What I Learned from Mom
Notable New Orleans chefs share what their mothers taught them in the kitchen and beyond.
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Alex and Nancy Harrell
Alex Harrell is the chef at Sylvain restaurant in the French Quarter and has been featured by CNN and Time.com. His mother is Ruth Harrell.
Alex Harrell’s father was a busy cardiologist in southeastern Alabama. With a demanding schedule, his time at home was limited, and he wanted to spend it in the kitchen making breads and pasta and cooking. Alex and his sister, Elizabeth, knew early on that if they wanted time with Dad, one of the best ways was to help out as sous-chefs.
On the weekends and during holidays, the siblings would go to their grandparents’ farm 30 miles away where they raised cattle and grew their own vegetables. Here he saw his grandmother make traditional Southern fare: biscuits, braised meat, vegetables and pickles.
Despite this early exposure to growing and preparing food, Alex never considered it as a career, as he explains, “I thought I’d be a doctor and when that didn’t work out, I went off and got a science and biology degree. Even though I always enjoyed cooking for my friends, I never considered myself a chef and I never thought I could make a career out of that.”
Alex credits his mother for changing all that: “One summer after college, my mom was helping a friend out with a new beach restaurant they had opened. I took a job frying fish having no idea what extreme conditions I was walking into. We were frying fish in 100-degree heat in a small space, on our feet all day.”
Alex also credits his parents for enabling him to move on from there: “I owe everything to my mother and father who always encouraged me to pursue what interested me. Even though I did fine at school, I was always frustrated by academics; but in that kitchen in Alabama, I found the belief that cooking could be an option for me.”
Nancy Harrell is characteristically modest about her role: “Alex is such a good person, they say if you enjoy what you do, you don’t work a day in your life. That’s what I wanted for my children.”
Similarities. “We are both quite calm, even tempered people who try to talk to people in a way that they respond to,” Nancy says. “I don’t fit the hot-headed chef role at all,” Alex says. “I don’t think that helps in an already pressurized situation. Like my mom, who was a nurse, I like to take on the responsibility and hard work of making something successful.”
Differences. “I like to have lots of friends and dinner parties,” Nancy says. “Alex is more reserved and perhaps less sociable than I am. Also, I would never want to work in a restaurant!”