Blog: ‘Awethenticity’ The chef we know as Grandmother

The two questions I’ve been consistently asked for years is where I learned my culinary skills and what compelled me to become a chef. Those are the easiest questions to answer and the answer to both is the same. My grandmother. I am always happy to share memories of my grandmother who influenced my love to cook and taught me the importance of cooking from the heart. The time we spent together truly is the inspiration in my cooking that I share in every dish I make and discover in each new person or kitchen I meet.

My grandmother had her way of doing things that were passed down to her, but she also added her own style and addition to dishes. Most importantly, she was very strict about using the right tools for the job, whether it was utilizing paring knife or a cast iron skillet. For example, some dishes require slow, even cooking to bring out the flavors and cast iron is the only cooking vessel that successfully accomplishes this task. The exact same recipe cooked in a pan other than cast iron will not result in identical flavor. Teflon, for example, heats from the center out and has hot spots. Whereas cast iron evenly distributes the heat across the surface of the pan. That’s not to say a Teflon skillet doesn’t have its place in the kitchen. A cast iron skillet is a lousy tool for sautéing and flipping food because it’s too heavy. Using the right tool for the correct cooking method to develop flavor is similar to how the flavor of canned tomatoes doesn’t compare to the flavor of tomatoes fresh off the vine.

Just as using fresh food and the right tool for the cooking method is important, technique is equally important. Grinding corn with a mortar and pestal instead of an electric grinder, for example, makes it more authentic and memorable due to movement of the hands and the smile in the eyes. To put it more simply, it’s the touch and love and passion for the dish they’re making that gives a dish its authenticity and makes taste memories some of the strongest memories that can be made.  

Learning the art of making fresh tortillas with a friend on a open hearth in Guatemala

As I have traveled the globe, I have met many cooks and great chefs and I have always searched for the awe-inspiring authentic cuisine in each of them—their ‘awethenticity’. The best kitchens I have been blessed to experience and cook in were the ones that have been inspired by a mother or grandmother with time honored dishes that have been passed down and cherished for generations. Some of my favorites have been tamales, curried goat, tripe, borscht, Hungarian goulash, pepian (a thick Guatemalan stew), matzah ball soup—there are actually too many to list here—but it’s not just about the flavor. It’s about the taste memory and how in their time they shared with me, they not only shared their passion for food, they also shared their culture and family history. They gave me a part of themselves in the dish they prepared.

Chef Armanda’s mortar and pestal passed down through the generations

Chefs today create new dishes and there are thousands of recipes for chicken soup or bread. But recipes are only a guide for making a perfect meal. It’s in the touch or knowledge passed down thru generations that make it authentic and perfect. Today, everyone is exposed to a much broader variety of cuisine through corporate chains. While I appreciate them bringing food diversity, the one thing I question is whether it’s authentic cuisine. I am always challenged by this thought when I eat somewhere new. I can generally tell from the restaurant storefront and as soon as I enter with one deep breath. When authentic food is being prepared in a restaurant, the essence of the cuisine permeates the ambiance as is if it bleeds from the very foundation. From the awe-inspiring aromas of spices to the oily waves of fresh herbs and sizzling proteins or the earthiness of legumes steeping away. When I encounter such a restaurant, I always make it a point to inquire about its foundations and the majority of the time, a mother or grandmother is always the inspiration behind the food.

I recently had the opportunity to spend time with some great chefs from El Dorado Taqueria​, a Mexican restaurant in Springfield, Illinois. Their time honored recipes and traditions have been handed down through the generations and they go to great lengths to procure authentic ingredients . It’s truly the Golden Cuisine of Mexican awethenticiy. Check it out! (2:18 minute video)

All of this is the key to my senses and findings of awethenticiy and inspiration behind the dishes I make today. They come from the wonderful lessons of watching hands at work and how they touch the food. From Jacque Pepin cutting onions, celery, and carrots for mirepoix to Louis Palidin grating fresh cheese into a Mornay sauce. But my greatest teacher will always be my grandmother. It was the way she sat me on a crate with a bucket and a sack of potatoes. They way she handed me her antique paring knife and taught me how to peel potatoes for her potatoes with green beans and bacon belly, which was slow simmered in cast iron skillet. My fondest memory that will always bring a smile to my face is rolling out dough for fresh goat milk biscuits. That, my friends, was when I was 5 years old and the day my cooking lessons began. The day I was taught my first life lesson on food and continue to share with the world, one smile and one bite at a time.

What do you say, dear readers? Tell me about your food inspiration or the story behind your favorite taste memory in the comments.

Until next time, Cheers!
Chef T.

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