Most moms are full of great advice, and are inveterate teachers in general. It’s not uncommon for kids to learn to cook from their mothers (and mother figures), so it’s no surprise that many famous chefs credit their moms with inspiring them too—although not always in the way you might think. In honor of Mother’s Day, here are some notable food celebrities’ memories of their mamas. Whether they were professional chefs, enthusiastic amateur cooks, or never set foot in the kitchen, these moms all imparted worthy lessons, from the practical to the sublime.
Gail Simmons’ Mom, Renée
Gail Simmons, “Top Chef” judge and cookbook author, came by her love of food naturally, and early on; her mother was a food writer and cooking teacher who kept the fridge stocked with exotic ingredients.
The happy times Gail spent with her mom in the kitchen, she says, “helped make [it] a place where I’ve always found comfort and exhilaration.” Far better than associating the space with drudgery, for sure.
Alex Guarnaschelli’s Mom, Maria
When chef and “Chopped” judge Alex Guarnaschelli was growing up, her mom was a cookbook editor who often tested recipes at home, and in 1997, Maria oversaw the revision of the classic kitchen tome “Joy of Cooking”—but her initial reaction to her daughter’s decision to make a career in food was not exactly enthusiastic. They eventually got on the same page, and Alex describes her mom as “cantankerous, difficult, and fabulous.”
She also recalls that her mom made her the best meal she ever had for her 11th birthday: scallops and chocolate caramel cake, which you can find in Alex’s book “Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook”. And she deemed her mom’s macaroni and cheese recipe good enough to go on the menu at her restaurant too.
Aaron Sanchez’s Mom, Zarela
Fellow “Chopped” judge and chef Aaron Sanchez’s mother wrote three cookbooks, and cooked professionally in her own NYC restaurant as well. Among many other lessons, she taught her son how to make a proper mole, even if it meant smoking out an entire apartment building—because toasting the chiles is not optional!
Jacques Pépin’s Mom, Jeanette
Jeanette was also a chef, though not from the start. Eventually, she and her husband owned a restaurant, Le Pélican, where Jacques got his first taste of a professional kitchen, but when his Maman was newly married, she didn’t know how to make cheese soufflé. She forged ahead anyway (her son has described her as “willing and fearless”), and while the result was not exactly a standard soufflé, it became a family favorite that Pépin has gladly shared.
The Enthusiastic Amateurs
Anthony Bourdain’s Mom, Gladys
Anthony Bourdain may have owed his appreciation of good food to his mom’s early examples, or he may have simply inherited it. He once said his mother taught him that food should not be taken for granted or simply “shoved into one’s face like fuel”—and she recalls that her son “always had this interest in good taste, good smells. From a very young age, he loved to try new things,” whether that was snails on a French vacation, or gingerbread cookies at Christmas.
Martha Stewart’s Mom, Harriet Martha Kostyra (“Big Martha”)
Martha learned a whole slew of lessons from her mom, including lots of specific recipes, but perhaps one of the most important things Mrs. Kostyra gave her daughter was “complete freedom in [the] kitchen” that encouraged young Martha “to experiment and create” whatever she could dream up. And on that creativity an empire was built.
David Chang’s Mom, Sherri
Sherri Chang doesn’t approve of her son’s potty mouth (on full display in “Ugly Delicious”), and she may only half-jokingly criticize his food as too salty and not as good as her own, but he recognizes that she’s “an amazing cook”—who is also not afraid to do things unconventionally as long as they taste good, like using 7UP in noodle dishes and beef stock. Following in her footsteps, David Chang uses it for fizzy white kimchi.
Marcus Samuelsson’s Grandmom, Helga
As a young boy, the chef lost his birth mother to tuberculosis and was adopted into a Swedish family. His mother Ann Marie cooked some things (like spaghetti with meat sauce and peas), but he credits his grandmother for his love of food. During summers at her home in coastal Sweden, Helga taught him and his sisters “to pickle fresh vegetables, and make meatballs, ginger snaps, cookies, and apple jam.”
Emeril Lagasse’s Mom, Hilda
Much of what Emeril knows about cooking, he learned from his mother; she always let him help in the kitchen. One of the earliest specific lessons was how to make vegetable soup, but she also imparted to him how food can satisfy much more than a physical hunger: “Our family life really revolved around the kitchen and eating and cooking together, and it was then that I learned how happy food can make people.”
José Andrés’ Mom, Marisa
José Andrés learned a similar lesson from his mom: “the power of food to evoke memory.” That’s partly why he serves her flan recipe at his Washington, D.C. restaurant, and cooks Spanish food for his own children. “It is a way of reconnecting with home”—and of course, it’s delicious.
Anne Burrell’s Mom, Marlene
She taught her daughter a practical lesson everyone should take to heart–read the recipe all the way through before actually starting to cook from it! Really and truly important advice.
Joan Nathan’s Mom, Pearl
Cookbook queen and Jewish food expert Joan Nathan says her mother was all about organization, so now she herself makes it a point “to clean up before guests arrive and do as much prep as possible a day in advance…always…so that I am more relaxed and probably there is less to clean up the next day.” Words of wisdom, indeed.
Ina Garten’s Mom, Florence
On the other end of the spectrum, Ina Garten’s mother was a strict nutritionist who treated food as medicine and didn’t let her daughter help in the kitchen. Luckily for us, Ina’s calling was kicked into high gear on a camping trip in France after she was married, and we are all blessed to have The Barefoot Contessa making our world more delicious today.
Cook Like a Pro: Recipes and Tips for Home Cooks, $18.38 on Amazon
If you didn't learn from mom either, let Ina guide you through the kitchen.
Julia Child’s Mom, Julia Weston
Julia Child also famously fell deeply in love with food and cooking in France, but not until she was 40—which might have something to do with the fact that while growing up, her mother wasn’t really into it. According to a quote that resurfaces with vexingly little supporting information, Julia Weston sometimes made an “English cheese thing” but really rather hated cooking, so she hired a chef to take care of the family’s meals. Those could include, among other things, “gray lamb,” which can’t have been inspiring to young Julia. Vive la France!
Ruth Reichl’s Mom, Miriam
The former Gourmet editor in chief’s mother was very much not a gourmand—she was a notoriously awful cook who thought nothing of scraping the mold from month-old leftover chocolate pudding and then stretching it out with stale marshmallows, prunes, and canned peaches. Clearly, her daughter learned a lot through example (of what not to do), and even wrote an entire book called “Not Becoming My Mother”—but she also realized, once her mom was gone, that “Mim” taught her much more than she’d previously realized or appreciated.
Not Becomng My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, $8 on Amazon
This one is a quick—and emotional—read.
If you’ve learned anything useful from your mom, in the kitchen or elsewhere, don’t wait to thank her. And if you’re looking for ways to show her some love, see all of our Mother’s Day ideas for inspiration.
Header image courtesy of pyrozhenka/Shutterstock.