Chefs get into the restaurant business for many reasons – a passion for cooking, the hope for fame or fortune – but many are of one voice when it comes to citing a big influence in their lives: their mothers or grandmothers.
Fond memories form the foundation for several local chefs we talked to. And, as an added benefit, their wives will reap some of the rewards for their Mother’s Day meal.
For James Africano, owner of The Warehouse restaurant, three women had an impact: his mother, maternal grandmother and maternal great-grandmother.
“Their influence is all over the food we serve at The Warehouse,” he said. “These ladies cooked for the love of their families and fed us all well. Simplicity defined their style in the kitchen, and that bleeds over into what we are doing here. We really focus on the ingredients and pulling the best out of them, just as they did out of pure instinct and love for us. We weren't well-to-do and ate a lot of less-desirable cuts of meat, which they always made so tender, and the flavors were lovingly coaxed out of them with time and an innate talent they all possessed.”
They would buy whole chickens to save a little money instead of using the more convenient cut-up birds.
“I learned to break down birds watching them,” he said.
He gets poetic about the foods his mother prepared.
“Honestly, there wasn't much Mom made that I didn't like,” Africano said. “We grew up eating pretty simple Midwestern-style meals. Fried chicken, meatloaf, spaghetti and meat sauce, and chicken fried steak were all standard at the dinner table.”
One of his favorite meals was fried chicken livers, something reserved for nights when his dad worked.
“When he was gone, Mom made things that weren't on his favorites list,” he said. “She cooked them perfectly, plump, juicy and crispy on the outside. I absolutely loved them. Another great meal, and guilty pleasure to this day, was canned corned beef hash and eggs with buttered toast.”
But Swiss steak was a winner for the whole family — a dish that Africano has on the restaurant's event menu to this day, but has jazzed up.
“It’s a delicious braise of beef cutlets, bell peppers, onions, tomato sauce and garlic served with baked cheesy grits,” he said. “We serve a slightly classed-up version and call it Mama Africano's Grillades and Grits."
The lessons he learned from the women helped him through the pandemic shutdowns of the past year, Africano said.
“People were craving comfort, and a lot of the food I ate growing up seemed logical to serve during that time,” he said. “These dishes and the simple act of preparing them also brought me comfort, reliving a simpler time and providing the public with a great meal.”
When asked what he would prepare for his wife on Mother’s Day, he joked, “Reservations.”
“On a serious note,” he continued, “I would probably make roasted cornish game hens with buttermilk and sourdough stuffing, roasted green beans with almonds and a sauce made from the pan drippings and fresh sage.”
For dessert, she would get his bittersweet chocolate panna cotta with raspberries and Chantilly cream.
“Both my mom and grandma were good cooks,” said Victor Matthews, dean of Paragon Culinary School and founder of Black Bear Distillery. “But Grandma was a real powerhouse.”
Of all his grandmother’s dishes, he raves about her spaghetti.
“It’s weird, but it was just stellar,” he said. “Her meatballs, for instance, contained bacon and chunks of sharp cheddar. The strange sauce had caraway. It is just epic and virtually impossible to reproduce now.”
He swears she was a legend in the small southern town where he grew up and had three ovens in her country kitchen.
“Of those three, the only one I could see into as a child was the lower one on the wall, and it was for desserts,” he said. “She used separate ovens so none of the flavors or odors got mixed. I watched those cobblers bubbling away, and it was magnificent.”
Cherry and peach were his favorites, and if he wanted them served a la mode, he had to make the ice cream.
“She made the mix, while I poured the ice and salt into the hand crank machine, and off I went cranking away,” said Matthews. “It seemed to take forever, but that was how I got my vanilla ice cream for the a la mode.”
With those strong food memories, it’s no wonder he found himself cooking, too, and ultimately working in restaurants.
When it comes to preparing a special meal for his wife, it will be butter-poached lobster.
“She tells the story of ‘how I got her’ 15 years ago, and that was with butter-poached lobster,” he said. “I even do a Thanksgiving turkey like that (butter-poached). Anyway, she says that's what did it.”