Many a teenager would deny it, but mom’s influence — particularly when it comes to food — is far reaching. And it starts as early as three months after conception.
While still in the womb, babies get a sense of what mom is eating, and they absorb those flavors through amniotic fluid and, later, through mother’s milk.
Even if children go through various stages of pickiness, mom's preferences persist, at least on some level. Even when offspring grow and leave the family kitchen behind, grown children remain tied to their mother’s apron strings, whether they realize it or not.
Top chefs are no exception.
“Everyone has to admit that you’re influenced by your environment, your culture and where you came from,” says Top Chef season 1 finalist Dave Martin. “That’s why, even today, upscale comfort is what I’m known for; that’s what I had as a kid.”
In the Martin home, scratch-made peanut butter cookies and three-layer German chocolate cake stood in for Toll House and Little Debbie.
“I didn’t have Oreos,” says Martin. “I would smuggle them from my friends. As a kid, you want what everyone else has.”
Martin grew up learning to cook at his mother’s side, then entered the restaurant industry from the bottom, working every position from dishwasher to server.
A search for financial security led him to step out of the kitchen and take a detour toward the tech field. Even then, he was sharing the flavors of home while throwing food-heavy fetes for dozens.
“It was always a passion, even when I was running my other business,” he says.
When the dot-com bubble burst in 2000, Martin returned to his roots, enrolling in culinary school, and adding classical techniques to his repertoire of home cookery. He's since helped launched several restaurants, a food truck, and has a line of sauces and spice rubs.
Even after all of the French training and various culinary exploits, Martin says he’s still deeply influenced by the flavors of home.
It's very much in his cooking DNA.
“I kind of can’t get out of where I am,” says Martin. “It’s what I do, and I’ve embraced it. But it’s hard because it is very competitive out there… and everything thinks they’re reinventing the wheel.”
But good food transcends trends, he says. And that’s something every mother knows.
Flavor, Not Fancy
Top Chef season 3 winner chef Hung Huynh also comes from a line of traditional cooks who value flavor over pretense.
Huynh’s mother, Thuong Tran, cooked elaborate spreads of comfort food for the family’s celebratory meals, which included pork belly, catfish soup, duck soup and grilled whole fish.
As a child, the Vietnamese-born Huynh worked to master his home country’s food a world away in his family’s Massachusetts restaurant. Huynh’s tutelage was sound; he regularly calls his mother, “the best chef in the world.”
“She taught me how to taste food and how to find a balance in flavor,” he says.
“She made me a better person, has (a) good work ethic, and taught me to always respect your teachers and mentors,” he says. “She taught me how to be loyal and faithful.”
That work ethic and respect has carried Huynh through the kitchens of some of the best restaurants in the world, including the Michelin Star-spangled Guy Savoy's eponymous Las Vegas restaurant.
Huynh's restaurants pay homage to those experiences, as well as what he's learned both in and out of his mother's kitchen.
"With my travel and experience eating, I slowly learned how I like to interpret the Eastern and Western style of cooking and make that into my own," he says.
Jamie Purviance has not been on Top Chef, but he is a master of his domain. Purviance, a Stanford University and Culinary Institute of America grad, is a bestselling, James Beard-nominated cookbook author and the master grill chef for Weber.
Though his mother is no grill master, Purviance calls her "a very good cook."
“I think 'inspired' is not the right word, because her food wasn’t meant to be impressive or outlandish in any kind of surprising way,” he says.
Rather, Purviance says, mom “placed a great emphasis on comforting her family and suiting our particular tastes.”
That emphasis, Purviance says, is a good lesson for parents, but also for chefs. “It’s ultimately not about me, but really about someone on the other end who’s enjoying the food,” he says.
Still, says Purviance, the family kitchen was not without experimentation, particularly when his mother began taking cooking lessons from a Chinese chef.
“She would come home and tell us these stories about where the dish originated from and why the flavors were balanced,” Purviance says. “And we would eat it and think, ‘What’s all the fuss about? That was just a goopy chicken stir fry.’”
Not all experiments were failures, and Purviance was encouraged to experiment on his own, creating composed salads and even learning how to make Baked Alaska at his mother's side.
There, he learned a less-is-more, practical approach to cooking and an aversion to convenience products, something that influences his style today.
“I share the same sort of attitude,” Purviance says. “I’m not going to spend 20 minutes to make fine little rings of shallots that I’m going to dredge in seasoned flour and then fry in a separate pan just so I can have a crispy garnish on my steak.”
But the biggest lesson Purviance learned from mom has really nothing at all to do with a kitchen — it’s about how he treats the other special women in his life: his wife and daughter.
“I hold my mother in such high regard, with such high respect,” he says. “I guess I use that same style of respect for my wife. And when I had children, I remember my mother telling me how important fathers are to daughters, in particular.”
Purviance says his mother, who had an up-and-down relationship with her own dad, once told him that fathers need to go out of their way to foster connection with their daughters.
“And I’ve really taken that to heart,” he says. “That’s her influence on me as a father.”