In my experience, people end up in this industry, because they long to recreate the feeling in themselves and in others that they had when their home cooks cooked for them. It's about using their own memories and inspirations to illicit similar emotional responses from their diners. Everything is about that moment after the first bite, when the eyes close, and a person is transported to that comfortable place where everything is right.
Everyone deserves to have the memory of a family member or a loved one preparing a dish that inspires him or her. It's not important for it to be fancy or involved; the dish itself is much less important than what it represents: a staple that has come to define a bit of a person's personality. It's about comfort, it's about the feeling brought on by a taste of something that represents home.
Almost every professional cook or chef out there can tell you who their inspirational home cook was.It will usually be someone they love or are very close to. Home cooks represent the beginnings of careers and the bar by which we in the industry always quietly measure ourselves. Triniti sous chef Kerrick Robertson remembers his grandmother's fried chicken as the dish that got him interested in cooking. All week, Tiny Boxwood's Amanda McGraw looked forward to the yeast rolls her great grandmother made "every Sunday."
Underbelly chef/owner Chris Shepherd anticipates the one day a year his mother makes him lasagna. Reef chef de cuisine Adam Saxinian can't recall a particular dish, but instead simply the presence at his grandparents' house of "home grown tomatoes on the table for every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
For me, it is the first fresh tortilla my mom pulls off the comal, with just a little butter and salt. It is the smell of pinto beans and salt pork simmering away on the stove and Elamay's chocolate cake on my birthday.
For Erin Smith, the newly minted consulting chef for the Anvil group, the food itself is secondary to the memories that it triggers. "Some of my best memories of cooking are when I'd make crepes with my stepmom. We'd make them for breakfast on Christmas morning and Easter morning and my dad would come in and steal the first one for 'quality control.'" She continues, "My mom makes the white chocolate and macadamia nut cookies. She still sends them to me from Oregon. They come broken and crumbled, but I'll still happily eat them with a spoon."
The next time you are eating a dish in a fine restaurant, remember all the mothers and grandmothers, stepmothers and fathers, grandfathers and family friends that had a hand in creating it and, in doing so, remember your own.
Chris Shepherd [Julie Soefer via Underbelly/flickr]