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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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."