Features 4 minutes 10 May 2019

Ode To Mum: Chefs Whose Mothers Inspire Their Careers

Three heartwarming stories of the lasting impact of loving mothers on chefs running Michelin-starred restaurants.

Mother's Day Singapore

This Mother’s Day, we share three heartwarming anecdotes from chefs of Michelin-starred restaurants whose mums have inspired and impacted their culinary careers in one way or another — whether it is time-honoured family recipes, a cooking philosophy or life lessons imparted over a hot stove. Sometimes the inspiration even goes beyond the kitchen and cooking to more artistic endeavours like restaurant interior design.

Tribute To Mum In Restaurants Worldwide

If you walk into any one of Korean-American chef Akira Back’s restaurants all over the world from Dallas to Dubai, you’d be greeted by uber-modern, swanky interiors. But far from being contemporary and cold, look a little closer and you’d see the chef’s personal touch in the form of abstract art on the walls or ceilings and even plates — all designed by his mother specially for each location.

Back’s real name is Back Seung-Wook. Born in South Korea, his family moved to Aspen, Colorado, in the United States where he became a professional snowboarder for seven years during his teens. He confesses that he was never interested in cooking and really only started working for sushi master Kenichi Kanada in Aspen because he thought Kanada looked cool serving customers and wanted to be like him. “I had never cooked at home, I just ate whatever my mum gave me. I didn’t even know how to wash dishes because my mum did everything for me. So when I told my parents I wanted to be a chef, everybody laughed and then they got mad,” recalls the chef, chuckling.
Chef Back with his parents (Pic: Akira Back Instagram)
Chef Back with his parents (Pic: Akira Back Instagram)
Though trained in Japanese cuisine, when it came time for him to express his own cuisine at Yellowtail Restaurant & Lounge in Las Vegas in 2008, he found himself injecting influences from his Korean roots into his modern Japanese cuisine. Inspired by his mother’s traditional Korean cooking, the tangy, umami-laden flavours from Korean fermentations and spice pastes found their way into his cooking, setting his modern Japanese cuisine apart.

It was a formula that worked, leading Back to open restaurants in more than a dozen cities in the next decade, including Dosa in Seoul which was awarded with a Michelin star in 2018. “Each of my restaurants all over the world has my personal touch and the first element is always my mum’s art.”

When Back was opening at the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach last year, the chef’s parents spent 10 days in Singapore with him. “She came into the restaurant and just stood there to look at the colours and get a feel of the space, and she went: ‘I’m feeling love, joy, peace, anger’. And she just starts drawing that feeling.” His mother’s energetic, colourful swirls of abstract art take pride of place not just in large frames along the dining hall, but also on the custom plates used to serve his signature dishes like the AB Tuna Pizza.
The signature AB Tuna Pizza with custom plates designed by Back's mother (Pic: Akira Back Singapore)
The signature AB Tuna Pizza with custom plates designed by Back's mother (Pic: Akira Back Singapore)

“The tuna pizza is my mum’s favourite dish, so I decided to put her art inside it. I want people to unveil a little more of the art underneath the pizza as they eat each slice and enjoy her art as they enjoy her favourite dish. While they’re eating it, I hope they think about their mothers too, that’s how I want to connect with my diners.”

Life Lessons From An Italian Mamma

Hailing from Lombardy in northern Italy, chef-owner Roberto Galetti of Michelin-starred Garibaldi in Singapore likes to say that the restaurant business was never in his blood because nobody in his family was a chef or worked in restaurants. Born to a poor family, his parents worked several jobs every day to make ends meet. “I remember my mamma coming back from work and looking so tired, but she would cook for the family and she would never lose an opportunity to teach me as well. She had so little time, but she spent it on me. And that became my love for food,” he says.

Galetti as a young boy, learning to cook with his mother (Pic: Roberto Galetti)
Galetti as a young boy, learning to cook with his mother (Pic: Roberto Galetti)
When Galetti was a teenager, he left home to further his career in faraway places like London, Salzburg, Bueno Aires, Tokyo and, finally, Singapore. “My mother never took it well, she cried every time I packed my luggage, but she never stopped me. She saw my determination and allowed me to do what I needed to do. She always said, ‘Don’t worry, we will always be here for you when you come home’.”
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His mother’s teachings have left a lasting impact on the chef and his career. Her can-do spirit was what encouraged him to not give up when things got tough at the restaurant. Her influence can be felt even in the way the restaurant serves bread — not a whole selection as fine-dining restaurants often do, but just one type each evening. “That’s because my mamma always tells me not to do too much. It is more important to do one thing and do it well,” says the chef.

Galetti recalls fondly a time in 2010 when his parents flew to Singapore and his mother cooked alongside him for a special event at Garibaldi. They presented the dishes to guests together, his mother smiling proudly as the chef explained the dishes in English. “It was a special dinner and I really felt the connection with my mother. Seeing her so happy, I realised I was doing the right thing.”
When asked what is the one thing he’d like to express to his mother this Mother’s Day, he replies: “I wish we were closer in terms of physical distance. I didn’t feel it so much when I was younger, but now that I’ve a young daughter, I wish she could know her grandmother like I do. But in terms of heart, we are as close as ever.”

A Mother’s Steadfast Support

The Peranakan culture of South-east Asia is as colourful as it is distinct. The matriarch of a Peranakan household is usually a formidable grandmother. While the men were breadwinners of the family, the women immersed themselves in the domestic arts like beading, embroidery and, of course, cooking.

Third-generation Peranakan chef Malcolm Lee of Michelin-starred Candlenut began his culinary journey by helping his mother and grandmother in the kitchen as a kid. His Peranakan upbringing — pounding spices with a mortar and pestle on the floor to the smells of rempah cooking and learning to taste the complexities of Nyonya cuisine — was essential to shaping his culinary worldview today.
Kueh Pie Tee, a traditional Peranakan dish, served at Candlenut.
Kueh Pie Tee, a traditional Peranakan dish, served at Candlenut.
Upon graduating from At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy, he was still caught up in the idea of doing French and modern European cuisine. But the nostalgic pull of his mother and grandmother’s Peranakan cooking led him to open his first Peranakan restaurant Candlenut Kitchen in 2010 in Neil Road with his mother. “We started off as a family restaurant, literally. It was just me and mum, and three other retired housewives helping us in the kitchen,” he says.

The beginnings of the restaurant were not smooth-sailing, but he recalls that his mother stayed steadfastly by his side. “We were scraping by. My mum and I were sleeping in the restaurant every night just to maximise the amount of rest time that we had and save a bit of money.”
Lee with his mother at Candlenut (Pic: Candlenut Facebook)
Lee with his mother at Candlenut (Pic: Candlenut Facebook)

Over time, he developed his own style of modern Peranakan cooking that stays true to ethos of the cuisine with time-honoured recipes passed down from his mother, but that does not shy away from innovation and contemporary presentations. While he still serves the dishes on his a la carte menu family style with rice as the Peranakans do, he’s also created what he calls Ah-ma-kase tasting menus, a play on Japanese “omakase” and “ah ma”, a colloquial term to address your mother or grandmother. It was a nod to the way the matriarchs of the family approached Peranakan food by only selecting and cooking what was freshest in the market that day.

“I’m emotionally attached to smells and tastes of Peranakan cuisine. These flavours constantly remind me of the past — of family and roots,” he says.

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