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Childhood Dishes: 15 Chefs Share Early Inspirations

By Kelly Dobkin
December 9, 2013

Whether they trained at a culinary institute or in high-end kitchens, most chefs claim the heart and soul of their food comes from a different place: the family table. From Laotian sticky rice and beef jerky to Provençal bouillabaisse, these dishes helped shape the cooking of some of the country's best chefs. Read on to explore the roots of their food.

  • Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto

    "As you may know, the main Japanese staple food is rice. When I was a child, rice was very expensive, so not many people could eat rice as a staple food like today. My family and I would eat sweet potatoes most of the time instead of rice! So when I ate rice once in a while, I was really happy. That’s why I created rice dishes such as Buri Bop (yellowtail on rice cooked at the table in a hot stone bowl), Kakuni (10-hour pork) with congee, and several other dishes that go with rice. In my restaurants, I care so much about rice. We buy brown rice and polish it with a rice-milling machine on site to retain the moisture. For sushi in particular, it is extremely important to cook rice correctly because bad rice can ruin sushi. I dreamed about eating rice every day during my childhood, and now it has become an essential ingredient for many of my dishes."

  • Hung Huynh, Executive Chef at CATCH and The General, NYC

    “At CATCH, we serve a dish called Lobster Cantonese. The inspiration came from a local Chinese restaurant my family and I frequented that served something very similar. When I was about 12 years old, I asked the chef how he prepared the dish; he brought me into the kitchen and taught me how to ‘toss the wok.’ Ever since then, I have been making a version of this dish using lobster butter, sake and mirin.”

  • Akhtar Nawab, Executive Chef at La Cenita, NYC

    “Cumin seeds always make me think of my mother's cooking. She used it so often in dishes like lentils, rice, long-cooked vegetable dishes, etc. It has a very persuasive aroma. There are many different kinds of cumin, and we use the white cumin at La Cenita. It's a little more mild than the black cumin but equally delicious. We also make a "muy fuerte" ranchera salsa that is an updated version of the traditional. It is made with a lot of cumin, poblano peppers and charred vegetables. The cumin adds a real depth and earthiness to the salsa.”

  • Frank McMahon of Hank's Seafood, Charleston, SC

    "My mother's warm Yukon Gold potato salad - German-style, of course. She makes it with onions, hot chicken stock, oil, vinegar, and mustard salt and pepper. I add truffle oil and chives."

  • Laurent Kalkotour of Atrium DUMBO, Brooklyn, NY

    "While it’s not necessarily a family recipe, bouillabaisse is predominant in the south of France. I grew up eating it, and when I started working in restaurants, I learned how to cook it and improve upon it. It’s featured on our menu with the striped bass because, instead of doing a full bouillabaisse, which is elaborate, we wanted something simpler and more rustic but still keeping true to my roots and the flavors of bouillabaisse."

  • Photo by: Cherie Cincilla

    Bruce Bromberg of Blue Ribbon Restaurants, NYC

    “The entire Blue Ribbon menu is inspired by our childhood meals and travels. Some of my best memories are [of] cheese fondue from vacations in Aspen, Shrimp Provençal from summers in France, steamed clams from drives up to summer camp in Maine, and of course buckets of fried chicken with honey at our kitchen table.” 

  • Phet Schwader of Khe-yo, NYC

    "When I was a little kid, my mom would make beef jerky and sticky rice in the morning to take to work for lunch. The night before, she would ask me or my brother to soak the rice in preparation - sometimes, we would forget and be in big trouble because she would have to get up extra early to do it herself. Before leaving for work, she would make extra jerky and sticky rice for us for breakfast, so I have fond memories of this dish in the morning."

  • Graham Dailey of Peninsula Grill, Charleston, SC

    "I'm always inspired by the abundance of fresh fish and shellfish that was available growing up in Florida on the Gulf Coast. The cast-iron skillets we use at Peninsula Grill are my third-generation pans that we used to cook fish at home growing up. The only twist is that we cook a lot more fish in them at Peninsula Grill than we did growing up!"

  • Marc Vidal of Boqueria, NYC

    "The truth is that I ate a ton of chocolate as a kid. I still do. Even today, I eat a chocolate croissant - sometimes two! - almost every day for breakfast. When I was young, I was like a Nutella monster. A jar wouldn't last more than five minutes around me. A couple of years ago, we ordered some special churro machines from Spain for the Boqueria restaurants. I was finally able to make a proper churro using the traditional Spanish recipe. In addition to the regular churros con chocolate, I began to make Churros Rellenos, stuffed churros, and I only had to look as far as my childhood to find what to fill them with… Nutella! They are so good, we always sell out."

  • Executive Chef/Partner Michael Ferraro of Delicatessen, NYC

    “Before taking over Delicatessen and getting in touch with my inner passion for comfort food, I spent years in fine-dining kitchens across New York City. With some of the first menu changes I did at Delicatessen, I reached back to comfort-food dishes from my childhood. I grew up in the restaurant industry, Giorgio is my father, and this has been his meatball recipe for over 50 years. There have been minor changes to the dish - the only thing that I toyed with was different meat blends - but to this day, ratios and sauce recipes remain my father’s originals.”

  • Jason Cichonski of Ela, Philadelphia

    "Growing up as a kid, I remember eating a lot of cereal, the good-for-you kind and the sugary stuff. We did a whiskey-pairing brunch at Ela and added a fun Fruity Pebble Donut to the menu. The donuts were stuffed with a Fruity Pebble pastry cream we made from steeping milk with the cereal and then puréeing it. Then we sprinkled some extra Pebbles on top to serve. Surprisingly, Fruity Pebbles and Bourbon go pretty well together!" 

  • Photo by: Josh Meredith

    Levon Wallace of Proof on Main, Louisville, KY

    "The chicken 'n' dumplings on my menu is a total throwback to my youth, as it reminds me of my mom's Caldo de Pollo. In my version, the dumplings are made from masa harina, and the secret ingredient to the broth is the epazote herb. When raw, it has a strong, pungent aroma, and when cooked, it lends herbaceous, fragrant flavors to the broth. The sweet flavors of the corn dumpling and the heady perfume of the epazote broth all come together, and I can't help but feel like I'm a kid again in Mom's kitchen…"

  • Anita Lo of Annisa, NYC

    "The soup inside my foie gras soup dumplings is inspired by the red-cooked braises my mother used to make. She'd call it 'soy-sauce chicken'; it was made with star anise, cinnamon, ginger and dried shiitake. The soup at Annisa is made with all of those ingredients, plus pig's feet to make it gel so it can be wrapped inside the dumpling."

  • Matt McClure of The Hive, Bentonville, AR

    "When I was young, my father would insist that the pork chops be cooked until they were dry as a bone. He would also boil Brussels sprouts until they were mushy and the house smelled terrible. Needless to say, those experiences with pork and Brussels sprouts did not immediately hook me to their magical flavors. I soon discovered how to prepare them in a more respectful manner, and I now love to pair them together in my own way using my own techniques. Although this might not seem like a fond memory, it is, and I still argue with him about how to properly cook pork and Brussels sprouts. Being hard-headed runs in the family."

  • Richard Kuo of Pearl & Ash, NYC

    "The sweetbreads on my menu was inspired by chicken McNuggets at McDonald's. As a child, my parents would take us to McDonald's once every blue moon, and I would always get the chicken McNuggets. It was really intriguing for me at that age, I was always fascinated by how incredibly crispy they were right out of the fryer."

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