What I Learned from Mom
Notable New Orleans chefs share what their mothers taught them in the kitchen and beyond.
Cheryl Gerber Photographs
Michael Stoltzfus and Ruth Stoltzfus
Michael Stoltzfus is chef and owner of Coquette in Uptown New Orleans and has been named as a “Rising Star” in the culinary scene. Ruth Stoltzfus is his mother.
A few weeks before Michael Stoltzfus was about to go to college, his mother opened a bakery and café and it changed his whole life.
Despite growing up on a dairy farm in East Maryland, Michael had shown little interest in cooking.
His mother Ruth explains: “I’ve always enjoyed cooking and sometimes he’d make chocolate chip cookies with me when he was young, but he had never shown any real interest in cooking, so I had no idea he would turn out to be a great chef.
“However, when I opened the bakery, I needed help and he was waiting to go to college. Something special happened. For the first time, I saw him take charge and become this other person. I could also see he was enjoying himself.”
She continues, “It was just the three of us running the place, myself, Michael and his sister who was front of house, and I think that’s where he found his direction. It was a happy moment of luck and coincidence.
Michael adds, “Like all students, I had done a variety of jobs and was expecting to go and earn a degree. However, in the bakery I realized how creative I could be and it kicked off a whole new passion in my life.
“I started to enjoy cooking and learning to create new dishes. I still remember the first time I made risotto and when I braised some ribs. It was exciting to be able to create such flavor. Then my girlfriend, Liilian Hubbard – who’s my partner and fiancée today – bought me an Alain Ducasse cookbook, and I was intrigued to see if I could recreate such dishes myself.”
After the bakery, Michael worked at several well-known places in New York before deciding to come to New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina in 2007. His stint at August was a precursor to opening his own restaurant, Coquette in December 2008.
Similarities. “I’m currently studying to become a pastry chef so you could say we share a passion for learning,” Ruth says. “We are both perfectionists and will drive ourselves to exhaustion to get something right. Perhaps we’re both a little introverted and are happy to be by ourselves and we all give each other the space we need.”
Differences. “Michael is definitely more adventurous than I am in his cooking,” Ruth says, “and I’m probably a little bit calmer than he can be at work, but that’s understandable.”
Susan Spicer and Alice Wedekind
Susan Spicer is chef and owner of Bayona and Mondo restaurants, and is a James Beard Award-winner and part of the James Beard Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. Alice Wedekind is her mother.
When you hear the award-winning and celebrated chef, Susan Spicer, describe herself as a late-starter, you need her to explain what she means: “We are a very close family and we laugh a lot together. We have all found our way but it took a little while. We have our mother to thank for finding our passions because she always encouraged us to be happy.”
Spicer is one of seven children, her mother, Alice Wedekind, now 92, has five girls and two boys.
Commenting, Wedekind says: “I never really worried about my children being successful, I knew that they had good natures and that they would all find their place.”
It is no surprise Spicer found her place in food. Her mother’s childhood included living in various spots around the world including Copenhagen, Colombia, Venezuela, Indonesia, Denmark and Holland. Wedekind also loves to cook and learned many styles of cooking on her travels. Spicer is grateful now of all these influences: “My mother is a wonderful cook and introduced us to different cuisines from around the world. One of our favorites is her Satay sauce and her pork tenderloin with soy sauce.
“She’d also always bake Danish Kliner cookies and Kringle cake, and she still influences what I’m cooking in the kitchen today.”
Wedekind loves to go to her daughter’s restaurants. She particularly likes eating in the courtyard at Bayona, enjoying some of her favorite dishes: garlic soup, sweetbreads, steak tartare and fried oysters.
Despite Spicer’s fame and success, the whole family seems to share a down-to-earth nature and strong familial bonds.
“For my mother’s 90th,” Spicer says, “we just had a potluck dinner of our favorite things, and no one’s bothered that I cook for a living.”
Similarities. “Food and service. For many years, mother delivered Meals on Wheels and there’s no doubt we share a passion for food, hard work and our communities,” Spicer says. “We both love to travel. I do it more for work, but we share a curiosity about the world.”
Differences. “Now, my mother plays bridge and swims but growing up she always had dinner parties and lots of friends over,” Spicer says. “She made our clothes and is a true matriarch of our family. At the moment, I don’t have as much time for socializing, and I don’t have as many hobbies, but I’d like to!”
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!”
Aaron Burgau and Dolores Owens
Three-time James Beard finalist Aaron Burgau is the chef and owner of Patois and Truburger, both located in Uptown New Orleans. Dolores Owens is his mother.
With Filipino, French and Italian grandparents, Aaron Burgau developed a varied palate from an early age. In fact, he grew up to the smell and sizzle of fried eggplants and “Grandma’s beans,” which his own children still enjoy today.
So it didn’t surprise any of his Jesuit classmates or family when he went to culinary school and then into the kitchens of culinary greats such as Gerard Maras and Susan Spicer.
Burgau credits his mother with more than his cooking skills: “My mom made great food, staples like beef and vegetable soup, beans and fresh fish and her mother was always cooking something delicious, too.
“I started working in a restaurant at 14, washing dishes, washing the floors and to this day as the owner, I still do those jobs when I need to.” He continues, “My mother is a very spiritual person with strong values and she definitely brought up my sister and I to be grounded people.
“She doesn’t have an enemy in the world and I don’t think I do. She brought us up to treat people well and be a good friend. It’s probably not a coincidence that my partner is a high school friend and that a ton of guys who work in the restaurant are from Jesuit, where I went to school.”
Owens’ side of the story is: “Aaron is a really good person, and I’m so proud of him. He’s so modest, he doesn’t even tell me he’s won an award or that he was on TV, so I’ll miss it!”
Similarities. “We’re both creative,” Burgau says, “I’m a chef, and she’s always worked with hair and makeup, and my sister is a fashion designer – it’s in our DNA.”
Differences. “My mom is a pack rat and I’m not!” Burgau says. “She doesn’t drink at all and is more of a homebody than I am.”
“I’m a chatterbox and he’s not,” Owens says. “In fact, sometimes he doesn’t appear to be even listening but he’s actually taking it all in. I definitely spend more time in prayer than my son, but he does have a very busy life; in fact I spend a lot of time praying for him and thanking God for his talents. I also love sweets and I used to hide my cookies from my children – turns out they didn’t even like them!”
Leah Chase and Stella Reese
Leah Chase, often referred to as “The Queen of Creole Cuisine,” is chef and owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans. She is the recipient of multiple awards honors and degrees and is in the James Beard Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America. Her daughter, Stella Reese works front of house.
“Incorrect or not, I told President George (H. W.) Bush that I admire his wife very much. First of all, because she wears pearls but also for bringing up her sons to do so well.”
When you ask Leah Chase – born in 1923, the eldest of 14 children, mother of four and great-grandmother of 22 – what it takes to be a good mother, you’ll hear some straight talking just as the former president did (above). You will also hear some wise advice: “I tried to raise my children like my mother did. She tried so hard to make sure her children had a better life than she did and there were three words you couldn’t say to her: “can’t,” she’d say, isn’t in the dictionary; “sorry,” because you shouldn’t have done it in the first place; and “tomorrow,” because it never comes.
“Also, even though we were very poor, we always had to do things for others without accepting anything in return and that’s how I brought my children up, which is why we have our foundation.”
Chase thinks that mothers today have it harder than ever: “When we were having babies, they wouldn’t open their eyes for eight days, now they come and they’re talking and reasoning with you like old people before you know it.
“So you have to start teaching them right away. You have 22 years to teach them everything they need for life and by then they need to be able to take care of themselves.” She continues, “And mothers today have to pay so much attention, all the time, where their children are, what they’re doing; and they’re smart enough to know whether you’re paying attention or not.
“So many women have to work today as well, but no matter what you do, even if you’re the First Lady, you’re a mama first.”
Chase says, “Women shouldn’t forget the power they have. Men can’t produce a human being but women can. Being a mother is a powerful thing and a big responsibility but it’s the best job in the world and pays really well.”
Similarities. Stella Reese is Chase’s daughter and her right-hand woman in running her legendary restaurant Dooky Chase’s. Chase says Reese shares her belief in giving back to the community and just being plain, old-fashioned kind. Chase and Reese ask themselves every day what they were able to do for God and other people.
Differences. Chase believes “Stella is an incredibly talented (retired) teacher, far more so than me. And she works too hard, working every day at 90 is OK for me but I want her to enjoy her retirement more.”