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?

Crave - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - Words Tif­fany Chan Il­lus­tra­tions Tim Cheng

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.”

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