Charles Phan, The Slanted Door in San Francisco
Charles Phan grew up in Vietnam, where people line up at food stalls for banh xeosometimes called "happy pancakes" in the U.S.crisp, paper-thin crêpes filled with seafood, pork and bean sprouts. Phan would buy them at a stall in an alley near his family's general store in the resort area of Da Lat. Today he lives in California, but when he makes the crêpes, "just the smell of the batter hitting the hot pan conjures images of throngs of people waiting in line in the alley." Phan's not sure how the crêpes really came to be called happy pancakes, but perhaps the name comes from people's memories of how happy they were when they finally got to order.
Efisio Farris, Arcodoro in Houston
In the Sardinian town of Orosei, where Efisio Farris grew up, May and June are the months for the spring primizie, or first pick of the season. Farris's mother would hollow out a few choice eggplants from his grandfather's farm, fill them with a mixture of ground veal, mint and basil, and top them with a garlicky tomato sauce. Farris recalls helping his mother, and struggling to meet her exacting standards: "You had to be perfect, carving out the eggplant with an espresso spoon. 'It has to be round, round, round,' my mom would say. Even now, sometimes when I make this dish I get a little nervous, because I'm afraid it won't be as good as I remember."
Anoosh Shariat, Park Place on Main in Louisville, KY
Two sour-cherry trees grew in Anoosh Shariat's backyard in Tehran, where he lived as a boy. "I was always playing in those trees," he says. "I used to pick the cherries before they were even ripe. I'd eat them with salt, and it was like biting into a big lemon." Today Shariat adds dried tart cherries to the saffron-scented rice pilaf he serves with his elegant cumin-roasted chicken. That rice pilaf also powerfully recalls his childhood. "When my family had people to dinner, my mother would emerge from the kitchen carrying huge platters laden with mounds of rice pilaf. After the meal, everyone would linger at the table drinking tea, talking about politics and philosophy, and reciting Sufi poetry. Hafiz, a 14th-century poet, was a particular favorite."
Nobuo Fukuda, Sea Saw in Scottsdale, AZ
When Nobuo Fukuda remembers meals in his Tokyo boyhood home, he shudders: "My father was the family cook. While he was a good journalist, he was simply awful in the kitchen." Fukuda recalls peering into bowls of noodles that were so unappetizing he wished they would disappear. "I forced myself to eat whatever my father had concocted, but I'd dream about all the things I wished I could eat instead. I'd invent extravagant dishes with oxtails and beef," ingredients that at that time in Japan were both rare and prohibitively expensive. Among the recipes he dreamed up was this soup, rich with short ribs, daikon and udon noodles.
Pano Karatassos, Kyma in Atlanta
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Pano Karatassos often visited Greece as a child, where his relatives immediately welcomed him with a huge family meal. "We would land in Athens and drive straight to my Aunt Rena's house," Karatassos says. "The front door would open, and this sea of aunts, uncles and cousins would rush to greet us. I remember the aromas of the feast inside wafting towards me as I waded through all my relatives." His Aunt Rena would always prepare her incredibly tender and meaty lamb shanks; they were especially delicious paired with sour trahana, a slightly tart, granular pasta made with yogurt.
Richard Sandoval, Isla in Las Vegas
"When I think of carnitas, I think of my childhood," says Richard Sandoval about this juicy roasted pork dish, native to Mexico's Michoacán region. Sandoval, who grew up on the border of Michoacán, in Acapulco, remembers tagging along with his grandmother on Sunday mornings to buy the ingredients for a carnitas feast. "The kids would sit at one table and the adults at another, and my grandmother would load a buffet with pork, rice, beans, corn tortillas and tomatillo salsa. Everyone would be rolling up carnitas, walking around, drinking and talking."