Mama Knows Best: Chefs Share Their Mothers’ Wisdom, in the Kitchen and Beyond

May 11, 2018 Updated: October 8, 2018

Mothers are our first teachers. They prop us up before we can walk the world ourselves, and do their best to guide us every step of the way.

Some of the most cherished memories of moms are often from the kitchen: guiding clumsy hands at the stove, sneaking spoonfuls of brownie batter to lick, curing winter colds with piping hot bowls of soup.

In honor of Mother’s Day, a celebration of those guiding lights, chefs recall life lessons taught—and warm tummies satisfied—by their mothers, in the kitchen and beyond.

Nick “Nico” Daniele, executive chef and owner, Bella Gioia (Brooklyn)

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Nick “Nico” Daniele and his mother, Gioia. (Courtesy of Nick Daniele)

My ma always said that a dirty cook isn’t a good cook.

My ma makes the best pasta. One particular dish is her fusilli with anchovies and breadcrumbs—hands down best dish of all time. Every Sunday, she would make macaroni and sauce, but on occasion she would surprise us with the fusilli with anchovies and breadcrumbs. She of course taught me how to make it.  

Whenever I was sick, my ma would make me pastina with pecorino cheese. We call this “Italian penicillin.”

My ma was always happiest when she would come home and I would have a dinner cooked for the family. She would go to the store, and I would rush and try to make the best dinner possible using whatever ingredients we had in the house before she came home. I would present it in an elaborate fashion, and she would come and would just love it.

She could never stand it when I would try and sear or fry something on the stovetop. I didn’t do a very good job cleaning up, and she would always find the little oil splashes and droplets all over the stove top. She absolutely hates that.

My favorite memory growing up was making pizza and rolling out the dough with her during holidays and special events. She would give me a small piece of dough and I would play with it and try to roll it out, and then I would make my own little personal pizza.  

If it wasn’t for her I would not be the chef I am today, nor would I have a profound love for food and culture.

Pastasciutta Allegra (Happy Pasta)

Serves 4

1 can anchovies

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 cup breadcrumbs

1/2 cup olive oil

2 cloves fresh garlic

Salt and pepper

1 pound long fusilli pasta

Small bunch fresh parsley and oregano for garnish

In a saucepan, melt anchovies. Add a teaspoon of hot pepper flakes. Add breadcrumbs, olive oil, and chopped garlic. Saute until breadcrumbs are toasted. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Boil and salt water, then add pasta, boiling until al dente. Reserve up to 2 cups of pasta water.

When pasta is cooked, strain and toss into pan with breadcrumb mixture. If dry, add reserved pasta water as necessary. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley and oregano.

Recipe courtesy of Gioia Daniele

Ajna Jai, general manager, Pondicheri (Manhattan)

Daughter of executive chef and owner, Anita Jaisinghani

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Ajna Jai and her mother, Anita Jaisinghani. (Courtesy of Hamzeh Zahran)

My mom always said, “Move on! The older you get, the more you realize how little you know, so stop spending time trying to be right all the time.”

My mom makes the best cookies in the world. When she first made the chocolate chili cookies, I couldn’t stop eating them for years (and I still can’t). I would even steal the dough from the restaurant freezer to eat them.

Whenever I was sick, my mom would make me khichri and soup, basically a lentil and rice stew that was slow-cooked and just the most warming thing to eat.

My favorite memory of my mom is when she opened our first restaurant, Indika. She turned into a whole new woman that I didn’t know existed in my mom at the time.

If it weren’t for my mom, I would not have any concept of how much I’m capable of achieving. She’s teaching me on a daily basis what it is to be a strong woman.

If there was one thing I could tell my mom, it would be “Thank you for constantly kicking me into place and holding me to the highest of expectations. And thanks for feeding me the best food in the world.”

Justin Kingsley Hall, executive chef, The Kitchen at Atomic (Las Vegas)

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Justin Kingsley Hall and his mother. (Courtesy of Justin Kingsley Hall)

My mom always said, “You’ll survive.” I’m pretty sure it’ll be part of the eulogy at her funeral. While everyone is crying, we will remind them that’s what would she say if she were here right now: “You’ll survive.”

My mom makes the best lemon poppyseed cake. She sent me a care package once while I was in the Army. There had to be a dozen small cakes that I shared with the guys. It was an incredible day for us all.

Whenever I was sick, my mom would make me orange juice and 7Up. She was tough and didn’t think you needed a lot of babying and special meals.

My favorite memory of my mom is her teaching me how to play baseball. She had to play both roles as a single parent for most of our lives, and she did amazing at both.

If it weren’t for my mom, I would have a terrible work ethic. That woman pushed my siblings and me our entire childhoods to be the best we could be.

If there was one thing I could tell my mom, it would be that [in] the work I do, whatever good there is in it, is in great part because of her.

Claudia Sidoti, head chef and recipe developer, HelloFresh

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Claudia Sidoti and her mother, Nelly. (Courtesy of Claudia Sidoti)

My mom always said that there is no such thing as not having enough room at the table. At our house, there was always room for another guest at the table.

My mom makes the best empanadas. She’s Colombian and makes her empanadas from scratch. They are usually filled with stewed chicken or pork and some creamy potatoes, but it’s all about the corn masa dough. She fries them and serves them with a delicious and spicy aji [chili] dipping sauce. She has shown me how to make them, but somehow, they still taste better when she makes them.

My mom was always happiest when we had big family gatherings. I think she’s happiest when I plan a big family gathering. These don’t have to be fancy, just simple gatherings that bring the family together.

My mom could never stand it when anyone wasted things. She could never stand it when I threw something away. She’d always say, “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have used it …” She is a master of turning nothing into something special!

If it weren’t for my mom, I don’t really know what or where I would be. My mom is an anchor in my life, and I feel incredibly blessed to have had her around for so long.

If there was one thing I could tell my mom it would be “Mom, you’re the strongest and most persistent woman I know. You’ve been such an inspiration to me, and I love you so!”

Baba’s Pumpkin Arequipe Rice Pudding

Fun fact: My mom once appeared on The Chew in “Battle of the Grannies,” a cooking throwdown, where she made one of my favorite recipes, her Pumpkin Arequipe Rice Pudding. Arequipe is like Colombian Dulce de Leche. She didn’t win, but she fought hard and, best of all, had a blast! Here is her recipe.

Serves 8

5 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cup fresh pumpkin or winter squash, cut into 1/4 inch pieces

1 cup arborio rice

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice, plus more for garnish

1 cinnamon stick, broken in half, plus more for garnish

Pinch of salt

1 1/4 cups good-quality vanilla ice cream (such as Haagen-Dazs)

1/2 cup raisins

2 tablespoons arequipe or dulce de leche

Cook the milk, pumpkin, rice, sugar, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon stick, and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until it comes to a boil, stirring a couple of times to combine.

When the rice comes to a boil, stir and reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until all the liquid is absorbed and the pumpkin is tender, about 40 minutes. (If the rice and pumpkin are still a little firm or the liquid is not fully absorbed, cover and continue to cook about 5 to 10 minutes more.)

Remove from heat and transfer into a medium bowl or Tupperware container. Remove the cinnamon stick, stir in the ice cream, raisins, arequipe, and an additional pinch of salt. Cover and refrigerate until cooled completely, about 2 hours or overnight.

When ready to serve, divide into glasses or serving dish. Garnish with a pinch of ground cinnamon or pumpkin pie spice if desired.

Recipe courtesy of Nelly Sidoti

Jelena Pasic, chef and owner, Harlem Shake (Manhattan)

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Jelena Pasic and her mother. (Courtesy of Jelena Pasic)

My mom makes the best buzara od skampa.

This traditional coastal Croatian soupy dish made with Mediterranean langoustines (or scampi, as the Italian call them) was my favorite while growing up and was my traditional birthday dish. On the morning of my birthday, my mom and I would go to the town of Rijeka’s beautiful fish market, or “ribarnica.” We would walk from stand to stand, while fishmongers would compete for our attention. Finally, we would find the biggest, freshest, most glistening, rosy red langoustines and make them ours.

At home, my mom would prepare them in a simple way: throwing them on a hot pan of olive oil, adding a bit of brandy and (my favorite part) putting the brandy on fire, creating what I called my birthday flame, then bathing them in white wine, parsley, a bit of breadcrumbs, and a bit of tomato sauce. My family would then eat them under the shade of grapevines in our front yard, with fresh crusty bread. My favorite part was playing with their tentacles, which resemble pliers, before breaking them and digging out the succulent meat.

My mom was always happiest when I would come home with a perfect report card. (I was quite a nerd.)

My mom could never stand it when I left a huge mess in my bedroom, which was always.

My favorite memory of my mom is our summer trips to Naples to visit my grand-aunt.

If there was one thing I could tell my mom, it would be that she was, and still is, the best mama in the world!

Glenn Rolnick, director of culinary operations, Alicart Restaurant Group: Carmine’s and Virgil’s

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Glenn Rolnick. (Courtesy of Alicart Restaurant Group)

My mom always said, “Enjoy and savor what you have in front of you.”

My mom makes the best kitchen sink soup: chicken wing soup with legumes, fresh vegetables, and of course, pasta. I always remember how to make that dish because I loved it so much.

My mom was always happiest when I complimented her cooking, because I grew up in a family of six with four boys who had good appetites.

My mom could never stand it when I didn’t try something at least once or spit out a dish I didn’t like.

My favorite memory of my mom is her heart of gold. She is so loving and is still to this day the matriarch of the family.

If it weren’t for my mama, I would have never gotten into the culinary field. She saw a talent in me that I didn’t know I had and always pushed me to do my best. She even had me cater parties for all the neighbors growing up because she was a proud mama, and is to this day.

Melissa O’Donnell, executive chef and owner, Lil’ Gem (Manhattan)

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Melissa O’Donnell. (Courtesy of Lil’ Gem)

My mother always said you don’t want to peak in high school.

My mother made the best variation of Chicken Marbella. It was fantastic. I recreated it on a few of my restaurant menus and even got great reviews from critics for it.

My mother was always happiest when we were cooking together.

If it weren’t for my mother I wouldn’t be cooking. I used to call her the original Martha Stewart. We grew up eating well; every night, we had a full sit-down family dinner, and every special occasion was celebrated with a great meal. She turned out incredible dishes with ease and elegance.

If there was one thing I could tell my mother, it would be that I feel very lucky to have grown up with great food around me at all times.