Every week we bring you an in-depth conversation with a member of New York's food world. In this space we don't critique food or service. We're not looking for buzz phrases or points of conflict. Instead, we're asking questions about what makes them sing in their kitchen, about what makes their tails wag about what they get to do, and about where that all came from in their past.
In matrix-ing what through-line could be found in the 50-some odd interviews we did in New York in 2013, plenty of "awww" moments abounded: Ron Ben-Israel's gratitude for getting his United States citizenship because of his intricate work in wedding cakes, Ignacio Mattos' on his avoidance of language that manifests unnecessary conflict, and Joseph Marazzo of Virgola sharing the journey that made a 6-foot wide alleyway into a romantic little wine bar were all beautiful, special moments at a table. We've gotten to talk with people who work their asses off to make us good food, and for that we're thankful.
But when all is said and done most of the touching moments of 2013 came when discussing family—how food traditions during childhood molded the person whom we now call "chef." Here are 11 of our favorites.
Carmen Quagliata of Union Square Cafe: The Family Garden
"My mother, grandmother, and an aunt of mine are great cooks. I had a lot of great meals before I even thought of culinary school. I'm a gardener—not a great one, but a lot of love goes into my gardens. My grandmother brought over some beans from Italy with her; everyone who's ever left from where we were from in Binghamton took some with them and started to grow them on their own. I started one in California and brought some from that back batch and now I plant those same beans in New Jersey, and my uncles plant the same beans of their own. And it's always kind of been a symbol of my grandmother and grandfather that we can always relate to—they had a great garden. Read more »
Lauren Resler of Empellón: Making Food that "Sparkles"
"I've enjoyed cooking and providing food for people since I was a little girl, honestly. I got a lot of inspiration from my grandmother, who was born in Mexico; when we went to visit she always had persimmon cookies and sweet bread and different cakes and lemon meringue pie or sugar cookies, kind of that homemaker style. I knew that I wanted to pick up on those things. So for me it wasn't about becoming a pastry chef at Per Se or the French Laundry. It was always just to make something that, for lack of a better word, 'sparkles.' Things that bring a light to people and just make them smile." Read more »
Thiago Silva of EMM Group: Mom's Work Ethic
"My mom was a single parent was always working; she was always trying to do something better for us and always put us ahead of herself. Whenever there was another little stupid job she could do, she took it for the extra money to buy us a shirt or something. And whatever she did—be it stocking the supermarket or scrubbing a toilet in a house—she wanted it to be the best she could do. And I think that said a lot to me. I don't think there's anything I could do to make her not proud of me, knowing my mom. But I always want to do more, and eventually I want her to stop working. I want to be able to help out. That's what I'm trying to do." Read more »
Wolfgang Ban of Seasonal: Harvest Season with the Family
"My family owned land which was used for agriculture, mainly vineyards, so when I was very little I would spend a lot of time with my grandfathers, sitting on their laps, helping them press the grapes. Harvest time was one of my favorite times of the year, when the whole family came together because it was such a big job and had to be done in a short amount of time. So everyone would come together, my grandmother would cook, and everyone else would sit at a big table and have dinner together in the vineyards. Food was simple, and came partially from our own animals; we had pigs, duck, chicken, cows. And then, of course, when somebody did slaughtering you cannot eat a whole pig, so you give it away to your relatives and then when they do it they do the same thing in return. So that was an influence." Read more »
Michael Toscano of Perla: On Parents Who Cook
"My parents are amazing cooks. Nothing extravagant, but we love to eat well and on specific days of the week I'd always expect a certain meal from my mom, especially on her days off, like caldo de pollo, which is one of my all-time favorites. Her food was always so flavorful, without her even knowing that she was an amazing cook. Looking back now all of her techniques and the way she would build flavor was very smart, and it was just the way her mother taught her how to cook. My father, on the other hand, was amazing at grilling—we would smoke meat together, he would grill steaks and fry fish—so it was a completely different kind of food but equally amazing. Sometimes we would go to friend's houses and it'd be so disappointing. Then I would realize how lucky I was in the food I was surrounded by." Read more »
Marco Canora of Hearth: Cooking Tuscan-Style
You've had Hearth for ten years now, and seem to be a traditionalist in the best sense of the word. Where is that rooted for you, in your pre-chef life?
It came from home. I grew up in a very kind of Tuscan aesthetic, which means very simple and very focused on ingredients. We had a garden, and it was about going to pick a zucchini flower, and dipping it in a simple pastel—a batter of flour and water, real complicated, right?—and pan-frying it in olive oil and putting some salt on it. And that's the kind of food I grew up eating, and that's what's resonating with me today. And that's what I strive for, that kind of simplicity. There's just beauty in simplicity. And I've always bought into that and still today it's enough. I'm not bored by simplicity. Read more »
Soulayphet Schwader of Khe-Yo: Laotian food in Wichita
Do you remember your time in Laos?
I don't; I was 2 or 3 years old. We lived in a refugee camp for a year while we waited to come over. I was the first person to speak English in my family. But there's a big Laotian community in Wichita, so we never went without—things you wouldn't think we could get, we had. We always had sticky rice at all of our gatherings, certain dishes that were true to our cuisine, like the coconut rice on our menu. Everyone always thinks papaya salad is traditional Thai, but it really originated in Laos. I visited the border of Thailand and Laos, and when you order papaya salad they ask you if you want it Thai style or Laos style. Laos style is the stinky stuff. So that's how I'm really trying to distinguish myself here in the city. Read more »
Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy: On Vegetarianism
You've been on a vegetarian diet for a long time now. How did that happen?
It wasn't so much of a choice as it was peer pressure—I was 15, all of my friends were becoming vegetarians, and at the time it seemed really rebellious. I went home and told my parents I was going to be a vegetarian and their jaws literally dropped on the floor and they were like, "You are going to die. You are literally not going to be able to live!" It was an extreme diet, and so it was great—it was peer pressure and I was offending my parents. It was the best decision I've ever made. I now eat fish, which happened about eight years ago or so and is funny because my parents are pretty much vegetarians now and I'm like, "You're gonna die!!!" Read more »
Shane Lyons of Distilled: On Growing Up in Restaurants
Your parents are chefs. Do you feel you had a jumpstart in the business because of that?
100%. I had an unfair start. I've had a French knife since I was five. They taught me a lot about mise en place and about work ethic; my mom was always a working chef. I learned how to conceptualize dishes when working with my mom and we had a baking company from when I was 5 to 12. So I learned very early on to develop a menu. They were very smart, because when you focus so much on a dish that dish might be so amazing in itself, but outside of something bigger. So the approach has always been, "What's the big picture?" Then you focus on filling in the details. Read more »
Pichet Ong of Sugar and Plumm: On Baking for the Holidays
"I grew up in a family with more women than men, and most of them are home chefs; we celebrate a lot through food in the Chinese culture, and with each celebration there's a lot of baking involved. And those are the best times, really, when it's a group effort and nice to have three or four or five or ten, because otherwise it's monotonous—uniformity, working with flour and your hands, precision, shaping things and making dumplings look pretty. The act of baking was something that was communal and a bonding factor between me and my aunts and grandmother. So I grew up around a lot of strong culinary women. And the whole thing with "secret recipes" was really big; my mom would always say she had a really good recipe for something, and then my aunt would say that she had a better one, and I'm the lucky one to know both of them because they would want me to choose which one is better. So I grew up doing that a lot—I made those things at a very young age." Read more »
Michael Psilakis of MP Taverna: On Family Tradition
"The year my dad died I was celebrating Easter at my dad's house, the same place I'd celebrated every Easter. And my brother and I finished putting the lamb on the spit, and it was odd that my dad wasn't there; 40 years of him being there, helping, me seeing him put his hands in the animal, and now he wasn't there doing it. We just wet the lamb with our hands, with water. I called my son over and it was exactly like my dad had done; he's standing in front of me, I pour water in his hands, it's hitting him, it's hitting me, and it's splashing all over the place and he's giggling.
"And I was thinking to myself, 'I should be happy, and I'm really sad.' It was an awkward moment, because I didn't know how to feel. And I was looking at the water in his hands I had this fucking moment of clarity because I really saw my hands 30 years earlier. I remembered that moment, standing in front of my father, him towering over me and pouring water into my hands. And I knew in that moment that that was food, right there. It wasn't about the lamb, or about how to cook it. It was just the water and being together." Read more »
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. She's probably eating a lot of seafood and chocolate and drinking something dry and bubbly as you read this. Happy holidays, folks. Read more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.