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Family favorite: Chefs rely on moms for culinary inspiration

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

What shapes a chef?

An adolescence spent flipping burgers on a greasy-spoon grill. Back- and soul-breaking shifts in four-star kitchens. Traveling and eating around the world.

One, or all of the above, chefs might say. And — Mom.

She is an indelible part of a chef’s backstory. Sometimes, her influence is fully visible.

“Anna’s veal meatballs,” reads the menu at Rhapsody. Chef Dean Zanella has had his mother’s meatballs on the menu at every restaurant he’s worked at since 1995. (It should be noted that further down the menu, you’ll see “Nonna Zanella’s Gnocchi.” Because if chefs aren’t going on and on about their moms, they’re doing the same about their grandmas.)

At Bill Kim’s Urbanbelly, the No. 19 Chinese eggplant and No. 15 rice cake are plucked straight from Kim’s childhood and his mother Sue’s kitchen (in Korea until Bill was 7 and on the Northwest Side thereafter).

He would snack on the garlicky chilled eggplant as a kid. The rice cake in broth “was the first thing I had planned for the menu” at Urbanbelly, he says.

There are the exceptions — the mom who burned toast, the mom who threw 12-course themed dinner parties. But mostly, chefs’ moms just cooked to nourish their families, a regular rotation of honest, simple food.

Luisa Rockman, a Russian immigrant, “never had vegetables out of the can,” says her daughter, Amanda Rockman, pastry chef at the Bristol. “Everything was always fresh — salmon, asparagus. She did meatloaf, but it was always really good. We always had a starch, vegetable, fruit.” When pressed for time, it was tuna noodle casserole for dinner, a dish Amanda makes for herself after a long day.

Rochelle DuBridge, pastry chef at Vie in Western Springs, recalls spaghetti, stir-fries and . . . broccoli soup. If she was sick, her mom, Tammi DuBridge, would make the soup. On DuBridge’s birthday, she’d request the soup.

“It’s literally just broccoli, stems and all, and tons of milk and Velveeta, like a block of it, and it’s delicious,” she says.

Prasino chef Scott Halverson could always depend on his mom Sandy’s King Ranch casserole, a layered dish of chicken, peppers and tortillas named for the biggest ranch in Texas, Halverson’s home state.

“Everybody’s got their own version of it,” he says. “It’s like what pot roast is to the North.”

Could it be that Mom’s cooking tastes so good simply because it is hers? Maybe. Because frankly, says Sixteen chef Frank Brunacci, “It’s not even like it was the best food, but it takes you back.”

Brunacci, raised in Australia by British parents, gets a laugh even now thinking about his mom’s special trifle. She made the custard from a powder; the peaches and pineapple were canned. There was Jell-O.

Sola chef Carol Wallack doesn’t care much for sweets, but give her a slice of her mother Edie’s sour cream coffee cake, and she melts. Edie was a so-so cook, says her daughter, but a “great baker.” (Credit her, too, for Wallack’s unfailing love of avocados. An avocado tree grew in their Los Angeles backyard, so “we had avocado in our salads every night for dinner,” the chef says. “To this day, it’s my favorite food.”)

“My mom isn’t a bad cook but not particularly a great one, either,” Blue13 chef Chris Curren bravely admits. But Carol Curren’s three standbys — chicken paprikash, kielbasa with cabbage and egg noodles and “super nacho,” a mess of refried beans, taco meat, cheese, green chilies and tortilla chips — are the three her son has “never really messed with.”

He often makes the kielbasa and nachos for the staff meal at his River North restaurant. “My front of house manager is Mexican and he likes [the nachos] better than what his mom makes,” Curren says.

Moms, and their food, keep on giving.

“She is my go-to person to consult,” says Kim, who uses a version of his mom’s short rib marinade at his restaurants.

Geoff Rhyne, until recently the chef at SugarToad in Naperville, keeps a book his mother Tracy Gilchrist compiled for him of recipes, many handwritten, going back to his great-grandmother and the 1920s.

Rhyne’s childhood in Georgia was thoroughly Southern. He’d spend summers at his grandparents’ farm, helping in the garden, collecting pecans, snacking on boiled peanuts.

He’d watch G-Mama, his grandma Mary, pickle peaches and watermelon and bake her pound cake with the crackled top (her mother’s recipe). It’s no wonder Rhyne works those same pickles, chutneys and cakes into his menus.

He tweaks the recipes slightly, turning his mom’s sweet potato souffle into a savory appetizer, for example. But others, such as the pound cake, are better left alone, he says.

“I don’t touch that one,” he says.

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