Food

Chefs and food writers share the best cooking advice they got from their moms

“My mom taught me that cooking for others was really rarely about the food itself.”

“My mom taught me that cooking for others was really rarely about the food itself.”

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

While the internet is full of recipe inspiration and answers to our culinary questions, I recently realized just how often I turn to my mom for cooking advice. I continue to fall back on the simple principles she imparted upon me growing up, and I know that I'm not alone in that. Ahead of Mother's Day, we reached out to some of the other people we look to for help — chefs and food writers — to ask what important lessons their moms or mother-figures taught them about cooking. Below, they share some of their best advice.

Amy Rosen, author of Kosher Style and owner of Rosen's Cinnamon Buns: 

"I'd say the best thing my mom taught me in the kitchen is that it's fun to just get in there and play around. There were no real rules in the kitchen when I was growing up, except for cleaning up after yourself, so my brothers and I enjoyed learning how to cook and experimenting from a young age. It wasn't about following a recipe or a technique, but more about an attitude. The kitchen isn't a scary place, it's a happy place where you can be creative and whip up food for your family and friends to enjoy, sometimes successfully and sometimes not as successfully. The important part is to try."

Joshna Maharaj, chef, activist, and author of Take Back the Tray: Revolutionizing Food in Hospitals, Schools, and Other Institutions:

"I think that the most valuable lesson my mother taught me about cooking is about abundance and generosity. I am lucky to come from a home where food was a big deal, and where we always had other people around the table. My mother always made sure there was lots of food because 'you never know who is going to show up at the door'. This generosity has stuck with me, both in the volume of food I make, and my love of feeding people."

Marcella DiLonardo, recipe developer, author of Bake The Seasons & creator of the blog Hey Modest Marce:

"Growing up in an Italian household means you are in the kitchen before you can walk, but you also aren't allowed to touch the stove before age 30. But watching my mom cook taught me how to make the perfect pasta sauce without copying her recipe (because that's a secret that no Italian woman shares). The amazing thing about growing up with an Italian mom is that you get to be creative in the kitchen. I learned the basics needed for a sauce and the techniques behind getting the consistency just right." 

Shane Chartrand, culinary ambassador for River Cree Resort:

"The one thing that my mom taught me is the importance of comfort food; I understand the laissez-faire way of talking about [comfort food] because anyone can make it, when you think about it. But, 20 years of cooking and here I am doing comfort Indigenous cooking... because when I was a kid, my mom made delicious food. It could be as simple as meatloaf, a goulash… she used to make really good borscht — that's the kind of comfort that I enjoyed that my mom really taught me. My mom never taught me how to cook, she just cooked because we had a big family; I watched her cook and it was an inspiration to me, and made me who I am today." 

Lisa Dawn Bolton, author of On Boards:

"My mom taught me that cooking for others was really rarely about the food itself. Her whole approach to cooking was centred around who was coming to her table, and how could she give them a beautiful experience. She taught me to put my guests first, to think about their favourite foods; dishes that would be personal. Her conscientiousness and consideration of others, through how she cooks for them, was definitely an inspiration and influence in how I cook, and why I chose to write a cookbook about gathering people together around food. My mom taught me that cooking for others was about them leaving your home with memories of love and laughter first, and the food second. (But never without leftovers in hand!) It helped me never be afraid to cook or try new things in the kitchen because as long as I was cooking with someone else in mind, from a place of generosity and giving, it was guaranteed to be a success."

Wallace Wong, chef and founder of culinary consulting and catering brand Six Pack Chef:

The best thing my mom, my aunt and grandma taught me about cooking is that the most important thing is realizing you are cooking for someone and that it was a way to show them you care about them — it was a way to show you loved them. I use this philosophy in my cooking because every time I cook and serve a dish, I think of what they taught me and ask myself 'am I showing this person how much I care and love them?' I also use it as a reference for whenever someone I cook for gives me great compliments or are really enjoying the dish, that means they feel the love and are reciprocating it back. 

Signe Langford, chef and author of Happy Hens & Fresh Eggs: Keeping Chickens in the Kitchen Garden with 100 Recipes:

"Truth be told, Mother wasn't much of a cook day to day. When company came, she had her specialities — baba au rhum, paella, chiffon cake, her wonderful shortbread at Christmas — but the rest of the time, everything was under-seasoned and overcooked. I grew up in the 1960s and '70s, when casserole was queen and everything came out of a can, but, when Father's garden started to provide, her cooking was transformed. Then, it was all about simplicity and letting the ingredient shine: juicy, sweet strawberries, crunchy wax beans, cool cucumbers. Perfectly fresh ingredients don't need much meddling; some heat, maybe. Salt? Sure. Butter? Almost always! I absorbed this kitchen gospel and cook by it still. And don't worry Mother, I'm over it now. A childhood of canned spaghetti can be washed away with a single thought of your warm stewed rhubarb and strawberries spilled over vanilla ice cream."

Mary Berg, host of Mary's Kitchen Crush and author of Kitchen Party: Effortless Recipes for Every Occasion:

"I've made no secret of my mom's aversion to the kitchen but I think the best lesson she's taught me is that cooking and food are first and foremost about sharing. Whether purposefully or not, she has always shown me that there is always enough to go around when a family friend stops by on a whim around dinnertime, or when a neighbour might need a little extra care. In our house, food itself is the best way to share and convey love. Even though cooking might not be her favourite thing in the world, I think this 'whatever I have in the fridge is yours' mentality to sharing food is one of the most amazing lessons I've learned in the kitchen, and in my mind, it makes everything taste about a hundred times better."

Julie Miguel, founder of the blog Daily Tiramisu and recipe developer: 

"I lost my mother when I was 15 years old. I learned how to cook by watching her day-in and day-out. I sat on the kitchen counter and was her sous chef. During her last few weeks of life, she knew she couldn't cook for us anymore so she gave me detailed instructions for her chicken stock recipe. I wrote them down in her hospital room. She had all the ingredients portioned in the freezer (chicken legs along with tomato and mirepoix ingredients from our garden). I followed her instructions and made the stock; I was surprised at how tasty it was! This simple stock recipe sparked my passion for cooking and gave me the base and knowledge for future recipes. I'm so grateful she taught me this recipe before it was too late because to this day we have been unable to locate her recipe book." 

Shahir Massoud, chef and author of the upcoming cookbook "Eat Habibi, Eat!":

"This one is a bit tricky, because my mom isn't the greatest cook (haha)... however she recently taught me something interesting while I was writing recipes for my cookbook. I was tinkering with ways to transform a classic and traditional Egyptian breakfast called ful medamas (basically fava beans cooked then smashed with olive oil, lemon juice, herbs etc... served with eggs and bread). I was getting way too out there: trying different beans, methods, techniques and so on. When my Mom found out, she emphatically said NO! There are certain dishes you don't want to modernize, experiment with, or change. The very essence of what makes some dishes so enjoyable is how consistent and comforting they have been over the years, and I guess I needed her to remind me of that." 

Joy McCarthy, holistic nutritionist and author of The Joyous Cookbook:

"My mom taught me one of the most important aspects of eating that I value greatly to this day: the importance of togetherness. She was never preachy about it but she made sure we shared at least one meal together a day as a family. Usually that was dinner from Monday to Friday, and every Sunday night we'd have both my grandmothers over for a special family dinner. Togetherness is so important for our well-being; I can't wait to do that again with my parents when social distancing comes to an end!"

Matt Basile, chef and owner of Fidel Gastro's catering:

"My mother used to be a great cook, until recently when she became more into is it gluten-free than does it taste good. She never was fancy with food but always had great flavours and quality. [She] was always about the products themselves — specifically produce, meat and fish. She would always tell me to never ever ignore how quality impacts taste." 

Jennifer Crawford, reigning MasterChef Canada, writer and host of My Queer Kitchen:

"'You have to smell this,' my Aunt Bernie would exclaim, shoving that season's fresh dill fronds in my face. This was the accidental best lesson in cooking. She did this every year, with every bit as much enthusiasm as the year before. Lush pleasure and joy from the farmers market to the table, Bernie felt and vocalized it all. If appreciation was a shining light, having Bernie cook for you was like staring straight into a supernova. She passed away a year ago this Mother's Day, so she's been on my mind plenty. In our last conversation, I tearfully told her I admired how much she unabashedly adored and enjoyed food. 'Others may have prepared it better,' her eyes sparkled and she reached for my arm, 'but no one loved it more than me.' And as usual when it came to food, I believe she was right.

Shayma Owaise Saadat, food writer, professor and entrepreneur:

"'Don't fret — make do with what you have — and make it your own.' Whether it was that frozen Ellio's nine-slice pizza, or a can of chickpeas in the pantry, my Ami always knew how to transform something seemingly mundane into a nourishing and special treat. Those are the skills I hold dear to me in my life today. When my father was away on work-related trips, sometimes we'd have [that] frozen pizza. But before sliding it into the oven, Ami would add spoonfuls of keema on top — a Pakistani-style ground beef dish, fragrant with ginger, garlic and browned onions. My favourite part was letting the keema crisp up under the broiler before biting into a slice. There were also times when we would come home late at night, after a long trip, and Ami would open a tin of canned chickpeas and stewed tomatoes, making chanay for dinner, finished off with matchstick slices of ginger. We ate it with pita bread she always kept in the freezer. There is always beauty in simplicity."

Interviews have been condensed and edited for space and clarity.

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