The secret ingredient

By Alan Perrott

You can't keep a hungry child out of the kitchen. But how much do they learn from their mothers? Some of our top chefs and their mums talk about their childhood eating habits.

Michael Meredith with his mother Metita Saleilua. Photo / Greg Bowker
Michael Meredith with his mother Metita Saleilua. Photo / Greg Bowker

Forget critics or fed-up customers, there is one authority to whom every serious foodie must bow: Mum. It's not something that any of us gets much choice in really, as there is a certain all-encompassing authority that comes from the nine or so months our mums dedicated to baking and then delivering us. Not to mention all the hours of feeding that followed.

Then, after mother's milk came Marmite on toast cut into soldiers, windows or triangles; boiled eggs, rice crackles, and the Sunday roast that could pop up on any day of the week. When we talk about home-cooked food, what we mean is the stuff our mothers made us when we were kids. The stage where foodie types start adding a sliced strawberry or an artistic smear of goo to their meals never begins at home unless your mother is one of those who enjoys whipping up a jelly with sliced beetroot surprise.

So, our idea of what foods are the most comforting can be said to be genetically programmed. For mine, that means gravy that's never quite as good anywhere else, fried scones with golden syrup and ever-so-slightly stewed tea. If those memories reflect their time, after speaking to three life-long foodies Canvas discovered such experiences also reflect culture.

Michael Meredith
Merediths Restaurant

Michael Meredith will go a long way to eat his mother's food - it's just a pity she's not so keen on returning the favour.

It's not like it would be all that hard for her to jump the long waiting-list of those wanting to dine at his award-winning Mt Eden restaurant, but she seldom bothers.

"I don't think she appreciates this way of eating," he says with a wry smile. "It's not really her thing and anyway, it's never enough - she always goes home hungry and eats again because she's too embarrassed to ask for more. I try to tell her it's fine and that it's supposed to be about the three-course experience, but I guess our food isn't really made for an Island stomach. She understands what we're doing but I think overall she just really enjoys her comfort food."

Metita Saleilua has only herself to blame. After all, she was the one who gave him the cooking bug.

Meredith's childhood memories revolve around collecting, and sometimes killing, the raw materials for his mother's family feasts and selling her pancakes at food markets in Apia. For the most part they lived off traditional Samoan fare such as raw fish, chicken and pineapple pies until his mum got a job as housekeeper/cook for the Australian High Commissioner. That was when he was first introduced to European food. But even if Meredith enjoyed ripping into the odd exotic roast, it was still his mother's chop suey that got his taste buds cranking, and he's rather picky when it comes to that particular dish.

"That's the usual thing, once you've got used to the way your mum makes it, nothing else ever comes close," he says. Meredith's family moved to New Zealand just as he was entering his teens and Mrs Saleilua found herself a similar job working for the priest at St Mary's in Mt Albert. As a result, Meredith's diet was exposed to such delights as tripe and cheese scones. While it's hard to give any credit to the tripe, this culinary variation helped inspire first his older brother and then Meredith himself to have a crack at cooking school.

All Mrs Saleilua cared about was that they eventually got jobs and weren't wasting their time. "But I think she still enjoyed it," says Meredith, "because she knew we were only doing it because of her." Even though she remains yet to be won over by her son's more worldly approach to food, her presence can be seen in his menu.

Meredith is particularly fond of a trick she does with roast pumpkin which helps it to absorb her secret sauce while keeping the vegetable soft, sweet and flavourful. His version of the dish is pureed and served with crayfish. All the same, his mother has never tried it. And there's his take on her famous chop suey.

"She does it quite dry, which helps the noodles absorb all the flavour," says Meredith approvingly. This was the dish he chose to reinvent when he was invited to compete on an upcoming television show revisiting classic Polynesian food. It's not yet clear if Mrs Saleilua approves - actually she doesn't even know about it yet, so don't tell - but he modernised the recipe, replaced the meat with tofu, and then cooked it in a pressure cooker. The show puts his dish head-to-head with one created by the father of former Warrior Awen Guttenbeil, but he won't know whether his mum's honour has been protected until the show screens.

So he's safe until then, and he'll continue packing up his three girls for those weekend visits. It's not so much that he's desperate for quality family time, he says he's more interested to see what's bubbling on Mum's stove.

Mabel Kan
Pearl Garden Restaurant

Mabel Kan beamed inwardly when her mother first said she had a "good hand".

In her typically understated way, she was telling her daughter that she knew how to work a wok - high praise indeed when it comes to Chinese cooking. The trick is to keep the metal of the curved bowl at the ideal temperature, even when you're flamboyantly tossing your ingredients in the air - too cold and your food will be bland, too hot and it'll burn, but get it right and the meal will sing. She might have been only 14, but Kan (nee Wong) had already spent years standing at her mum's side, learning the technique.

The Wongs ran a market garden in Mangere Bridge. It was a multigenerational business, and every family member had a role in keeping it going. As soon as Kan could be trusted with making the rice, Mum put her in charge of feeding the troops. This was a major responsibility because meal times were the most important of the day.

"Everyone would be there, from my grandparents to the youngest children - even the staff would be there. It was when we discussed things and pulled together. Attendance wasn't something that was ever enforced, it didn't have to be because, I guess, it was just assumed.

Family is important and showing respect for your elders is even more important, so you always made sure you were there." But it wasn't only the basics of cooking that Kan had been learning. Her mother, Betty Wong, ran a tight ship and it's a style she's fallen into as well: "I have three brothers and one sister, but I'm the boss, like my mother.

Bossing them around was my job and they were always a bit scared of me, which made it easier. They have to respect the matriarch, just as I do." It was her small but well-drilled workforce's job to pull together the daily meals for everyone - her mum was always sure to point out any failings. Running a market garden meant there was never a shortage of fresh vegetables and fruit, so collecting supplies wasn't too arduous. What they wanted was hale, hearty and quick - mostly rice, soy and a lot of soup - and weekends were the time for experimentation.

"I enjoyed making those meals most," says Kan. "They weren't anything I ever read in a book, just what I'd seen my mum do before. She'd spend hours preparing everything. I really enjoyed watching her, but I enjoyed eating more." There was another side to her informal education and it was more medical than culinary.

Asian cuisine treats food as preventative medicine as well as sustenance. Kan was also asked to prepare special dishes containing certain medicinal ingredients to treat her relatives' ailments. "We've always used food to heal, like congee to clean your system out.

Eating properly and simply - don't tamper with the ingredients too much, they are most potent in their natural state - it all helps to keep the body, the yin and the yang, in balance. That knowledge is still passed down, as I have done with my [three] children, but people don't seem to follow it so much these days." Aside from the lessons in home-cooked medicine, Kan also learned enough to develop her own specialty dish, a variation of Kow Yuk (Chinese pork belly), with pork, egg and beetroot. It isn't something she pulls out often, it takes most of the day to make.

The Wongs eventually gave up their market garden and set up the now-defunct Diamond Restaurant on Customs St in Auckland with Kan combining her cooking experience with front-of-house duties.

Again, it was an operation that needed every available family member to run properly. Then she met her husband, and through him, one of the matriarchs of Auckland's Chinese community, Pauline Kan, who has become her second mother.

While Mabel Kan now runs the family's Pearl Garden restaurant in Newmarket, 90-year-old Mrs Kan can be seen most days sitting behind the cash register, dressed to the nines and looking like an empress, keeping tabs on everything that happens. Any problems she might find with her daughter-in-law's performance can be guaranteed to be raised whenever she meets Mrs Wong for a game of mahjong.

Natalia Schamroth
The Engine Room Restaurant

If she was eating chicken soup by candlelight it was probably Friday, and if she was being offered potato latkas it was most likely Hanukkah.

Natalia Schamroth never had a need for a calendar, she could probably have even told the time by what food her mother was preparing. Theirs was a household that seems to have been permanently swimming in exotic flavours.

"Well, Helen, my mum, is Polish-Jewish," says Schamroth. "She was born in Poland and raised in Melbourne with those big Greek, Polish and Russian communities, so everything is very Eastern European. We always seemed to be celebrating one Jewish festival or another and they all involved a lot of food, a lot of baking, so family life pretty much revolved around the pantry." Ah, the pantry.

In another household it would have been called the home entertainment centre, a monster walk-in space with shelf upon shelf crammed with mix-masters, bowls and red-topped Agee jars filled with all manner of exotic preparations. "Mum was totally into it and really keen to get us into the kitchen ... some of my earliest memories are of me and my sisters pretending to cook with playdough. Then, by the time we were 3 or 4, we were already starting to help her out.

But it wasn't like Mum was teaching us or that we were conscious of wanting to learn, cooking was more something we absorbed because it was simply all around us. As we got a bit older we'd all be involved. It was a big kitchen, so we could each have our own station. "After school we'd get straight into the kitchen, scoff all the biscuits Mum had baked and then start making whatever we fancied. Later on my younger sister and I started to get more adventurous. It was a bit ridiculous really, like 30 minutes of preparation and then 40 minutes waiting for it to cook - and that was before dinner."

Their home was also a bit of a favourite among their school friends - while New Zealand palates were still trapped in the traditional meat and three veg, Schamroth was able to introduce her mates to artichoke, avocado, hummus and chicken liver pate.

"Again, it wasn't something we gave any thought to, it's all we knew so it didn't seem special at all. But, of course, we were Jewish and that did make us feel a bit different to the other kids. Then we'd visit our friends houses and I remember thinking: 'Oh my God, I hate baked beans.' They were just disgusting, I've never been able to eat them."

Despite all the traditional food they were enjoying, the family's style was always more instinctive than prescriptive; amounts were measured in pinches or handfuls rather than fancy metrics. Even so, they have an irreplaceable family taonga to refer to whenever they feel the need - a collection of their grandmother's old recipes.

Schamroth now looks after most of them, the only problem is that they are all scribbled on seemingly random scraps of paper. They're also written in any of the seven languages in which their grandmother was fluent. "They're great to have though. There's nothing that says anything like chocolate cake - they all have names and relate to my grandmother's friends and family so it's all 'Hilda's dah-de-dah' or 'Moira's whatever', and they might start off in English, but they'll end in French or Polish."

They have had some influence on Schamroth's professional career. And on her sisters for that matter, one is also a chef and the other does charity work in Australia, organising young people to cook for the homeless. It's a family tradition she is now instilling in her stepdaughter, Ruby - sort of.

"Sometimes we're making something and I think back to what I was doing when I was 14. Some of the stuff we made was practically molten, and we were mostly left to ourselves. We never had an accident, but I can't imagine letting [Ruby] do that without my supervision. I don't know, maybe we're just a bit too protective these days."

- NZ Herald

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