Dad, Thanks for the Culinary Memories and Unconventional Training Ground

A chef acknowledges her father's inspired cooking as her own creative muse

by Joanna Pruess • Next Avenue
pruess family image
Photograph: Courtesy of Joanna Pruess

My mother was never a passionate cook — she described the first meal she made for my father as “shoe-leather steak and soupy spinach” — but she did her best to feed our large family. Her spaghetti with long-simmered meat sauce and fork-tender pot roasts were more than satisfying, and we five kids never went hungry. But what we ate was hardly gourmet. 
 
Back in the ’50s, mothers typically taught their daughters the culinary ropes, but not mine. So what inspired me to become a chef? My Dad — his impromptu inventions in the kitchen fostered my love of creative cooking.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know any chefs, and none of my friends’ fathers ventured close to the kitchen. (They were all grill masters, however.) But when Dad got the urge to create, whatever he found in the fridge or pantry was fair game.
 
Take a little of this, mix it with some of that, throw it all in the meat grinder and, a few cranks later, out would come some sublime mixture. The process mesmerized me, and Dad’s exuberance in eating each of his chef d’oeuvres was so infectious, I suspect it’s in my DNA.
 
It would be years before I ever connected Dad’s spontaneous weekend concoctions with the haute cuisine pâtés I learned to make (and adore) while studying at le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Although there are strict rules for classic French cuisine at culinary school, I always felt somehow … liberated … to explore and invent.

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