05/11/2012 04:55 pm ET Updated Aug 31, 2012

Top Chefs Share Their Mothers' Best Lessons

In the spirit of preserving the family peace at Mother's Day, I'm not going to tell you the name of the award-winning chef who said about the woman who gave him life: "She's the worst cook in the world. She can screw up cold cereal." Nor will I out the Top Chef Masters alum whose mother's specialty was dubbed "Desert Chicken" by her children. "She would take chicken breasts on a sheet pan with oil, put it in a cold oven and turn it to 350º. Then she would go upstairs and take a bath. Whenever she came down is when dinner was ready."

These revelations came out while reporting my book Smart Chefs Stay Slim. I had given myself a plum assignment: Talk to more than three dozen chefs about how they eat -- specifically how they balance their personal and professional love of food with living a fit, healthy life. When you talk to chefs about food, you're going to hear about family. Culinary school may be where they learned to cook for us, but at home is where they learned to eat.

While some, like the anonymous two above, quickly learned to cook as a response to the dismal state of their parents' fare, others picked up valuable lessons in those childhood kitchens. "To this day, I'm not sure how my mom did it," says Miami chef (and new mom) Michelle Bernstein. "A different meal every night, at least five dishes. Roast chicken to lasagna to paellas. I was always the last person at the table, the one to finish the salad, dipping my bread into the vinaigrette at five years old." Today, the mom-knows-best habits that inform how chefs eat are still worth adopting.


"I was one of the lucky kids -- I have a Greek and Sicilian mother," says Michael Symon of Iron Chef and Lola in Cleveland. He grew up mainly on a Mediterranean diet of "greens, vegetables, meat and fish." More importantly, he says, "everything was made from scratch. I'm a firm believer that all this packaged stuff that Americans are buying up in gobs is making them fatter." He eats much the same way today as he did as a kid. "We do eat meat, but we also eat a ton of vegetables and grains --quinoa and farro."

"My mother was very passionate about good food and good ingredients," says Food Network star Alex Guarnaschelli, of The Darby and Butter. (Mom is cookbook editor Maria Guarnaschelli.) "I would joke that my mother would do the grocery shopping and then my parents would pay the rent."


If you start investing in better ingredients, use them wisely. Growing up in Sweden, Marcus Samuelsson used to pick fruit and vegetables with his sisters and, with their grandmother, put them up as jam and pickles. "That wasn't work, that was fun," says the chef-owner of Red Rooster in Harlem. "It sounds very old school, but I grew up that way. Americans throw away one third of our food. That is not the way to move forward." I'm not prepared to go full-on pioneer woman and start canning produce (freezing can forestall spoilage too). But I love Marcus's idea of bringing these practices back, wasting less and enjoying more.


The son of a hotel kitchen chef, Wolfgang Puck says that when he was a kid in Austria, "we ate very simply: noodles, salad, things from the garden. Very little meat, because it was expensive. When we cooked a chicken it was for six people." Not by coincidence, he says, "there were no big fat people in the village where I grew up." These days, though there isn't a meal he can't afford, Puck still often splits an 8-oz. steak with his wife. When eating meat, "you don't have to fill the plate."


A treat after dinner at Jacques Torres's house was usually fresh fruit, or a yogurt-like cheese that his mother would serve with mashed strawberries and a little sugar. He grew up to be an acclaimed pastry chef and chocolatier, but one who appreciates sweets in moderation. Kefi chef Michael Psilakis described a similar situation: There was always a bowl of fruit on his parents' dining table and the kids could help themselves to a snack. "It's a trick of suggestion," says Psilakis, who is currently appearing on No Kitchen Required. "Whatever is in front of you is what you'll grab." It's a trick he returned to when he needed to lose some weight; he eventually dropped 80 lbs.

That's not to say that he or other chefs have completely eliminated dessert. Chocolate, particularly good quality dark chocolate, remains a popular way for culinary pros to end a meal. Getting the really good stuff with a high percentage of cocoa means more flavor and satisfaction. And, of course, great chocolates are not a bad way to say thanks to your mom for years of good advice.

Allison Adato is the author of "Smart Chefs Stay Slim: Lessons in Eating and Living from America's Best Chefs" (Penguin/NAL, 2012) from which this story was adapted.