Chefs take a trip down memory lane to recall the dishes – and cooks – that inspired them. But with fewer of us cooking from scratch, are we in danger of losing precious family recipes?
Like mama made: chefs revisit the inspirational dishes of their childhoods
Last week, I was eating lunch alone and ordered a katsu-don at a sub-par, no-name Japanese restaurant in Sheung Wan. It wasn’t particularly good – the pork was soggy, eggs overcooked, and rice starchy – but I found myself thinking of Café Mami, a little Japanese joint in Cambridge, Massachusetts my friends and I frequented at university. I remembered, in vivid detail, the perpetual, gentle hum of the blender swirling green tea smoothies and the countless times we’d schlepped there with our groceries, even in Boston’s miserable winters. Once, I trekked there alone in a snowstorm, tucking into a bowl of crispy golden pork loin coated in silky, runny egg over a bed of warm rice. It was so satisfying that even when I realised I’d spent all my cash and had none left for a cab home, the pang of despair lasted but a moment. The power of a bad katsu – eaten years later on the other side of the world – to evoke nostalgia was astonishing to me.
Our memories of food can be extraordinarily powerful. The smell, taste and texture of food can transport us not only to the memory of eating the food itself, but to a specific time and place. These memories are instinctive and somewhat mysterious (involving biological and evolutionary mechanisms, which we will not get into here), and yet they never fail to move us.
It is no surprise that so many cooks are driven by an intrinsic desire to recreate the flavours of their childhood, or that some of the world’s most illustrious chefs were inspired by their mothers.
In Hong Kong, Le Garçon Saigon’s head chef Bao La grew up in his parents’ Vietnamese restaurant in Brisbane. He started making rice paper rolls with his mother at age six. A commerce degree and a desk job later, he returned to the restaurant as a chef and began experimenting with traditional recipes. Le Garçon Saigon, which opened two years ago, is one of the few Vietnamese restaurants in Hong Kong that specialises not in pho, but the central-southern Vietnamese food that La grew up eating: smoky, grilled meats wrapped with fragrant herbs, tart pickles and crisp lettuce, and endlessly crispy banh xeo crepes. Sure enough, he says his mother was a major inspiration.
“My mum taught me everything I know about Vietnamese food and culture, so she was the biggest inspiration behind the restaurant.
She fled Saigon post-war to Brisbane, where she opened its first Vietnamese restaurant and created a hub for immigrants and locals while carrying on our family’s traditions,” he recalls. “My mum is such a powerhouse. She’d wake up at the crack of dawn, tend the gardens, prepare breakfast for the family, take us to school, or wherever we needed to be, go to the market to do the daily shopping for her restaurant, prep in the kitchen, pick us up, make us dinner, work in the restaurant and then tuck us in at night. When I compare myself to her, I just feel lazy. I’m in awe of how she juggles everything, and does it well. Also, mums just know best. Always.”
When Le Garçon Saigon first opened, his mother often flew in from Brisbane to help run the restaurant, and cook for the staff before service, producing homely favourites such as bun rieu (vermicelli soup with pig blood, tofu, meat and rice) and bun bo hue (rice noodles and beef). “They got to be such a big deal that chefs from our other restaurants and the group’s founders would sneak in line the nights she cooked for the staff,” La says.
Perhaps one of the most influential figures among chefs is the nonna, or Italian grandmother. Pici’s young Italian chef, Andrea Viglione, remembers summer trips to his grandparents’ village, 50 kilometres from his home in Turin.
“My grandparents had their own vegetable garden, had their own animals. I would go there every summer, people would kill a cow and eat the whole animal. We made fresh pasta every day. It made sense, because the closest supermarket was so much further than the farm where [nonna] used to buy flour and eggs – it was much easier than buying dry pasta at the supermarket,” he reminisces.
“A few months ago, I took my girlfriend back to Italy and she was really amazed by what we cook at home. But it’s common there. I’m sure half the Italian population has a small farm – or not a farm, but a house with a small garden in the countryside – where they grow their own vegetables, have their own chickens and rabbits.”
At Pici, Viglione serves a compact menu of homemade pasta. It’s not the family recipes he misses from home, but the ingredients. “What I miss most is impossible to find here – the real taste of ingredients. It’s the taste of the mushrooms my grandparents used to get 100 metres from their place at the top of a hill. That taste you can’t get from the supermarket, even in Italy.
It’s something you cannot buy.”
However, not all chefs are inspired by their mothers. The idea makes Li Shutim, Chinese executive chef at Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, laugh. “Never. I never wanted to be a chef. I was forced into it. My uncle owned a restaurant then and mentioned that I should become a chef to my mother, so I would stay out of trouble,” he says.
Even so, at One Harbour Road, he elevates the dishes he grew up eating and it’s his mother’s food he remembers, “My mum didn’t have a lot of exciting recipes. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it was humble, family cooking: preserved mustard greens with steamed fish, steamed water eggs, fu yu[fermented bean curd] with morning glory,” he recalls. “The best things are usually the simplest, and the cheapest.” Li didn’t learn to cook because he was passionate about being in the kitchen; he learned to cook because he had to.
“My parents were working all the time, I was eight and after school, I didn’t have anything to eat. And if you’re hungry, you do things yourself,” he says.
“I would observe my mum when she was cooking, and learned to make vegetables, soup noodles, soy sauce fried noodles, and even made black sesame soup. I’d sit there and grind sesame between my legs for hours.”
Viglione also learned to cook simply by watching. “I was 12 and after school, my mum wasn’t there, so I did it. How did I learn to make pasta? I burned myself on a boiling pot of water once, and then I learned how to make pasta,” he says. With the rise of convenience foods and takeaways, today’s younger generation are less likely to grow up watching their parents cook dishes from scratch. Li says his eldest daughter, now 26 and working in Australia, has learned to make home classics such as spare ribs and steamed fish. “I teach her over Whatsapp, and sometimes even record videos for her,” he says.
“Now, I think the young need to learn this. These traditional dishes are your memories. You can say, this is what I ate at home. This is the flavour of my parents and my home. If you don’t learn, you will forget. You will forget your home and your parents. Your children will never experience these family recipes and traditions,” he says. “Some young people now, they can’t even make instant noodles. And it’s a terrible shame.”