Features 5 minutes 05 May 2016

What do some of the world's top chefs have in common?

This Mother's Day, we look at some of the world's most successful chefs - and the extraordinary women who got them there.

restaurant chef

Their names resonate in culinary circles around the world and they have multiple Michelin-starred restaurants tied to their names. They have made it in the world as inventors, movers, shakers and all­-round culinary masters. But how did it all begin? Who do these impeccable chefs owe their success to? We dug deep to unearth the truth; the truth that behind every successful chef is an equally extraordinary mother.
These incredible women were not home­ cooks pottering about in a home kitchen, nor did they only prepare after­-school chocolate chip cookies and the weekly Sunday roast for the family. They were ladies who juggled two of the world’s toughest jobs: being a chef and a mother at the same time. They worked their way through the heat of a commercial kitchen, and were restaurateurs in their own right, with one or two even going on to snag a Michelin star or five. And it was from this fiery broth of strength and sheer determination that a generation of truly remarkable chefs was born. We raise a toast to five prominent mother-and-son chef pairs below.

Massimiliano Alajmo
Restaurant: Le Calandre in Padua, Italy
Michelin Stars:
Mother: Rita Chimetto 
He was only 28 when he received his third Michelin star... making him the youngest chef in history with the coveted three Michelin stars. A fateful roadtrip across Europe with brother Raffaele made Massimiliano set his mind on joining the family's restaurant business and In 1993, he began working at Le Calandre together with his mother Rita, who had earned the restaurant its first Michelin star the previous year. Shortly after he was appointed executive chef of Le Calandre, the restaurant was awarded a second star in 1997 and received its third star five years later.
While other children caught fish and skipped rocks, Alajmo spent his afternoons in Le Calandre’s kitchen long before the restaurant was awarded its first star. There, he would watch his mother, chef Rita Chimetto, cooked. “I got my first burn, the sign of a true chef, when I was only 7 years old,” chef Alajmo told us.
The tenacious chef got his spunk from his mother... At the ripe age of 72, mum Rita Chimetto can still be found in the restaurant kitchen. She is still the true master of traditional Italian desserts and sweets and the kitchen’s number one matriarch, he tells us. When asked to name the boss of the kitchen, Alajmo is quick to answer. “She is definitely the boss,” he affirms. 
“Italian mothers are always the boss.”
Massimiliano Alajmo (far right), mother Rita Chimetto (far left) and the rest of the Alajmo family
Massimiliano Alajmo (far right), mother Rita Chimetto (far left) and the rest of the Alajmo family

Michel Bras
Restaurant: Bras in Laguiole, France
Michelin Stars:  
Mother: Angèle Bras
He is the inventor of the molten chocolate cake, the engineer of vegetable­ focussed cuisine that took the culinary world by storm and his fan club includes everyone from the Top Chef celebrity Tom Colicchio to the meat-­loving David Chang. 
In 1980, Bras created the le gargouillou, his vegetable-­centric signature dish. Intricately plated with over 50 ingredients, some as scarce as a single leaf, the dish changes daily based on what is in the market and his home garden. It was also this dish that earned the then -25 year old his place among the vanguard of chefs whose produce-centric approach has now become ubiquitous across restaurants globally. 
Bras grew up behind the stove of his family's inn-­restaurant, Lou Mazuc, set up by his blacksmith father and mother. Instead of pursuing classical training by racking up apprenticeships from renowned chefs, chef Bras was taught the local culinary traditions by his mother, Angèle. Together with his sommelier wife Ginette, Bras eventually took over the reins of the cosy 40­-seater restaurant in 1979. They earned their first Michelin star shortly after taking over, their second star in 1987, and their third star in 1999, after their son Sebastien was inducted into the family business.
Bras' professional training was minimal, but he acknowledges that some days, Mama knows best. He had attended a vocational school, the Centre d'Apprentissage, in nearby Rodez three days a week for three years. ''I was named the best young apprentice,'' he once told the New York Times, ''But nevertheless what bothered me was that I liked the way my mother prepared rabbit better than the way we did it at school. It was a serious conflict.’' 
Angèle Bras (left), Michel Bras and son Sebastien (right)
Angèle Bras (left), Michel Bras and son Sebastien (right)

Juan Mari Arzak
Restaurant: Arzak in San Sebastian, Spain
Michelin Stars:
Mother: Francisca Arratibel (Paquita)
He is one of the founding masters of the New Basque cuisine. In the mid­-1970s, prompted by the rise of nouvelle cuisine in France, Juan Mari Arzak set his mind on achieving the same with classic Basque cuisine. By streamlining traditional dishes while creating anew ­ and always with the self­-imposed rule of honouring heritage even while plating up fantasy, he created a national movement that paved the way for the rise of today’s Spanish culinary heavyweights such as Ferran Adria, the Roca brothers and  Andoni Luis Aduriz.
He owes his success to his family’s 115­-year-­old restaurant. The restaurant started out as a wine cellar and tavern built by his grandparents in San Sebastián and was then passed onto Juan Mari’s parents, Juan Ramón Arzak and Francisca Arratibel, who then turned it into a restaurant.
But it was really his mother who sculpted the restaurant into what it is today... Francisca Arratibel (more familiarly known as Paquita) took over the reigns to the restaurant when her husband passed away suddenly, changing the name to Viuda de Arzak (or ‘Arzak’s widow’ in Basque) and the restaurant grew tremendously popular. It is even rumoured that wedding dates in the village were decided according to the availability of the restaurant. 
It was this bustling atmosphere that Juan Mari cultivated his passion in cooking. The story goes that Paquita started it all by lending her son a small diner to carry out his experiments with grilling meat and both kitchens lived together happily for years. When she was asked about his early explorations in contemporary gastronomy, she had famously remarked: “As long as it tastes good, I don’t care". Today, he runs the restaurant with his daughter Elena Azark, one the top female chefs in the industry.
But despite her success as a chef, it wasn't a career Paquita wanted for her son. She had sent him away to study technical architecture in Madrid but Arzak enrolled himself into hospitality school. “My mother was furious,” Arzak told the Michelin Guide Singapore. "She said, 'I paid for your studies for this?' and that’s how I ended up definitely hooked on cooking. I learned everything I know from all over the world. From the French, Chinese, Japanese and Mexicans, from a high-flying chef to the tavern on the corner, but almost everything about fish, specifically hake, I learned from my mother."

Juan Mari Arzak as a young boy next to his mother 'Paquita'
Juan Mari Arzak as a young boy next to his mother 'Paquita'

Joan Roca, Jordi Roca, Josep Roca
Restaurant: El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, Spain
Michelin Stars:
Mother: Montserrat Fontané
Joan Roca is credited as the first chef to use an immersion circulator, a tool that is now in almost every kitchen in Europe. His brothers Jordi and Josep serve as pastry chef and sommelier. Dishes are served with an element of innovation and theatre, such as caramelised olives served on a bonsai tree, and the traditional escalivada as soft globes of zucchini, pepper and eggplant served under a smoke­-filled dome.
The beginnings of the powerful Roca trifecta: When brothers Joan Roca, Josep Roca and Jordi Roca decided to pursue a career in the culinary world, they didn’t choose to take over their parent’s restaurant. Instead, they opened up their own next door. The aim wasn’t to give their parents a run for their money, but to literally remain close to their roots. “We didn’t even know what Michelin stars were when we first started,” Joan admits.
Even at 80, Mama Roca still rules the roost in the kitchen... The boys’ 60­member team of front and back­-of-­house staff still trot over to their mum’s canteen-­style Can Roca three times a day to have breakfast, lunch and dinner before meal service. Papa Roca, meanwhile, rolls up the shutters to his bar at 6.30am every morning. “For us, it was normal. The bar of our parents never closed, because we lived right on top of it.These values of sacrifice is something we’ve known since we were little,” Joan Roca told Michelin Guide Singapore at Madrid Fusion Manila earlier in April.“They were happy making others happy, and this, for us, formed our core understanding of what the restaurant business is about. You have to do it from your heart,” 
However, reinvention and theatrics aside, when asked how his mother and first mentor felt about the awards and titles, Joan tells the Michelin Guide Singapore: “She thinks that they are all crazy!”  “She laughs at us because we are 60 cooking for 50 guests, but they are three and they serve 200 people every day.” He adds: “The best restaurant in the world, in my view, is hers.”

The Roca brothers and mother Montserrat Fontané
The Roca brothers and mother Montserrat Fontané

Raül Balam
Restaurant: Moments in Barcelona, Spain
Michelin Stars:
Mother: Carme Ruscalleda
Raül’s mother doesn’t just have a couple of Michelin stars; she has five between her two restaurants. Born into a family of farmers and the wife of a grocery store owner, she opened Sant Pau in 1988, a chic restaurant on the coast north of Barcelona. In 2006, the restaurant earned its third third Michelin star; while her restaurant in Tokyo, a precise copy of the original, now has two. 
Having trained at two of Spain’s three-­Michelin­-starred food temples - briefly at Pedro Subijana’s Akelarre in San Sebastian, and his mum’s Sant Pau - Balam now oversees the day-to-­day operations as executive chef of two Michelin-starred Moments in Barcelona’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
Despite having a famous chef for a mother, it hasn’t been all that easy for Balam as he found her being harder on him than she would be on others. But the mother­-son duo have finally found their groove. “I feel blessed to be working with her. When I first started out, it was difficult due to my youth,”he divulges to the Michelin Guide Singapore. “Nowadays, the synergy is perfect and we understand each other just by looking into each other’s eyes.”
Raul Balam and mother Carme Ruscalleda
Raul Balam and mother Carme Ruscalleda


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