How many times have you heard notable cooks, chefs and food-loving types pay homage to an inspirational family member for showing them the way into cooking and food? Some of this generation’s most well-known contributors to cookery come from some background filled with food, professional kitchens and family-get togethers centred around a well-stocked table. But does it really take one to make one? Is a love of food a characteristic gem found in the blood line?
A family’s attitude to food can completely shape a child’s view of eating, sharing and cooking, not to mention the evolution and adoption of eating habits into later life. It’s a foray into independence, tasting and risk-taking. A childhood of ready meals enjoyed over one’s lap is far removed from scratch cooking where the excitement, curiosity and final product can teach a child to be inspired to replicate what mum and dad’s fair hand just produced. And even more endearing is the phrase “family recipe” which simply sings, conjuring images of scribbled handwriting, food-stained pages and delicious, secret food.
“I believe that my mother had a huge influence in my decision to become a chef,” says Chris Golding, Head Chef at Apero, London. “She is an extremely hard worker. She was a cook at my sisters’ secondary school. She would bake fresh bread for 300 children each morning, everything was home made and she refused to buy ready prepared food for the children.”
Chris’ first kitchen stint was owed to his nan’s job as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant. She landed him a pot-washing gig aged 13. “I would go to school Monday to Friday and work 9 til 3 every Saturday and Sunday,” he says. “Although I was just washing dishes and it was hard work, I always looked forward to working in the kitchen at weekends.”
Chris says food was always a big part of his life growing up. “Me and my sisters would always eat a home cooked meal. I can’t ever remember having a takeaway until I could afford to buy one myself.” An exposure to meals cooked from scratch and no wastage was all part of the everyday approach. “When I visit my mum, I always find a quarter of an onion, half a carrot, a stick of celery, etc at the bottom of the fridge. If she catches me throwing anything in the bin she goes crazy! She would make a soup, or use it up somewhere, which I admire her for. I have never seen her throw away anything.”
When working the first job, Chris worked alongside a head chef that was “a traditional, old Japanese man, very professional and quiet,” talking only to tell someone off. After being allowed to prep the vegetables, and then one day cook his own lunch, “that was when I really knew I wanted to be a chef.”
He went on to use another family contact, this time his auntie, to work at Marco Pierre White’s restaurant in Canary Wharf, moving onto Criterion in Piccadilly Circus after six months – “I had to turn 300 potatoes a day,” he recalls.
Chris says he has his mum and nan to thank for his love of cooking: “My nan is an amazing cook – I have never seen her tire of cooking and for her, it’s never a chore.”
But when no one else shows an interest in the three-times-a-day routine, does it really signal a closed door? “Mum cooked out of duty, not out of a love of food,” says Dave Ahern, Head Chef. “She came from a family of 13 kids where meal times involved the type of logistical planning required for occupying Belgium.”
Instead, Dave’s inspiration, or “road to Damascus” moment came after he watched Keith Floyd cook a steak on a 4×4 engine block in Australia. “I realised that contrary to what I had learned from watching my mother toiling away in the kitchen for years that this cooking lark wasn’t actually that hard.”
Family mealtimes at the Ahern household were one of routine and necessity: “Mum’s idea of cooking seasonally was putting something on to boil in January and leaving it on until she served it up April.” It wasn’t a family keen on adventurous food, and Dave reflects on the “unerring regularity” of rotating dinners keeping him in check for what day of the week it was.
When on a family holiday to Portugal, Dave was “blown away by the smell of garlic, onions and spices wafting from the restaurants we walked passed on the way to English style ‘chips with everything’ family joints we frequented.” He decided then to teach himself to cook. And though his family were supportive in his foray, “most of my memories of my early cooking attempts are of my mother telling me which of the ingredients I had bought that I should leave out of the dish (usually almost all of them) as the rest of the family wouldn’t like them,” while his father woud pop into the kitchen every now and then to back up the assertion that plain food was best.
“When most guys my age were stashing racy magazines under their beds, I was hiding tarragon down the back of a kitchen cupboard,” says Dave.
“If there is one thing that I can take from my Mum’s cooking it’s the use of cheaper, less fashionable cuts of meat. As a chef I have always tried to elevate these cuts,” he says, effects of which have ended up on menus at Ben’s Canteen and House of Wolf.
Though they come from families with a different outlook on food, the influence has been the same for these two chefs. A family’s aversion to anything beyond what they already knew sparked curiosity in what might be; and a taste for diversity left a hunger for more. It’ll always be down to inspiration, whether from the family table or 30 minutes of Keith Floyd. It’s what happens next that’s in no one’s control but your own.
- This article was corrected on 17 July to change Dave Ahern’s job title from Commis Chef to Head Chef