Chef's Blog

October 12, 2018

What’s Your Origin Story?

from Chef Gregg Nelson

Most chefs have an origin story that helps explain how they came to a life in food, and for many people it starts in childhood. Whether you grew up eating macaroni and cheese or eggplant Parmesan or Vietnamese noodle soup, your earliest food experiences shape who you are as a chef. And a lot of times these experiences make it all the way to our menus.

I grew up in working-class Jersey City, NJ, and like many others in our Italian and Irish neighborhood we went “down the Shore” in the summer. My mother wasn’t a great cook, but she did the day-to-day cooking and my dad excelled at the Sunday roasts and weekend grilling. Being English and Norwegian—not known for great cuisine—both my parents borrowed freely from our Italian neighbors.

Mom did the standards, like eggplant Parmesan; one of my aunts was Italian and taught her how to make it so it was very light and delicious, and we’d have leftovers in sandwiches. You had to slice the eggplant very thin and then dry it off and fry it, and it was so good I’d steal it right off the sheet pan after it was fried.

We had a lot of cookouts when we went to the Jersey shore, simple things like corn-on-the-cob and Jersey tomatoes and my grandmother’s potato salad, which became my mother’s potato salad. I still make it to this day. It was pretty traditional—potatoes and apple cider vinegar, sugar and Best Foods mayonnaise—always Best Foods—but at the very end you beat an egg and mix it into the finished salad (and keep it well-chilled). That egg adds richness, and coats the potatoes and knits all the flavors together. People who don’t even like potato salad will eat mine. It’s those kinds of traditions that have stuck with me throughout my professional life. Simple, fresh food, like sliced beefsteak tomato sandwiches with nothing more than salt and mayonnaise on white bread. You don’t even need bacon and lettuce.

I have to laugh at the whole “farm-to-table” thing now, because when a friend and I opened our first restaurant, in San Francisco, we turned the backyard into a garden where we grew a lot of our own tomatoes and onions and peppers. The 1989 earthquake came along about six months after we opened that restaurant and split the building in half, but until then all my customers complimented me on our tomatoes.

Growing up, we ate a lot of seafood in the summer, and my dad introduced me to mussels with spicy marinara sauce and fresh raw clams. We’d go crabbing and throw the whole crabs right into red sauce for pasta. My mom would make baked clams oreganata with a little piece of bacon on top, which would sometimes burn a bit in the oven. So when I make baked clams I chop the bacon and mix it in with the breadcrumbs so you get all the flavor together. That’s a lot of what we do as chefs—translate our taste memories and tweak them a bit or improve them so they work on our menus today. It’s become a big trend to serve nostalgic childhood favorites with a twist on menus today, but really these are our food origin stories.

Try This:

Pot Roast– My mother, and her mother, made a pretty traditional pot roast but she always added a little ketchup in the stock for sweetness (today we recognize that as umami). I do it like that, too, only I use short ribs and brown the tomato paste with ketchup, and I use Minor’s Beef Base: and a little Maggi Seasoning for the braising liquid. Sometimes I’ll add Pinot Noir to make Beef Bourguignon, which I serve over noodles.

Onion Soup Gratinée– I have always loved a good, classic onion soup, topped with a crouton and lots of cheese. I use my mom’s basic recipe, which calls for chicken and beef stock, but I’ve elevated it a bit by using Minor’s Classical Reductions Reduced Chicken Stock and the new Reduced Brown Stock, which includes veal to make it more complex and add body.

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