Mum’s the word: Australia’s top chefs talk inspiration from their mothers

Guy Grossi with his mum, Marisa. Photos: Bec Dickinson

Guy Grossi with his mum, Marisa. Photos: Bec Dickinson

It all has to begin somewhere. Peering over the counter tops, licking the bowl and eventually being promoted to assistant egg cracker. It’s the place where a connection to food is born. The maternal figures of our childhood shape our introductions to food and, in our loyal eyes, are the experts of their own cuisine. But for those who turn cooking into a career, does mum’s food still take the cake?

Guy Grossi

For Guy Grossi, it’s the smell of olive oil, onion and garlic that brings him back home. That, and a taste of his mum’s signature calamari ragu. “But I add a little turmeric and cumin when I make it; it’s used as a seasoning and adds a little lift,” Grossi adds quietly, his mum’s nearby, “but, I’d never tell her.” Grossi started learning young from his mum, Marisa Grossi. At six years old, he was cleaning beans, while getting a glimpse of his dad’s chef work on holidays and weekends.

“Eventually it gets under your skin. We discuss food all the time, when we’re eating lunch, we’re discussing dinner.” But unlike the bright lights and heat of a restaurant, Marisa’s kitchen was the nurturing heart of the home.

“The first spot you’d go to find her was the kitchen. She’d either be braising, cooking or making fresh pasta. And it was always generous, in nature and spirit.” In the same essence, Grossi’s Cellar Bar makes a bountiful 140 litres of bolognese each week, just the way his mum does. Marisa laid down firm sauce foundations from the beginning. “Mum taught me to always take enough time to sweat the onions properly, otherwise you don’t get the lovely sugars caramelising in the sauce.” So, if you smell onions sweating down next to Cellar Bar, it’s because Guy’s mum taught him so.

Chef Thi Le honours her mum through her cuisine.

Chef Thi Le honours her mum through her cuisine.

Thi Le

“Mum always says you should be feeding people like you’re feeding soldiers,” says chef Thi Le of Anchovy, “with lots of food that is nourishing and comforting.” And true to her word, when her mum, Hieu Le, is down from Sydney, you’ll find her in the kitchen cooking the staff meal for the whole Anchovy team. From making her trademark wraps packed with herbs, a bulk batch of pork-stuffed bitter melon soup, to preserving watermelon skin.

When Hieu cooks, nothing goes to waste. Thi Le recounts her mum’s instinctive nose-to-tail approach to food and her frugal pickling habits, “and now all of a sudden everyone is preserving, mum was doing this for so many years and I just thought she was crazy”. Le arrived in Australia with her Vietnamese mother at two years old, after emigrating from Malaysia.

“My ethos is how my mum likes to eat, and how we grew up eating. Most of the dishes at Anchovy are that, just reinterpreted.” It is this same maternal approach to sharing food that led Thi to cooking professionally. “Grandmas and mums, they’re just feeders. They just want to share. They get really excited about cooking something very simple and delicious. This is the reason the food at Anchovy is nurturing; there’s no tricks.” Just the way mum likes it.

Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery.

Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery.

Michael James

From helping bake the Cornish pasties that once lined his grandma’s ironing board in the kitchen, Michael James of Tivoli Road Bakery has come full circle. Leaving Cornwall at 18 to work as a chef in London, Michael returned to baking when he moved to Sydney with his wife and co-owner Pippa.

The Cornish classic is now available on Fridays in their busy South Yarra bakery. “In the heyday, we’d make pasties once a week and everything was done by hand,” says James.

Sticking closely to the recipe, they use lard and beef fat for the pastry, beef skirt, potatoes, onions and swede. Alongside the pasty are Cornish saffron buns. “My grandma would make them and if not in bun form, they’d be a cake, and we’d have them as an after-dinner snack, toasted with butter,” James says. Like the nostalgic pastie, they’re also sold at Tivoli Road Bakery.

Since James’ mum passing in 2010, and living far from his family in Cornwall, the essence of his childhood lives in the cabinets and on the shelves of his family-owned bakery.

Charlie Carrington and his mum, Jacquie.

Charlie Carrington and his mum, Jacquie.

Charlie Carrington

It makes sense that Peking duck was a revelation of cooking for Charlie Carrington, chef and owner of Atlas Dining, a restaurant with a revolving international menu. He was 10 when his mum Jacquie brought home all the ingredients to make the meal. “Honestly, mum will admit she’s a pretty average cook – there are some of the ‘Aussie-mum staples’ that she nails and always has, but I think she will admit that it’s better when I cook the family dinner.”

Although what Jacquie lacks in culinary finesse, she makes up for in steadfast support and encouragement. “At the age of 15 when your mum helps you write an email to request work experience at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK and you get it, well, the rest is history,” he says.

Rosa Mitchell of Rosa's Canteen and her mother, Maria.

Rosa Mitchell of Rosa’s Canteen and her mother, Maria.

Rosa Mitchell

“Voiu un caffè?,” Rosa Mitchell gently asks her mum in her restaurant Rosa’s Canteen. Maria replies with a nod and shortly espresso cups arrive filled with percolator coffee, true Italian style. While Rosa and Maria are both stirring in a teaspoon of sugar, Rosa explains they have just spent four days making passata together.

Both sipping almost in unison, she adds, “luckily we’ve written recipes down over the years, especially the salami, because she’s never measured a recipe in her life”.

Mitchell was seven when her family arrived in Australia in 1962 from Sicily. Just two years before she started cooking the family meals. “Mum and dad had to work, so I would cook, and because I cooked with my grandma so often it was intuitive.”

Even though she admits all her aunties have slightly difference recipes, she uses her mum’s in her restaurant. “I always tell customers it’s my mum’s recipe, especially the cauliflower fritters. No matter where we go, or where we cook it, or who I give the recipe to, people love it and that’s a fact.”

Chef Colin Mainds uses his Scotland-based mother as inspiration.

Chef Colin Mainds uses his Scotland-based mother as inspiration.

Colin Mainds

When Colin Mainds, head chef at Cumulus Up, is in need of inspiration, he calls his mum Doreen in Scotland. “If I’m at a stumbling point, like making this menu, it’s, ‘Mum, I’ve got these fantastic berries: what will I do?’.”

The answer has resulted in a sell-out dessert, every night. Known in Scotland as the cranachan, Mainds has named it mixed-berry sundae. Doreen now runs her own confectionery business, making Scottish tablet (a variation of fudge), which is also a component in the sundae’s crumb. Pasta is another dish from home. “She keeps it simple with a little butter, garlic and heaps of parmesan.” Mainds also serves his garganelli with a butter sauce and parmesan. Although he has added fine-dining flair, Doreen’s advice remains. “Mum always said to me, ‘Don’t get frustrated and keep a cool head’.”

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