If you ask my mother Monica where I learned to cook, she’ll always say from my grandmother and my aunt, never giving herself any credit. I wonder if she sees her effect on my path to becoming a chef. She speaks of her own cooking as utilitarian, and always in comparison to my grandmother and my aunt’s food–the measuring sticks of her culinary skills. It probably didn’t help that at a certain age, I started rejecting her recipes for those of my grandmother, and began vocally comparing notes on what her own dishes needed: less salt, more acid.
My aunt and my mom were into macrobiotic cooking in their late twenties. They hosted parties at my mom’s downtown loft, welcoming friends with a pot of brown rice and kidney beans stewed with wakame (seaweed) and sprinkled with gomasio (a sesame condiment). For the first six years of my life, I ate only the cleanest foods–no sugar, meat, or dairy, and my favorite childhood snack was steamed watercress.
By second grade, when lunchtime became a measurement of social capital, I envied the Lunchables my classmates brought to school, their silver Capri Suns and sliced salami somehow reigning over my delicately hand-rolled sushi and miso soup. At the time, there was shame attached to my “weird” vegetarian Japanese food, but today I count my blessings.
My grandmother had arrived in New York as a young Ecuadorian immigrant and worked her way to becoming the private chef for a prominent Jewish family. When she retired after more than 35 years, the Newhouses still requested her cooking for their High Holiday celebrations, and she happily agreed, year after year. Eventually, she began asking me to help her execute these elaborate, glitzy functions; it was an honor to be her sous-chef and trusted accomplice. In my family, she was known for her comforting traditional Ecuadorian dishes such as llapingachos (soft and gooey potato and cheese pancakes) but she was equally renowned for her matzo ball soup.
I started cooking professionally a couple of years after graduating college, working my way from dumbed-down French bistro food and re-imagined Spanish tapas, until meeting my creative partner and carving out our own space where food, art, and community could co-exist. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve connected the dots between my strict early childhood diet and the choices I make in my restaurant now, introducing earthy ingredients like umeboshi, hijiki, and burdock, and mixing them into our vibrant palette of tropical comfort foods.
When I ask my mother for a recipe, she calls my aunt. Their food memories and practices are often slightly different—a shift in order of operations, a preferred style of slicing a vegetable. It goes without saying that if my aunt is the teacher, my grandmother is the master. I see my mother’s view of herself as floating between two higher culinary powers, deferring her abilities to her two elders. But it was my mom who made my rice milk, who steamed the bok choy to perfection every time.
As I write this, my mother is in the hospital for open-heart surgery. It is my turn to offer care. I call my tía Lucia for her macrobiotic recommendations, her deep knowledge of healing foods. My abuela and I bring my mom containers of lovingly prepared broths, which I spoon-feed her while my grandmother stands watch. I’ve always considered myself to be a caring person, but this is my first time care-giving in a direct, intense, and dire capacity. I bear witness to myself doing what my mothers did for me: cooking to provide comfort, laboring to offer love.
When my partner and I opened our restaurant, I could feel my mothers’ pride, as if finally they understood where my strange artistic pursuits in life had taken me. My grandmother cried when she saw her name on our menu: “Abuela’s Flan, Ines’s secret recipe.” My mother offers critiques at every turn, on the service, the cleanliness, the flavors. My aunt just quietly observes it all behind wise eyes. My matriarchs. It has been one of the most gratifying experiences of opening my own space to watch them taste and respond to my experimentation with their homemade classics. Llapingachos are on our menu, but we serve them with a peanut salsa, pickled pineapple, and herbs.
But I suppose that’s what we do, how we explain what we know, where it all came from. We learn and imitate our elders, the women before us, who stirred the pot and stirred it well.
Carla Perez-Gallardo is the co-owner and chef of Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York.