Chefs owe a lot to their moms — there’s no doubt many helped teach the techniques and instill the passion for cooking when they were young. Mom-inspired recipes have even inspired modern menus throughout Chicago. So, in honor of Mother’s Day, we spoke with Chicago chefs about their motherly influences and how these memories shape their cooking today. From a childhood spent apple picking to a particularly emotional rice pudding (one that might make you cry with memories of an Egyptian childhood), here's what 15 Chicago chefs had to share.
"My mom influenced me by teaching that less is more," explains Fabio Viviani of Bar Siena and Siena Tavern. It's a simple, honest approach to quality cooking that the chef carries into his work today. He even features dishes that are directly inspired by his mom, including a lasagna, gnocchi and bolognese sauce. "When my partners, Lucas Stoioff and David Rekhson, came with me to Florence to do some research on Italian food, I had them come over to my family home and have my mother cook us dinner," Viviani recalls. "After trying some of the dishes, they immediately said to me, 'This has to be on our menu.' Just some good traditional Italian dishes that came straight from her kitchen."
Keith Carlson, Dia de los Tamales:
Three words: apple cobbler tamale. It's a pretty incredible dessert, courtesy of the always-inventive Dia de los Tamales. And it wouldn't exist had it not been for chef Keith Carlson's mom. "Some of my most delightful childhood memories involve apples," he says. "We would take a trip to the apple orchard every fall to pick our own apples, even planting our own apple tree for additional fruit." After the harvest, they'd enjoy weeks and weeks of apple everything, including of course, apple pie. "These constant apple treats and the made-from-scratch approach have greatly influenced my cooking style," adds Carlson. "Today we still use the same simple methods to create our apple cobbler tamale (pictured), all from scratch, of course."
939 W. 18th St.; 312-496-3057 (Photo courtesy of Dia de los Tamales)
Jennifer Templeton, GingerSnap Sweets & Such:
"My mom, Debbie, is a terribly resourceful woman," proclaims Jennifer Templeton of GingerSnap Sweets & Such. Such resourcefulness was prevalent throughout her upbringing, with her parents gardening food, pressure-canning tomatoes and cooking up strawberry jam galore. Her mother also had a penchant for sweets, something we're thankful Templeton picked up, considering the habit-forming confections at her Lakeview bakery. One taste of Templeton's childhood is even on the seasonal menu in the form of tiny cookie tins, a tradition her mom originated around the holidays as a way to spread sweet cheer to friends and family. Says the pastry chef, "A lot of the tiny cookies in our holiday tins (pictured) are direct recipes from my mom and grandma."
1416 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-815-6067 (Photo courtesy of GingerSnap Sweets & Such)
Roger Waysok, South Water Kitchen:
By making cooking fun, Roger Waysok's mom paved the way for Chicagoans to enjoy one of the gooiest German chocolate cakes in town. "My mom used to make the cake for parties," says the South Water Kitchen chef. "I used her recipe, but mine is prepared in a slightly more traditional way." And we can promise: you'll have just as much eating it as he had baking it.
225 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-236-9300 (Photo courtesy of South Water Kitchen)
Chris Davies of Homestead on the Roof and the forthcoming Steadfast had a fascinating upbringing. After moving to Southern Egypt with his family, his mom took on the role of home chef by familiarizing herself with ingredients from the local souks and experimenting with everything she could get her hands on. "I learned all of the lessons from my mother at a young age that it would take me to survive in the hard competitive world of professional kitchens," explains Davies. It's a skill that comes in handy as he cites the importance of scrutinizing ingredients, improvising in the kitchen and sourcing stellar products. We're looking forward to see what he does at Steadfast, but in the meantime you can taste for yourself in dishes at Homestead like suckling pig falafel, loup de mer and even Egyptian spiced mussels, which are a nice little taste of childhood for the well-traveled chef.
Greg Biggers, Café des Architectes:
We'd like to express our sincere gratitude to Greg Biggers' mom. If not for her, the chicken ballantine with macaroni 'n' cheese cream at Cafe des Architectes may not exist. It's the ultimate form of gussied up comfort food, and it's all thanks to Biggers' mother. "My earliest childhood memory of time in the kitchen with my mom was cooking mac 'n' cheese and roasted chicken," he says, recalling his mother's philosophy to comfort family and friends through a thoughtful meal. "We have actually made a contemporary version of that on our current menu at Café des Architectes: Amish chicken ballantine with macaroni 'n' cheese cream, kale confit and roasted garlic jus (pictured)."
20 E. Chestnut St.; 312-324-4063 (Photo courtesy of Café des Architectes)
Benjamin Lustbader, Giant:
Benjamin Lustbader of Logan Square's upcoming and hotly anticipated Giant didn't necessarily learn to cook from his mom, but he certainly absorbed an innate sense of hospitality. As he eloquently puts it, "An understanding that the greatest value a meal can have is not in gustatory pleasure, but community." While he's definitely aware that cooking can be a reward unto itself, and delicious food is always pleasing, he knows too that it all feels best when it brings people closer together as they share it. With that in mind, we're stoked to gather together and share a meal at the upcoming restaurant, which promises contemporary Midwestern cuisine at its finest.
3209 W. Armitage Ave. (coming soon, photo by Galdones Photography)
Jimmy Bannos, Heaven on Seven:
The rice pudding at Heaven on Seven might make you cry. Or at least the story behind it. Being such a family operation, the legendary New Orleans-style restaurant featured input and work from many of Jimmy Bannos' kin, including his mom. She always made the best rice pudding. When she passed away, the tradition moved to his mother-in-law, who would make pans of the stuff for the restaurant. "Recently I took over that responsibility from her, and that first pan was very emotional — looking at my mom’s recipe and feeling connected to her through our favorite thing: food," Bannos explains. "It’s still on the menu at Heaven on Seven, and it is still my mom’s rice pudding. It's just being made by different hands."
111 N. Wabash Ave.; 312-263-6443 (Photo courtesy of Heaven on Seven)
Brian Enyart and Jennifer Jones, Dos Urban Cantina:
The husband-wife duo behind Dos Urban Cantina both thank their moms for instilling not only a love for cooking, but a sense for hospitality. For Enyart, mom memories include reading cookbooks together, snacking on garlic butter-steamed artichokes and feasting on his mom's carnitas that eventually played a huge role in shifting his career towards Mexican cuisine. "My first carnitas taco with avocado and tomatillo salsa so much reminded me of the way that the sauerkraut and potatoes balanced out roasted pork of my childhood," Enyart explains.
As for Jennifer Jones, her memories skew mostly sweet. Not only in the literal sense that her mom would make the yummiest chocolate cake, but also for the fact that her mom was the sweetest, most gracious host, always out to make people happy. As for that cake, it played an important role in shaping the pastry chef. It's something her mom always went all out on for birthdays, but Jones says her favorite is still the classic chocolate, something she tries to replicate at Dos Urban Cantina. "Since I was a teenager, I have been searching for a better and better chocolate cake. Ours (at the restaurant) is the best cake I've gotten to, and even my mom, a huge chocolate cake enthusiast, loves it."
2829 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-661-6452 (Photo courtesy of Dos Urban Cantina)
John Coletta, Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar:
Between knife-cut sausage, eggplant parmigiana and cavatelli, John Coletta's mom had such an impressive culinary repertoire that she should get her own cooking show. All her techniques and recipes helped inspire the Quartino chef to delve further into Italian cuisine and learn how to fuse it with seasonal and local ingredients. "My mother and family members opened doors of inspiration and technique for me, which I look forward to walking through," says Coletta. Borrowing several pages from his mom's figurative book, the chef serves similar sausages, eggplant, ricotta, pastas and zeppole donuts at his crowd-pleasing River North restaurant.
626 N. State St.; 312-698-5000 (Photo courtesy of Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar)
Cedric Harden, III Forks Prime Steakhouse:
Spaghetti and baked beans seem like solid mom foods. And for Cedric Harden of III Forks Prime Steakhouse, these were more than mere comforts; they helped shape his passion and eventual kitchen career. "How I make specials and develop new things for the menu is to start by thinking about what I loved growing up," he states. And while diners at the steakhouse may not get to enjoy spaghetti or baked beans, they can partake in another Southern-style comfort he developed a soft spot for. "My mom makes the best fried chicken (she always makes it on New Year's Eve and serves it with black-eyed peas). So this year, I made that same dish and it was a hit."
180 N. Field Blvd.; 312-938-4303 (Photo courtesy of III Forks Prime Steakhouse)
When it comes to childhood fish memories, not too many people look back fondly on whitefish. Yet for Todd Stein, Lake Superior whitefish is something he recalls prominently, and warmly. In fact his recollections were so positive that he routinely featured iterations of whitefish on his menus when he was the chef at mk. Now as the chef for 4 Star Restaurant Group and spots like Remington's and The Windsor, he's diving even further into his lexicon of mom memories. "Her food has shown up in various guises over the years on my menus," says Stein. "My mom used to slow-roast tomatoes in the oven with salt and pepper and oil, I add thyme and garlic and use them from time to time with fish (pictured)."
Lawrence Letrero, Sable Kitchen & Bar:
Heart and soul goes a long way when it comes to cooking. Just ask Lawrence Letrero, who learned such vital things from his mom. When his mom cooks, he says, you can taste the care and the love. This is something he strives to exhibit for guests at Sable Kitchen & Bar, too. "We have three dishes on the menu now at Sable Kitchen & Bar that are pretty much the exact recipes that my mom would make, and still makes to this day," says Letrero. These include adobo pork belly (pictured); pancit lug lug noodles with bay scallops smoked mussels, shrimp, Swiss chard, chicharron and saffron; and lumpia spring rolls.
505 N. State St.; 312-755-9704 (Photo courtesy of Sable Kitchen & Bar)
Drew Davis, The Eastman Egg Company:
Drew Davis understands the importance of sincere hospitality, a sentiment customers feel when they dine at his wonderful egg sandwich shop. "My mom is the most gracious and generous host that I have ever met, and she taught me how important it is to make people feel included," Davis says. "When I think about cooking, my approach is always to make food that makes people happy and excited to share with each other." This certainly feels true not only of those killer sandwiches, but of simple snacks like potato chips, an item that also reminds him of mom. "My mom will always put out bowls of little snacks when guests are around, and they always protest to snacking, but the bowls are empty every time." Hospitality comes in all shapes, sizes and saltiness.
23 N. Upper Wacker Dr.; 312-384-1011 (Photo courtesy of The Eastman Egg Company)