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My Foodie Friends Dish On The Ingredients That Make Up Their Food Memories

We all have memories that are tied to the foods, people, and traditions that we hold close. I sat down with some of my favorite chefs (and friends) to get an inside peek at some of their favorite memories with loved ones in the kitchen.
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"What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others." - Pericles

This quote was left by our server at our regular Sunday morning spot known to my family as our daughter's happy place, because she loves nothing more than their whole wheat bread with Nutella. Our friend Lottie introduced us to the joy of breaking bread with Nutella, and in addition to the frittatas, stratas, chicken sausage, and fruit salad, I would always include a baguette with Nutella if Lottie was coming for breakfast. I believe my daughter's love of Nutella began at these breakfasts.

Sharing a meal with my favorite people is my jam. One of my happy places is sitting on a barstool in my friend Jay's kitchen, eating roasted veggies that he has gathered from the farmers' market and then spooned into super chic bowls. Each satisfying bite grounds me, the layers of heat (Jay likes it spicy) leaving me in a state of bliss. Jay knows how much I love to eat but at the same time understands my desire to be healthy. When I come home at night from work events, this is the guy who slices me a big beautiful Honeycrisp apple to share over conversation, or grabs a huge mason jar and fills it with a hot detox tea of raw honey, turmeric, fresh ginger, lemon, and cayenne and orders me to get off my computer and go to bed. My dear friend lives and breathes health and self-care, and his positive modeling has helped me live better and realize how important it is to teach my own children what healthy living looks and tastes like.

Then there's my girlfriend Emily who showers me with green concoctions to detoxify, teas to cleanse, and in between that I try to keep up as her sous chef while we cook meals to keep as many as 10 large families happy, smiling, and full for our annual July 4 gathering. This is one of my favorite long weekends; brainstorming what recipes we would put in our book, eating blueberries by the handful - picking only the biggest and sweetest berries, sipping green smoothies and finding ways to incorporate coconut mana, cilantro, and organic sriracha into our meals. The people I love, tasty food, time-honored traditions, and the picturesque location are jumbled up together and each one makes me think of the other.

When asked about his favorite food memory, my son Zack, without hesitation, recalls the time he made three different flavors (regular, chocolate, and chocolate curry) of whipped cream with his Uncles Rich and Jaime. He has already offered to prepare whipped cream for Thanksgiving this year and I know when he does, while the mixer is thumping, he will likely be smiling ear to ear, grooving to the beat. It's all about the experience of cooking, eating, and sharing that with the people you love most.

We all have memories that are tied to the foods, people, and traditions that we hold close. I sat down with some of my favorite chefs (and friends) to get an inside peek at some of their favorite memories with loved ones in the kitchen.

"I would stir... my soup while she cooked dinner beside me." - Gail Simmons

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Gail loved cooking at a young age.

"My mother was an incredible cook, ahead of her time in many ways and my fondest memories are of watching her cook in our kitchen and helping her out in little ways," Food & Wine's Gail Simmons remembers. Gail's mom made dinner for her family every single night of the week - and she used to love pretending to cook alongside her.

"She would put a big pot in the sink for me and I would sprinkle in ridiculous combinations of spices, herbs, condiments, and liquids from the fridge, to make magic soup," she said. "I would stir and concoct my soup while she cooked dinner beside me."

Fast forward. Gail is now the one cooking for her daughter, just as her mom did for her when she was little.

"Now that I am a mother, I am acutely aware of an even greater need to be healthy so I can be there for my daughter's needs too." Eating well, being active, and setting a good example are all part of that equation.

"This also includes making decisions that set a good example for her, instill in her good eating habits, a curiosity and love of good quality food, and the knowledge to make her own healthy choices in the future," she said.

"....my father ruled the kitchen." - Tamron Hall

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Tamron prepared an Easter dinner feast for her family.

Tamron Hall has won over TV audiences with her spunky personality and cheerful attitude. Growing up in Texas, she was always close with her family.

"We bucked the norm when it came to who cooks in the family," said Hall. "My mother never cooked in our home, my father ruled the kitchen." Sadly, after he passed, she realized she spent more time eating and enjoying his meals, than learning how to follow his footsteps in the kitchen.

Tamron, who cooks at least four times a week and for all the holidays, is happy to say her friends and family brag on her culinary skills.

"Four years ago, I went to a cooking class after friends gave me a gift certificate in NYC. From that day on, I've studied people like Ina Garten and yes, Chef Art Smith." Although she gained much of her skills from these professional chefs, the love of cooking and being in the kitchen came from her dad.

"I know my dad would be proud, because he saw it as an honor to cook great meals for his family."

Tamron, who as a rule chooses happiness and looks at the road ahead with optimism instead of focusing on life's challenges, is not one to deny herself her favorite foods. Having a career that puts her in the limelight, she practices moderation to help her maintain a healthy lifestyle. When she tried eliminating sugar from her diet, she was disappointed that it didn't work out for her. Instead, she now focuses on portion control, and enjoys a healthy, fat-free, yogurt smoothie for her daily breakfast.

There is a time for a special indulgence though, and for Tamron her birthday is one such occasion. "My birthday meal looks like a huge chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. Since I was a kid, it was a must, and that holds true today," she said.

"My grandmother was...the one who taught and influenced me..." - Chef JJ

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JJ and his sister with their grandparents; his grandmother influenced him in the kitchen.

Pasteles filled with braised chicken, olives, and piquillo peppers. Can't you almost smell the amazing aromas drifting from the kitchen? For award-winning chef at The Cecil and Minton's in Harlem, New York, Joseph Johnson (JJ), this dish, made by his great aunts, holds a special place in his food memories.

JJ let us in on a little secret, "My grandmother was really the one who taught and influenced me in my earlier years," he said. "I used to stand next to her on a stool and watch her cook."

Food traditions are strong; and most of us have a favorite birthday tradition that involves food - whether sweet or savory. For Chef JJ, it's quite the schmorgusboard. "My birthday meal would be a Sunday dinner food spread. My mother's BBQ chicken, my girlfriend's pasta with turkey Bolognese, Popeye's friend chicken, and amazing tomatoes from my close friend's garden."

"I enjoyed and appreciated growing food." - Govind Armstrong

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Govind discovered his identity as a chef early in life.

Govind Armstrong, a California chef who grew up in Englewood and Costa Rica, has developed quite the green thumb over the years. Sitting down together with his siblings and parents for meals was a part of everyday life. Govind's respect and passion for food is reflected both on the menus at his various restaurants and in his own mannerisms. Meals are taken slowly, with friends and family. It's a time to relax, reflect, and be grateful. I have never known my friend to speak with his mouth full, or to be in a hurry to eat or get to a point. Eating a meal is an event, like a waltz.

Govind's family had chickens and a garden and they were out with them every day, planting and harvesting. "I enjoyed and appreciated growing food. Knowing where it came from taught me how to genuinely appreciate food early on."

Years later Govind still has his garden, and just as it was an integral part of his life he is now creating the same traditions with his four-year-old daughter, who has her own special stool in the kitchen where she can cook by her dad's side. Each day, they head out to their garden together, watering and tending to the plants and veggies. "I see the excitement in her eyes and hear discovery in her voice every day. Tomatoes, herbs, and cucumbers are her favorite."

"Sharing a dish of food is like sharing a token of love." - Art Smith

Growing up in the South, Common Threads co-founder Art Smith is no stranger to gardens and fresh food.

"My grandpa grew a garden that fed us throughout my childhood," he said. "All of our protein was raised on our farm." The notion of food and bringing together loved ones through its power is important and Southern hospitality is a big part of that.

"Sharing a dish of food is like sharing a token of love," says Smith. We bring soup to friends that are sick and cookies to the office to celebrate a co-workers birthday. It's about more than eating; it's about giving a part of yourself and sharing the experience with those you love most.

"Food is love. Food is for good times and sad times. Food is always appropriate."

Food is powerful; our traditions and rituals around it are shaped by the people we love.

Food memories provide us with a special connection to our cherished ones and the events that surround them. Sometimes we look to famous chefs for inspiration in the kitchen and sometimes, similar to many of the culinary masterminds above, we look up to the moms, dads, grandparents, and loved ones in our lives.

In cooking, everything matters, so the next time you step into your kitchen focus on whom you are cooking for and realize you are making a memory. You nourish your relationships when you create delicious and wholesome meals together with your favorite people.

Sharing a family meal is good for us in so many ways.

In an effort to reach more families, Common Threads offers a wonderful resource: the Cooking For Life Handbook: an eight-week, budget-friendly meal plan, produce guide, and interactive program designed to get kids interested in eating their vegetables and fruits. It can be downloaded for FREE from the Common Threads website.

I challenge you. Grab your mom, dad, sister, daughter, husband, best guy, best gal -- a person in your life that makes you smile -- and cook a meal together from the Cooking For Life Handbook. Spread the word about this accessible tool to help families lead healthier and happier lives.