The Past on the Plate: Translating Powerful Food Memories into Unforgettable Meals

 

by Jamie Feldmar

 

One transformative taste, whether it’s of a perfectly ripe summer tomato or an elaborate chef’s menu, can linger far longer in the mind than it does on the tongue. As anyone who remembers a sacred sandwich from childhood can attest, food memories rarely exist in a vacuum; they are inextricably tied to where you were when you had that unforgettable bite.

 

Those who make food their career tend to understand the importance of creating lasting food memories—most chefs hope the meals they craft will stay with their diners for years to come. They often draw inspiration from their own food memories, in ways both recognizable and unexpected.

 

Chris Hastings, 2012 JBF Best Chef: South award winner and owner of Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Alabama, spent his childhood summers on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, where he was once charged with catching fish, crabs, oysters, clams, and shrimp for his family’s dinner.

 

“My grandma steamed and boiled and shucked everything I caught, then we dumped it all out on a giant table covered in newspaper,” he recalls. “I was barely 12 years old, but I understood instinctively even then, without being a chef, the importance of the moment,” he says. “Breaking bread with my entire family, eating fresh seafood that I had caught myself, and tons of laughter all around— that meal made a huge impression on me.”

 

Hastings’s childhood seafood dinner—simple, seasonal, and familial—informs his work at Hot & Hot today, even if he doesn’t serve a re-creation of the meal specifically. “Today, I think about how to create gathering moments for other people, really joyful experiences that might last in their minds forever,” he says. “These are central themes for me—building moments around food, using food as a conduit for memory, and cooking with the best ingredients we can find seasonally and regionally.” 

 

Family gatherings with festive foods are often the catalyst for lasting imprints on future chefs. JBF Award winner Carrie Nahabedian, the Armenian-American owner of Naha in Chicago, says the lamb shish kebab cookouts of her childhood are an enduring link to her heritage that she still relies upon today.

 

“It was a multi-day, whole family affair,” she recalls. “We would marinate the leg of lamb overnight, then butcher it and grill everything outside in the backyard. We used these gigantic metal skewers that have been in the family for generations. And all of the siblings and cousins would bring more food—rice pilaf, a big salad with feta, and crusty Greek bread. It was a big production, but it came together so seamlessly,” she says.

 

At Naha, Nahabedian nods to those cookouts by serving lamb skewers and braised lamb shank with tabbouleh based on her grandmother’s recipe. “It’s hard to re-create the shish kebab exactly, but it’s more about gathering everyone together and making them feel at home. I think about how uncomplicated entertaining seemed when I was a kid, and I try to re-create that sensation for my guests,” she says.

 

For others, travel is the experience that inspires the most profound impression. Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern in New York City, who won Best Chef: NYC this year and is known for his seasonal American cuisine, began cooking professionally in the 1990s in Japan.

 

He speaks lovingly of a cramped yakitori stand under a subway bridge in Ginza: “They made chicken liver, gizzards, skin, dark meat, white meat…pretty much every part of the bird, cooked over a little hibachi coal grill,” he remembers. “I ate while sitting on an overturned beer crate under the overhang of the bridge, with the trains rumbling overhead like earthquakes.

 

“I don’t even remember the name of this place, but they put the most perfect care and attention into how each skewer was cooked,” says Anthony. “At Gramercy, I always ask myself:  How can we reenact the sensation of sitting in a casual place but creating something so amazing?”

 

Anthony, who describes his cooking as “discreet” and says his strongest food memories are anchored to specific seasons, keeps his menu simple to allow diners to form their own lasting bond with the dishes. “I try to hit those moments where everything—the environment and the food itself—is harmonious. That’s when diners form a crystallized memory that they’ll latch on to forever.”

 

Is there a formula for making a lasting food memory? “All we can do is have our guests cross our front door. If we are lucky enough to create distinct food memories for people, then we’ve done something unique and special,” says Hastings. “That is our challenge every single night. And that, to me, is a great job to have.”

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