Behind every good chef is a mom
After school, when his friends were playing outside, 7-year-old Delio Susi Jr. could be found in the family kitchen, watching his mother make deep-fried shrimp, risotto with calf's liver, or her much-loved gnocchi.
"She didn't want me to be there," recalls a now-grown-up Mr. Susi. "She just wanted me to be a normal kid. But her cooking always smelled and tasted so good. I had to learn how she did it."
Finally, Amelia Susi stopped nudging her son to join his pals, grew to enjoy his company at the stove, and eventually relied on him to help prepare family suppers. Now executive chef and owner of his own restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. - aptly named Amelia's Trattoria - Susi is constantly inspired by those early days.
His most important culinary teacher died last December, but he still serves many of the same rustic Italian dishes she taught him from her native region of Abruzzo.
Like many chefs, Susi says his work as a culinary professional is inextricably linked to his childhood and his mother's influence.
Some of America's celebrated cooks honor the women who most inspired them in two new books. One is "In Mother's Kitchen: Celebrated Women Chefs Share Beloved Family Recipes," by Ann Cooper and Lisa Holmes (Rizzoli, $29.95). It includes heirloom recipes and tales of encouragement by chefs such as Lidia Bastianich and Patricia Williams.
The other recent cookbook to expand onthis theme is "Behind Every Great Chef, There's a Mom!" by Chris Styler (Hyperion, $12.95, paperback). Part of the proceeds from this book go to the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. It features more than 125 recipes - and stories - from celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Todd English, who were influenced by their moms.
Among the delightful profiles in "Behind Every Great Chef" is that of California chef Mary Sue Milliken, who recalls shrimp-eating contests with her cousins, her preference for boiled-tongue dinners on her birthdays, and a mother-daughter trip from Michigan to Scotland solely for a haggis dinner.
Ms. Milliken is perhaps best known as host - with her business partner, Susan Feniger - of two successful TV Food Network series, "Too Hot Tamales" and "Tamales' World Tour." The charismatic duo are also owners of Border Grill restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., and Las Vegas, Nev., authors of four cookbooks, and, in the 1990s, were hosts of the NPR show "Good Food."
Despite Milliken's packed schedule, she still makes time to talk about her mother, Ruth, who will celebrate her 80th birthday on Mother's Day with about 40 friends and relatives, including her three daughters. Reached by telephone en route to her appearance on the TV Food Network's "The Iron Chef," Milliken shared stories of her mother's adventurous palate and cooking, her natural business savvy, and her tenacity as a young single mother who, despite a disability that impaired her walking, worked two jobs to support her children.
Without her mother's example and guidance, says Milliken, "I don't know where I would have ended up." In addition to exposing her eldest daughter to far-flung cultures and exotic cuisines and making a "huge deal about food on holidays and birthdays," Ruth Milliken showed Mary Sue that "anything's possible if you work hard and are persistent."
At 16, Milliken already knew she wanted to be a chef. She fast-tracked her high school years by taking classes during the summer, moved to Chicago after graduation, and enrolled in cooking school. After earning her chef's degree, Milliken became the first woman to join the staff at Chicago's Le Perroquet restaurant - but only after dogged persistence.
Milliken's earliest food memories always include her mother, such as the day at age 4 when she learned to like fresh-picked rhubarb.
"Mom was feeling harried and trying to think of something to do with me," Milliken recalls. "So she gave me a cup of sugar and sent me out to pick rhubarb and dip it into the sugar, which I did again and again."
Often it's these simple childhood memories that plant the first seeds for a culinary career.
Chef James Corwell, who has twice represented the US in the Culinary Olympics, says boyhood walks in the woods with his mother helped cultivate his interest in fresh food.
Now executive chef at the Culinary Institute of America's Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant in St. Helena, Calif., and one of 60 certified master chefs in the country, Mr. Corwell would pick blackberries, blueberries, and peaches on those walks, which he and his mother typically took to the local market near their home outside Atlanta. His mother - a painter, naturalist, and avid cook - would also teach him about the plants growing along their path.
Later, his family moved to a small farm in North Carolina, where Corwell's mother put him in charge of feeding the rabbits and chickens twice a day.
When he was 8, she taught him how to pick green beans, and soon after, the right way to slice radishes and tomatoes.
She would serve large platters of freshly cooked Southern-style meals - lots of leafy greens, okra, and summer squash, as well as dishes such as pickled cauliflower, stewed tomatoes, and farm-raised North Carolina pork cooked umpteen different ways.
Her insistence on cooking with the freshest ingredients she could find and presenting platters of food in an attractive, painterly fashion have stayed with Corwell all of these years.
"I attribute my creativity to her, as well as my sense of flavor, which is light, fresh, and vibrant," he says. "Mom never served anything prepackaged or processed."
Corwell tries to instill in his own three children the same passion for fresh, home-style cooking that his mother taught him. And he's met with success - mostly.
His daughter, the middle child, loves fresh fruits and salads, Corwell notes. His youngest son shares his father's keen taste buds and willingness to try new foods. "He'll eat anything, and he loves to cook with me," he says. But Corwell's 15-year-old son isn't that much different from other teens. "Pizza is still his preference," says his dad with a sigh.
For the pie:
10-inch pie shell (homemade or purchased)
3 cups rhubarb
1-1/2 to 2 cups granulated sugar, to taste
3 tablespoons tapioca
For the streusel:
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Lightly butter a 10-inch pie plate, preferably glass. If making the pie shell from scratch, prepare dough according to recipe directions.
On a generously floured board, roll dough out to a 14-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick.
Line pie plate with dough, leaving about 1/4-inch overhang. Pinch up excess dough to form an upright fluted edge. Place in refrigerator and chill about 1 hour.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
To prebake the pie shell, either homemade or store-bought, line dough with a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill with pie weights, beans, or rice. Bake for 25 minutes, remove paper or foil and weights, and set shell aside.
Clean rhubarb well and cut stalks into 1/2-inch pieces. Toss with the granulated sugar in a large bowl and let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Sprinkle the tapioca over the filling in the bowl, toss well, and let sit an additional 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the streusel topping for the pie: With an electric mixer, cream together the brown sugar and butter until smooth. Add the cinnamon and salt, and mix until blended.
Finally, add the flour and mix with your fingertips just until the topping is crumbly.
Pour the rhubarb filling into the prebaked pie shell and sprinkle the streusel over the top.
Bake until the top is browned and the juices bubble around the edges, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Set aside on a rack to cool to room temperature before serving.
Serves 8 to 10.