By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
Sometimes I miss the old days, decked out in my chef coat, herringbone patterned pants and white toque. Last week was one of those times, when my invitation to attend Starchefs arrived in the mail. Starchefs, the International Chef Congress is an annual event, held in the fall, in Brooklyn, New York. It’s an opportunity for well-seasoned culinary professionals and food hobbyists to meet some of the world’s greatest chefs and industry icons who have gathered to share their knowledge that influences an entire industry.
This year at Starchefs, you’ll learn, among other things, about a new culinary amusement park in Barcelona, Spain. After closing El Bulli, often called the most famous restaurant in the world (they received more than a million reservation requests per year, with only 8,000 a year being confirmed), Spanish chef Ferran Adrià is developing new venue spaces so he can teach the science and special techniques of molecular gastronomy. Other masters will offer seminars dedicated to the specialties of their world class (and Michelin starred) restaurants. You’ll learn about the cultural appropriation of food, study culinary technology, or have an opportunity to learn about 2,653 miles of Chilean food and wine. If these all sound a little too esoteric, you can settle in and watch the “Wing Battle,” where notable chefs from around the country will vie for the distinguished title of Wing Leader.
I loved watching the food demonstrations, where I was introduced to foods and cooking methods completely foreign to my palate (and often my skill level). Most of the chefs are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America or other notable cooking schools. For all the formal training, I found great solace when I learned that many of these renowned chefs, including famous Spanish chefs Jose Andres (who’s also a humanitarian, currently feeding thousands of people in Puerto Rico) and Aitor Lozano, credit their own grandmothers for their culinary aspirations.
Andres says he’d also love to cook with other grandmothers, from all around the world, to learn not only about the foods but the culinary traditions that include community and kitchen history. Aitor says there is no ingredient that can match the love added to foods that our grandmothers prepare and share at the family table.
Two of my favorite chefs, whose work and life stories continue to inspire me, are James Beard and Jacques Pepin. Both icons learned to prepare food within arm’s reach of their mothers, who both owned family restaurants. Beard’s mother, who was passionate about food, ran a boarding house in Portland, Oregon. Her son, often credited with the birth of American cookery, spent years steering the post-war housewife away from the Jello aisle, and he gave his mother credit for his own love of cooking. Pepin worked alongside his mother in her restaurant, Le Pélican, in his native France before coming to America in 1959 to work at Le Pavillon, a noted French restaurant in New York City. Soon thereafter he met Julia Child who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. Pepin, now in his 80s and still a prolific chef and cookbook author, is passing his lessons on to his only grandchild, Shorey. You can enjoy these recipes too, with their new cookbook, “A Grandfather’s Lessons: In the Kitchen with Shorey.”
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time walking the long halls at fancy food and wine events, attending culinary conferences and dining in restaurants where it took months to score a reservation. I must admit, there were times in the company of celebrity chefs that I was more than a little bit star struck. Don’t get me wrong, I still love these culinary adventures, but gosh, it warms my heart to know that so many of these award-winning chefs, with their own lines of cookware and restaurant chains, give credit not to universities where they studied, or restaurants where they spent years as apprentices, but to their own mothers and grandmothers.
We may not be raising future celebrity chefs, but the time we spend in our kitchens, sharing recipes and family stories with future generations, is such an important legacy for us to pass on to our progeny.
While this recipe for savory autumn muffins has never garnered any awards, it’s still a winner in my repertoire and a favorite to share at my family table. I hope you’ll enjoy it too.
These muffins are perfect to pair up with a kettle of soup or a winter salad. Try adding different herbs, cheeses or cooked, crumbled bacon to suit your taste. You can bake them in a mini-muffin pan (reduce cooking time) for a great little appetizer.
•1 ½ cup unbleached self-rising flour
•½ cup whole wheat flour
•2 tsp salt
•2 tsp baking powder
•2 large eggs, lightly beaten
•1¼ cups buttermilk
•½ cup butter, melted
•2 tbs butter melted (to grease pan,
and brush on top of muffins just
•2 tablespoons honey
•½ cup thinly sliced young leeks, white
and light green parts only, divided
•1 tbs minced parsley
•1 tbs finely chopped rosemary
•1 tbs fresh thyme leaves
•1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
Preheat the oven to 400° F. Brush a muffin tin with melted butter or line a 12-cup muffin tin with baking liners,
Sift all the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl.
In a small bowl, beat the eggs, buttermilk, melted butter, and honey.
Make a well in the dry ingredients and incorporate the wet ingredients. Stir until just blended. Stir in the cheese, leeks and herbs. Don’t overmix!
Spoon the mixture into the muffin cups, filling each about three quarters full. Top each muffin with a dab of the melted butter and few of the remaining leek rings and thyme leaves.
Bake 20-25 minutes, or until tops just begin to brown. Serve warm with more butter.