15 Chefs Reveal the Best Cooking Advice They Got from Their Moms
Mom always knows best—and for these 15 chefs, their mothers’ advice rings true in the kitchen, too. In honor of Mother’s Day, we spoke with chefs to find out the most valuable advice they gleaned from their mothers when it comes to cooking, eating, and healthy living. From adding more salt to showing your love through food, here's what some of the biggest chefs in the country learned from their moms.
Sean Brock: Executive Chef, Husk and Partner, McCrady's
"If you aren’t having fun cooking, you should order take out."
"My mom is one of the best cooks on the planet. My childhood memories around food are what inspired me to become a chef. She is an Appalachian cook, through and through. Watching her make chicken and dumplings is like watching Jiro make sushi. She makes everything look so easy and never measures anything. My mom taught me that cooking isn’t always about being a professional chef obsessed with perfect knife cuts and a spotless work station. She taught me to have fun while cooking and reminds me that food is the great connector. Her approach to cooking inspires me daily, whether I’m in one of my kitchens or cooking at home. She is such a natural and never stresses over cooking. She is always trying new things and is not afraid to mess something up for the sake of new discoveries. If you aren’t having fun cooking, you should order take out."
Tanya Holland: Chef, B-Side BBQ and author, Brown Sugar Kitchen: New Style Down-Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland:
"Lead by example."
"My mother had a natural intuition around cooking and often improvised with savory dishes. She was also a creature of habit and had her specialties, which we ate frequently: fried chicken, cornbread, and gumbo were a few, but she was also willing to experiment with exotic cuisines that she was exposed to through my parent's gourmet club, a group of couples who hosted dinner parties monthly featuring regional American food and cuisines from around the world. My mother led by example. She did more show than tell. She was a very clean cook, always cleaning as you go so I know that stayed with me for sure. She also always prepared a balanced meal with a protein, vegetable and starch. I think leading by example is one of the most important things a chef can do. Your staff is watching you all of the time whether you know it or not. Children watch their parents all of the time. I saw the care and love my mother put in her cooking and I carry that with me today.”
Matt Jennings: Chef at Townsman and author of Homegrown: Cooking from My New England Roots
"Add as much salt as you think you need—and then add a little more."
“My mom is an awesome cook, and she is totally driven by comfort foods. I grew up with her Hungarian goulash, Yankee gumbo, beer and beef stew, and more. She once told me to ‘add what you think you need for salt, and then add a little more.’ She is big on seasoning, and I would say her example is how I learned how to season properly. Proper seasoning is one of the most important fundamentals that any chef must teach their kitchen team.”
Alex Guarnaschelli: Executive chef at Butter and judge on Iron Chef America
"Cook and eat what you want—just eat less of it."
“My mother is a home cook with the sensibility of a four-star chef—especially when it comes to ingredients. She will take a bus to a train to a bike to a mountain to get a half of a pound of great mushrooms. She gave me a simple piece of advice I always blithely ignored until recently: cook and eat what you want—just eat less of it. It’s definitely healthier and easier to manage eating if you have a few bites of something you really want. The idea of balance with food and cooking is complex for a chef. Chefs can struggle with cooking all day and finding time to eat well. I really try to find that balance between what I crave and what is good for me and gives me energy. Some days I ‘fail’ and eat cake. My mother said it from the start, though, and I don’t think depriving yourself of all food ‘fun’ works. It’s about balance. And recreation. Food is not only nourishing but should also be fun and give joy.”
Nicholas Tang: Executive chef at DBGB
"Don’t ever waste food."
“The best advice my mother has given is to not waste food. She used to tell us a story of how my grandmother would scrape the crispy bits of rice from the rice pot and cook it with stock to make congee for the family the next day. They were not well-to-do growing up and coming from a large family of eight siblings, there were a lot of mouths to feed. The tip of not wasting food has stuck with me. It’s valuable because—if you think of how fortunate we are to have food our table every night while there are a lot of others who do not—we need to make sure we are not wasting food. I have put it into action with menu planning in the restaurant, where I try my best to use the whole vegetable as much as I can. For example, when cooking with Swiss chard, we use the leaves to make a subric and we use the stems in a sauté. I try to minimize waste as much as I can. Food is something to be respected.”
Leah Cohen: Chef and owner of Pig & Khao and Piggyback Bar
"Taste the food you cook."
“Growing up my mom cooked her eight to 10 signature dishes that she mastered. She made a fried chicken with soy, garlic, ginger, and brown sugar that everyone in the family loved and would always request she made for family gatherings. My mom would always tell me to make sure my food tasted good. This seems like such an obvious piece of advice but there are so many young cooks out there that don't want to taste the food they are making. If you don't taste your food, you won't know how to adjust the seasoning to make it balanced. I think that’s where my mom was going with that. As a chef, making food taste good is the most important piece of advice. It is important to taste everything all the time—at every stage of the cooking process. I stress to my cooks how important it is they taste the food that they put out and when I check it, I force them to taste when something is wrong.”
Junghyun Park: Executive chef at Atoboy and Atomix
"There’s a right way to preserve food."
“My mom has always been a hard-working mom—even to this day. Although she had a full-time job, I remember her waking up in the early hours of the day to prepare fresh meals for my dad and the rest of the family. The most important food advice she gave me and that I still practice daily is her wisdom on food preservation. Things like onion, garlic, potato, and tomato are best left at room temperature, while other fruits and vegetables are best in the refrigerator for freshness. Fish and meats can be carefully looked after in a temperature controlled kimchi refrigerator, while dried anchovies or other seafood have a prolonged life in the freezer. Today, it's easy to find such information with a simple search on the web, but back when I first began cooking, her knowledge of these things helped me professionally.”
Fatima Ali: Contestant on Top Chef Season 15
"Go to culinary school as long as you are willing to perfect your craft."
"My mother makes really fantastic Pakistani food that we both love eating together. What’s crazy is she never tastes as she goes, which is so counterintuitive to me as a chef, and yet, somehow it always works. She has always pushed me to try and excel at everything I do. When I told her I wanted to go to culinary school, she told me I could as long as I perfected my craft, and I’ve been on that mission ever since. It’s a piece of advice I carry with me every day. I’m constantly striving to challenge myself, learn new techniques, and innovate. She’s just an incredible woman I can only hope to be a fraction of who she is as a mother."
Angela Garbacz: Owner and head pastry chef of Goldenrod Pastries
"Show your love for people through food."
"My mom is a very generous cook. She shows her love through food. And while she’s a great cook, she is an amazing baker. Making food and eating it was the way she communicated and taught us to communicate. Her generosity with feeding people and sharing food has shaped my life. She always takes the extra time necessary to make food for people, no matter what time of day. She insists on making breakfast for me and my team at the bakery every single Saturday morning—even making sure to accommodate everyone’s dietary restrictions and preferences. When we were children, dinner was at six o’clock every night. No matter how many activities we had, homework, meetings, or socializing, we had dinner together, as a family at the table. This was an undisputed time that we had together to talk about our days. Because of the importance my mom put on eating together every night, she showed us how important community and conversation around food is."
Aarón Sánchez: Executive chef of Johnny Sánchez and judge on Chopped:
"Find your style and your voice as a chef."
“My mom makes authentic-yet-elevated Mexican dishes, and she tends to focus on different regions and highlight certain techniques and ingredients from that area in one meal. The best advice she ever gave me was, ‘find your style and your voice.’ She always says that someone should be able to taste my food with their eyes closed and know that it’s mine. She has always pushed me to be creative and innovative while honoring my legacy by sharing our culture and heritage through food. This is important because she wanted me to be my own man and my own person, and not just follow exactly in her footsteps—although I am also a chef. She wanted me to have my own point of view and share that through my dishes and recipes. I have done that by finding my voice and ensuring that my style is shown in everything I put on the menu at Johnny Sánchez and in all of my collaborations.”
Flynn McGarry: Executive chef a Gem
"Always use the best ingredients, no matter what you’re cooking."
“My mom is a very simple cook. I remember she would always make this braised chicken dish with olives and tomatoes. It was the one ‘nice dinner’ that we would have every week. She always taught me to always use the best ingredients, no matter what you are making. She cooked simply for us growing up, but we always had the best ingredients. She would go to the farmer's market, try to use vegetables, and buy organic. It taught me to be a healthier eater, but also to be mindful in the way I cook. In my menu, we use a lot of vegetables and we always buy from the best purveyors. In my daily life, too, I always try and eat healthy.”
"Eat a healthy, balanced diet."
“My mum was a great baker. She didn’t cook brilliantly when I was a young kid, although she has turned into a really good cook later in life. She always had a passion for it, but she was a single mum and used to work really hard, so I guess she didn’t get a lot of time for it when I was young. She always told me not to be as greedy as I was—but it never worked because I am still as greedy as I ever was as a young boy. A piece of advice that I did take, though, was to eat a good, healthy, balanced diet. So, I guess I have her to thank for being somewhat in shape. I mean, look: a healthy life and a balanced diet are super important.”
Charles Toshio Namba: Chef at Tsubaki
"Let the true flavors of your food show."
"My mom was raised in Kobe, Japan, and is an amazing cook with an amazing palate. Her sense of seasoning is always on point and nothing is ever over seasoned. She taught me how to avoid over-seasoning to be able to let the true flavors of food come through, and how to not rely too heavily on soy sauce, salt, or sugar. It’s very easy to cover up food with too much seasoning, and much more difficult to know when to stop. She taught me the importance of subtlety and balance in food. When I was growing up, she actually had a cooking show on a local Japanese language TV station, and has always been famous in the community for her Pork Gyoza—and once thought about opening a Gyoza delivery service."
Neal Fraser: Chef at Vibiana and Red Bird, and contestant on Top Chef Masters Season 5
"Find something you love to do and pursue it—and luckily for me, that was cooking."
"I love my mother to death but she is a terrible cook. She fed us healthy foods but nothing amazing. That said, my mom’s best advice was to find something I loved to do and pursue it. Luckily for me, that was cooking. My mother has supported of all of my pipe dreams and passions, and that’s allowed me to take risks and pursue things I probably wouldn’t have."
Bruce Kalman: Chef at Union and Knead & Co. Pasta Bar + Market, and contestant on Top Chef Season 15
"Put in the extra steps necessary to make a great tasting meal."
“My mom was one of those moms that wasn’t the most talented cook, but she had her few dishes she made well. She would make my grandmother’s matzo ball soup, chicken liver, and pot roast—and occasionally, we would see a good ketchup-crusted meatloaf. I learned the technique of making pot roast where she would brown the brisket whole, add the vegetables, potatoes, tomato, stock and braise it for a while. Then she would slice the meat and cook it longer in the sauce. Its taught me to put in the effort to and extra steps to make a great tasting dish. I think because my mom was not the most amazing cook, it forced me to be in the kitchen [at home], once I began to learn in the restaurants where I worked.”