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I Got Style

On “The Next Food Network Star,” the judges are always asking the contestants, “What’s your cooking style?”

Every chef has a distinctive style. Ina Garten is elegant and gourmet. Rachel Ray is all about the most flavor in the least amount of time. Paula Dean is down home Southern comfort.

So…what’s my cooking style? I like foods that are fresh and flavorful, served in a kitchen that is welcoming and cozy. My style is sort of “cooking by mama”…but I’ve had many matriarchal culinary influences in my life.

Growing up, I was surrounded by women who cooked. My mother, grandmother, great aunts. Neighborhood farmers’ wives. Church ladies. They cooked, they baked, they gardened, they canned. Food was their life. They served simple meat-and-potatoes, casseroles with cream-of soups, fruit pies, cakes with six inches of icing, and occasionally, Jell-O in strange shapes with stuff floating in it. And all of it was concocted and consumed in a kitchen that was big and messy and filled with conversation and laughter.

I have several friends who have a “Birkenstock and tie-dye” relationship with food. They are into organic gardening, whole foods, and the balance between good food and health. Fresh veggies, exotic grains, beans, tofu, natural sweeteners – these are the types of ingredients they use to create nutrient-dense and satisfying dishes. For them, cooking is a way to connect with the earth and the kitchen is the place to connect with friends and family.

For awhile, I worked at a family-run Italian restaurant that used recipes that had passed down through the generations from la nonna. I fell in love with the smells of garlic and tomatoes and wine. I learned that the best lasagna takes 14 hours to prepare, and that foods that sound complicated, like ragù alla bolognese or vitello alla marsala are as fun to make as they are to eat. An Italian kitchen is filled with amazing food, a great deal of noise, and lots of loving comfort.

I see reflections of each these – the farm mama, the earth mama, and the Italian mama – in my cooking. That’s my style.