught me simplicity and not overthinking what to put on the plate. During my culinary school days, she would encourage me to be creative. She taught me to use my knowledge, my roots and the simplicity she kept speaking of to create new flavor pairings presented in an artistic way. This is the very philosophy I carry to this day, and I owe it all to my mom. Unfortunately, she didn’t get to see my career evolve. She passed shortly after I graduated culinary school, but I’m sure she’s smiling and looking down from the big kitchen in the sky, saying she taught me well.”
Brian Landry, chef/owner of Jack Rose and Marsh House
“Given that my mom was one of 10 children and there was always someone hungry around, some of her best advice to me was to cook big!” Landry told HuffPost. “After all, gumbo always tastes even better the second day. I always took this to mean that I should not only make sure that I had prepared enough for the current meal, but to also ensure I had enough for any family or friends who might drop in. The scent of roux being cooked in cast iron or shrimp stock being simmered on the stove always seems to attract more guests than initially planned for. My mom and dad currently have no more kids in their house to feed, but there’s always a (larger than necessary) pot of something delicious on the stove. Her red gravy is still one of my favorites!”
Mette Williams, culinary instructor
The Institute of Culinary Education prepares a new generation of chefs to embark on their careers, and as a chef and instructor of culinary arts at its LA campus, Mette Williams is there to help. Her own culinary education began in the kitchen with her mom.
“When I was growing up, we usually made pancakes on Saturdays ― buttermilk pancakes,” Williams said. “I would get the ingredients and measure them out, while my mom got the cast iron heated and other breakfast items ready. One Saturday I couldn’t find the buttermilk and I was pretty bummed because I figured we weren’t going to be able to make them. My mom got a lemon from the fruit basket and said, ‘No worries, we can use half of this lemon juice and add it to our milk. It will curdle it and give it a sour taste almost like buttermilk.’ Now that I have my own two kids, we make pancakes every Saturday too, and I hardly ever have buttermilk in the fridge.”