Many chefs thrive on flexing their creative muscles in the kitchen, but their best work often taps into those classic family recipes that first inspired their love of food. From comforting lasagna to blue ribbon-worthy pies, here are what the pros are cooking up when they’re craving a hearty helping of nostalgia.
Instead of brown bag lunches, Chef John Mooney’s childhood memories center around his grandmother’s brown bag apple pie paired with ice cream. “The difference between a regular pie and brown bag pie is that the crust starts raw and all ingredients cook together in a brown bag,” Mooney explains. The brown bag creates a micro-convection environment, which yields a perfect tender-crisp crust while ensuring that the topping doesn’t burn. Mooney pays homage to the pie at his D.C. restaurant, Bidwell, where he serves seasonal warm apple pie in individual cast iron pans — but switches out grandma’s basic vanilla scoop for inspired a la mode pairings like maple, crème fraîche or caramel ice cream.
At their Kansas City restaurant Rye, husband-and-wife chef team Colby and Megan Garrelts are known for their rustic farm-to-table menu, but the pies are particularly worthy of praise. “I have been baking with my mom since I was very little, so it has always been in my blood,” Megan says. Although she developed her own signature pie crust — which favors an equal ratio of butter to lard — Megan follows a seasonal approach to the fillings, just like mom. “We had a cherry tree in our front yard growing up and my mom and I would pick and pit the fresh cherries and make tart cherry pie every summer,” she shares. The most sought-after fruit pie at Rye is strawberry-rhubarb (pictured above), which heralds the arrival of spring and reminds Megan of her mom’s homegrown rhubarb cobblers and pies.
“It’s just cheesy, gooey happiness,” says Chef Chris Shepherd of his mom’s lasagna. The classic layered noodle dish features ground beef, ricotta, mozzarella and tomato sauce, plus a secret ingredient: black olives. The Houston chef loves his mom’s lasagna so much that he still requests it for birthday dinners, and he even added a version of it (sans olives) to the menu at his beer bar, The Hay Merchant — even though his mom has never actually shared the recipe with him.
Chef Elise Wiggins also has an affinity for mom’s pasta, especially the spaghetti carbonara that got her hooked on Italian cuisine. “I already knew I wanted to be a chef, but this dish set my path to be a chef of Italian cuisine,” she says. With its tangle of noodles dressed in a creamy, egg-based sauce, finely chopped pancetta and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, the pasta instantly hooked the Denver-based chef. She plans to add pasta carbonara to the menu at her first solo venture, Cattivella. Other than using fresh pasta instead of dried, she’ll be following mom’s recipe all the way.
As a kid, Chef Richmond Edes looked forward to Sunday dinners most because that meant his mother’s perfectly roasted chicken with pan jus would be on the menu — complete with a mixed chicories salad dressed with cepa vieja (sherry vinegar). This “Sunday chicken” made by mom was the inspiration behind Edes’ Green Circle Chicken (named for the breed from cult purveyor D’Artagnan), which is offered at his cozy Temple Bar restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Edes spatchcocks the organic bird and roasts it under a brick with herbs from the bistro’s backyard garden, then pairs it with a chicory salad and a homey side of potatoes and mushrooms.
Pillowy Potato Dumplings
Known for the meticulously crafted tasting menus at his namesake Michelin-starred restaurant in New York City, Chef Günter Seeger traces his love of food back to his German grandmother. “Her food was the central part of our family coming together, and I loved to help her prepare delicious meals. I used to make these potato dumplings with [her] in Germany,” Seeger says. He has adapted the recipe for American potatoes (nothing too waxy) and refined it by running the potatoes through a tamis, a fine-mesh food mill. This technique ensures the fluffiest potatoes, which yield light dumplings when boiled. Seeger elevates the simple dish with decadent finishes, such as black truffle sauce, a drizzle of chicken fat or spring-ready ramps.
When Chef Anthony Bucco’s family got together for holiday feasts, it wasn’t the meaty main or scene-stealing sides that captivated his taste buds — it was his grandmother’s eggplant dip. After roasting and peeling eggplants, she chopped them to a pulp before adding pistachios, golden raisins and chile flakes, a swirl of extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar, and a flurry of herbs including oregano, tarragon, mint and parsley. It’s a cherished family recipe that has been passed down through the generations of his Sicilian family, and one that Bucco still makes today — albeit with heirloom variety eggplants roasted in a wood-burning oven — which he serves with grilled pizza dough at Chef’s Garden in Hamburg, New Jersey.
As the culinary mind behind California restaurants Union and Knead & Co. Pasta Bar + Market, Chef Bruce Kalman’s name is synonymous with Northern Italian cuisine. But when it comes to soul-satisfying recipes, he turns to his Jewish roots. “I love my grandmother’s ‘chicken in the pot’ matzo ball soup,” Kalman says. The dish was in regular rotation for family suppers, but grandma also stirred up a batch of the cure-all soup anytime someone was sick. By cooking a whole chicken in water with carrots, celery, and onions, she created a deeply flavored stock for this family staple featuring shredded cooked chicken and matzo balls made with Manischewitz mix. Not only is the soup Kalman’s go-to comfort food, the dish has also inspired the chef’s culinary philosophy: “Cook like Nonna, slow and with lots of love, and a couple extra pinches of this and that.”
Photography courtesy of Bonjwing Lee, Julie Soefer, Temple Bar, Gunter Seeger NY, iStock/alexannabuts and iStock/JodiJacobson