Mom's cooking inspires top kitchens — and yours

By Michele Kayal

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, April 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

This April 2, 2012, photo made in Concord, N.H. , shows a dish of chicken piccata.

Matthew Mead, Associated Press

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, like her signature chicken piccata.

"It had that tenderness and crispness and this very simple, but very bouncy sauce," says Acheson. 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 on 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 via 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."

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