The resounding appreciation for Mom is as self-evident in the stories these chefs tell as it is in the food they cook. Here, they dish on their unique relationships and offer their own take on one of their favorite recipes from their mothers.
Chef Soulayphet Schwader, Khe-Yo
Phet Schwader, as he's known, didn't grow up cooking. "He just really liked to eat," his mom, Soubanh, says. Visiting from Wichita, Kansas, where Schwader grew up after the family fled Laos when he was only three, she's in town for the Lao New Year.
Schwader didn't start cooking until college, when he missed his mom's food. He started making her spring rolls for friends, then cooked at a brewery for a few years, and eventually enrolled in culinary school to become a chef.
His mother's initial reaction?
"You'll never see the sun!" she said. These days, sure, Schwader spends most of his time in his restaurant, but the easy smile that spreads across his face when he talks about it—the same one on Soubanh—makes it clear that both mother and son know he made the right decision.
"I have to make a dish 10 or 15 times before making it my own," he says of cooking his mom's recipes. When Schwader makes any Lao dish from home, he focuses on achieving the correct flavors, instead of using the exact ingredients, which may be difficult to source.
When Soubanh tells her son to "take a break, come home and let Mom cook from you," Schwader gets to continue learning from his mom. Most recently, it was steamed fish and bamboo stew.
Soubanh says she'd "do anything for her son," and the devotion is clearly mutual. When Schwader invited his mother for the New Year, he did so because he "wanted people to see what she had been through and that she can still put a huge smile on people's faces."
Chef Sara Jenkins, Porsena and Porchetta
"The evil secret is that I was an incredibly picky eater as a child," she admits.
It took moving to the U.S. from the Mediterranean, where she spent her childhood, to recognize that she missed good food and honest cooking. "After a brief interest in hamburgers," Jenkins started to teach herself how to cook.
"Sara drifted into cooking professionally in such a slow and gentle way that I never had a chance to stop and think if I approved or not," Nancy Harmon Jenkins, her mom, says. "Not that my disapproval would have made any difference. In any case, I'm always thrilled, like any parent, when a child finds his or her métier. And Sara certainly found hers."
Nancy is a cookbook author, and this past October, the pair published The Four Seasons of Pasta together. The book contains a few different recipes for red sauce, which was one of Jenkins's favorites growing up.
Nancy's classic version contains "lots of cooked vegetables for a base," while Jenkins's variations include a "down and dirty" sauce with browned garlic, olive oil and tomato purée; one with fresh plum tomatoes; or a roasted tomato sauce (see the recipe).
Though recipe testing is long over, the mother-daughter duo still find themselves in the same kitchen on occasion. "We're both kind of crazy control freaks in the kitchen," Jenkins says, "so we cook side by side."
Chef Vivian Howard, Chef & the Farmer
Vivian Howard, chef and owner of Chef & the Farmer in North Carolina and the recent recipient of a James Beard Award, says she spent most of her childhood running away from the food she grew up eating.
"It really took me coming back home to appreciate the food that she made," she says of her mother's cooking. "I've spent most of my adult life trying to relearn what it meant to grow up in her house."
Thankfully, she did. The chef and author of the forthcoming book Deep Run Roots: Stories & Recipes from My Corner of the South is a champion of Southern cooking. By tapping into "really vivid memories" and "asking a lot of questions," she has been able to reinterpret so many recipes that her mother and grandmother simply thought of "as too plain Jane to write down."
One of those recipes is for deviled eggs (see the recipe).
"My mom has very severe arthritis," Howard says, "and she's had it since she was 17. Cooking was a burden for her. We always had home-cooked meals, but they were simple. She loved two things: deviled eggs and banana pudding."
Considering how tedious deviled eggs are, Howard recognizes how special it was that her mom went the extra mile to make them for every special occasion. "She liked hers tangier than others," Howard says of her mom's vinegar- and mustard-heavy recipe.
"Hers were always very tasty, but also very ugly, because they were so loose," Howard explains. So Howard uses butter in her version, which adds extra structure.
Howard says of her mom, "So much of what she cooked was never written down. She couldn't imagine anyone would care. I've made a career of exalting it."
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