Many think of mom when she cooks. For food professionals, this is almost always the case. Whether she taught them to cook, instilled a love of baking, or invited every houseguest to dine, the memories are warm and beautiful.
As Mother’s Day approaches, it’s a good time to take a trip down memory lane with them.
The six moms here helped mold their sons or daughters into the chefs (and adults) they have become. The lessons they taught in the kitchen seemed simple then, but their influence would last a lifetime.
Chef and owner of PasticheBistro & wine bar
Growing up in Glendale in the 1960s as the child of two Milwaukee Public School teachers, Engel remembers the weekdays were always busy. But that didn’t stop his mother, Judy, from preparing home-cooked meals most evenings. Weekend nights were easy with dishes like soup and bread or pot roast.
“She always made time to put good food on the table, even when there wasn’t much money or time to prepare it,” he said.
But it was her Sunday night meatloaf (accompanied by mashed potatoes and corn or peas) that Engel loves and remembers best.
“On Mondays, I’d look forward to a meatloaf sandwich in my lunch,” he said. There was nothing special about this dish. It was a typical meatloaf with ground beef, onions and ketchup. “It was the easiest thing in the world, but I loved it.”
Judy, 77, learned to cook from her mother. One of her most popular family recipes is a traditional German potato cake. It was a dessert the whole family would enjoy after church at the grandparents’ house.
It’s a dense, chocolatey, flavorful bundt cake with walnuts made with leftover mashed potatoes and sour milk. Judy’s mom covered it in chocolate buttercream while her mother-in-law topped it with white icing.
Thinking about the culinary lessons his mother had taught him, Engel said it wasn’t skills but the prospect and joy she derives from feeding her family that Engel carries with her.
“The best thing in the world is to do something that makes other people happy, and I got that from my mother.”
Cookbook author and presenter of Healthy Indian Flavors with Alamelu on Channel 10
When Vairavan thinks of her mother, Umayal (Uma for short), the first thing that comes to mind is her warmth, kindness, and hospitality.
Vairavan was raised in India, the eldest of five siblings, and her family had a full-time cook in the house along with a driver and a maid, which she says is very common in India.
“My mother was amazing,” Vairavan recalled of her 81-year-old mother. “Everyone who came into the house was welcomed. I remember the warmth and hospitality she showed to everyone who came to her house. I’m doing the same now.”
When her mother cooked, her food tasted delicious.
“She made a cream of wheat dish that we had for breakfast called Uppuma.
“She added onions, tomatoes, ginger and cilantro and sautéed everything with spices.”
She would also make a vegetable dish with it, like carrots in a lentil-based sauce called sambhar.
And no breakfast was complete without plenty of Madras coffee.
Something that was always in her fridge was a fresh chutney, like tomato, peanut, eggplant, or mint.
“My mother used whatever was available in the fridge. Their chutneys are always quick and amazing,” she said.
Vairavan, who lives in Whitefish Bay, traveled to India to join her mother in February.
“The whole family went to see Mom,” she said. “I think of her and I have such happy memories.”
Blogger at artofnaturalliving.com
As a mother of three girls, Emily, 24, Margaret, 20, and Hilary, 17, Wilkerson believes in supporting her family with homemade, natural and organic foods (all of which she blogs about at artofnaturalliving.com) at her home in Fox Point.
She credits her love of cooking to her mother Marian, 84, who lives in a senior community in Milwaukee.
“Growing up, we played in the snow, and instead of giving us hot chocolate from a mix, she made it from scratch,” Wilkerson said. “She then boiled and simmered the water, cocoa powder and sugar on the stovetop to get out any lumps, then added the milk and vanilla. I do that for my children.”
She also fondly remembers the heart-shaped cut-out cookies her mother would bake for her classmates on Valentine’s Day.
Wilkerson learned firsthand the secrets of her mother’s famous Salisbury steaks.
“There’s a gingerbread cake with cooked vanilla frosting that my grandma made that we can’t replicate for anything,” she said. “There’s also a recipe for Danish meatballs that we can’t make either because nobody wrote it down. The Salisbury steaks were a dish I wanted to write down, just like my mom used to do.”
In addition to passing down family recipes, Wilkerson’s mother also taught her how to stay organized in the kitchen.
The family’s Christmas party consists of a multi-course meal for 20 people, and it’s not uncommon for Wilkerson and her husband to host a family reunion for 50 extended family.
“She taught me that you can serve really good food to a lot of people,” Wilkerson said of her mother.
“For my oldest daughter’s christening, she prepared mini quiches, curry and beef stroganoff by cooking many dishes in advance.”
Personal chef, catererand cooking teacher
Guralnick grew up in a Jewish household in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (All four of her grandparents are Eastern European and came to Canada before World War II.)
Although her parents were both busy college professors, her mother, Belva, now 71, managed to put a hot meal on the table every night.
Her most memorable weekday meals were Swiss steak (thin chops of bottom round steak dredged in flour and fried in a tomato and vegetable sauce), lasagne with ground beef and cottage cheese, and kaklette (small fried hamburgers with fried onions) that went with it What was served was a pile of mashed potatoes, to which her father added corn and ketchup.
Her mom also made a killer matzo ball soup from scratch.
The meal was always accompanied by a salad with their homemade vinaigrette. To this day, it’s Guralnick’s house vinaigrette.
She also recalls many home cooking recipes using one of the “It” convenience ingredients of the time: Campbell’s tomato soup.
These dishes included alphabet soup, meatloaf, and spaghetti with meat sauce.
Guralnick also recalls her mom’s more outlandish party dishes, like spanakopita and Asian chicken skewers rolled in sesame seeds.
“What my mother lacked in professional training, she made up for in droves with simple, well-prepared home cooking,” Guralnick said.
“She taught me to use whole foods and vegetables and simple preparation techniques whenever possible.”
owner of GoodyGourmet
There is nothing better than mom’s cooking. As good as we try to replicate it, it’s just not the same. Chesser knows this firsthand.
“My mom makes the best homemade yeast buns that just melt in your mouth,” she said of the buns that accompany her dinner appetizers.
“I tried to make them myself, but they didn’t work. Whenever I try to do things like that, it’s just not like hers.”
Growing up in a Southern family, many of her mother’s specialties were made from scratch — like her peach cobbler with a homemade crust and fresh peaches.
“That’s my favorite,” she said. “That’s why I’m addicted to carbohydrates. We would go to farmers markets and she would buy peaches and freeze them to use in pies.”
One of the greatest lessons Chesser’s mom taught her is that cooking is a life skill that every woman should have.
“As a teacher in your family, you can’t do well if you don’t eat well,” she said. “It’s a skill that bonds families.”
Danville, Virginia-based owner of Sky Valley Foods (which owns Organicville, Sky Valley, and Bellas food brands)
They say the kitchen is the heart of the home. That was certainly the case in Kruse’s childhood household in Milwaukee.
“It was a fun loving environment in the kitchen. The whole family would help,” she said of her vegetarian clan.
Together with her mother, father and brother, Kruse made pasta, salads and homemade soups and breads.
Her mother, Cheryl, 65, who lives in Milwaukee and Pucon, Chile, inspired her love of cooking. Kruse remembers that she was always trying out new recipes.
“She taught me to shop organic and that you are what you eat,” she said. “We will only feel as good or be as healthy as the food we put in our bodies.”
One recipe that illustrates this lesson is her mom’s green salad with pears and feta, which also includes pistachios, dried fruit, and red grapes.
She made a homemade olive oil and balsamic vinegar vinaigrette that Kruse later bottled and sold under the Organicville brand.
“It reminds me of my youth and dreams of starting my business,” she said. “I’m passing on to my daughter all the lessons my mother taught me.”