LJ-razz, 7.23.06: a quickly jotted letter to Dana Cowin

Dana Cowin is the EIC for Food & Wine, and she asked readers who their favorite chefs were in this month's editorial.

Dear Dana:

I'm sure a healthy double-digit percentage of readers will respond that their mum or dad is their favorite chef, and I'll thrust my vote into that ballot box.

The old adage "just like Mom used to make" or any of its incarnations aside, my mom's food really is inspiring. I hated cooking all through childhood, what with four older perpetually starving brothers and my dad to feed, and mom and I the only women to carry the brunt. Don't get me wrong--Dad was great with weekend breakfasts, and the brothers baked great chocolate chip cookies, but for the most part Mom cooked three meals a day, seven days a week, and I, the tomboy, preferred helping Dad in the yard. I was fabulous at hiding during any kitchen-related chore, from cooking to dishes.

I'll sum it up, Letterman-style, and in no particular order:

5. Local, organic, and seasonal are "in" these days? I don't recall Mom ever buying produce from the grocery when I was a child. She and Dad tilled our front and back lawns to make fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens, right there in blue-collar suburbian sprawl. Size and sheen didn't matter--the flavors were clean and honest. Nowadays, big-name salad bars make me sick, I'm so sensitive to any chemical used during growing or keeping produce fresh.

4. I never wanted to cook until I was in my first apartment in college, missing Mom's home cooking. I'd call her several times in a one-hour span so she could walk me through the recipe. Only once did she gently chide me, "You should've watched while you lived here," before walking me through. It mended our broke mother-daughter relationship and gave me loads of confidence, and now, as a 30-year-old culinary student, I credit her as my first mentor.

3. My Chef-Instructor is teaching us about timing for dishes, but Mom without training always managed to get at least a handful of dishes on the table at once, all warm and wonderful, and with a fabulous dessert to follow--nourishing for bodies and memories. To this day, timing is one thing I can kinda manage.

2. A Chef is nothing without a fabulous and fearless palate. Mom never balked at sharing her and our Dad's Filipino culture through cuisine, and at school functions, surrounded by green bean casseroles and cold, creamy salads, her lumpia and banana sauce would shine through effortlessly and be the first to go. Still, she'd tackle everything from Japanese sushi to French croissants to vegetarian lasagna without breaking a sweat. And when she bought me a hand-crank Snoopy ice cream maker for Christmas, she produced the first sweet corn ice cream and avocado ice cream I'd ever seen; I wouldn't see the likes again for twenty years.

1. A great Chef will make what you want. In the morning as we'd bustle out the door for school, she'd ask Dad and us kids what we'd like for dinner, and there it would be, made to order, consistent and made with the passion of a mother who loved to cook.

I could go on, talking about great prices and cozy atmosphere, but I'm sure you get the idea.

Julie Elefante


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