Dishes Made With Memories

By Candice Wagener | Photography by Hillary Schave

For many of us, our experiences with cooking started at home. Maybe we were a curious kid who asked to help with dinner, or maybe we were just folded into the mix of the family kitchen. While restaurant chefs often spend years honing their craft between culinary education and working their way up the ranks in commercial kitchens, for many of them the journey through cooking also began at home, influenced by family. Check out these three local spots who are giving a nod to their parents and grandparents on their menus.

HONG GAO, OWNER, TAIGU

Hong Gao introduced something special to the Madison dining scene with her Shanxi-style, handmade noodles. The thick, hearty noodles are comfort food at its best and are found throughout Taigu’s menu.

Gao, who grew up in the Shanxi province of China, was close to her grandma Suzhen Hu, and often watched her cook. “Almost everyone in Shanxi only eats noodles and not rice,” says Gao. “In summer, my grandma would make scrambled egg and tomato noodles. Then, in winter, we often ate oil-splashed noodles, boiled dumplings and steamed buns. Many of these foods are now on Taigu’s menu!”

A favorite on the menu, the Tomato and Egg Cat Ear Noodles is inspired by the dish Gao ate most growing up, which her grandma so frequently made. While the restaurant serves them with beef, Gao and her family usually ate the dish meatless.

“Meat was typically only eaten during Chinese New Year and other festivals,” says Gao. “Of all things that my grandma cooked, the noodles were definitely my favorite, and I am often reminded of her when I eat [this dish].”

As a fun sidenote, Gao’s mother, Xiuhua Yang, makes the scallion pancakes for the restaurant.

LETICIA AND DANIEL HERNANDEZ, OWNERS, TAPATIOS

To say that Leticia and Daniel Hernandez were influenced by their mothers is an understatement. “We’re definitely here because of both of them,” agrees the couple.

Leticia’s mother, Maria Garcia — who owns Mercado Marimar on Park Street — encouraged the duo to dabble in the restaurant industry after Daniel experienced a serious accident working in construction. “Knowing how to approach a business comes from her,” says Leticia.

When they opened Tapatios, they were quick to add birria to their menu, a dish with origins in the Jalisco region of Mexico. Daniel’s mom Guadalupe made the dish often during his childhood.

Traditionally made with goat meat, Tapatios uses the highest-quality black Angus chuck instead, braising it for five hours in a big stock pot filled with spices and an assortment of chiles (ancho, guajillo and red chile). Tapatios serves the birria with the rich consommé it’s simmered in.

“That’s our main dish, that’s the one that we’re most proud of,” says Daniel.

Customers have several “vehicles” to get the birria in their mouths, choosing between tacos (the most popular), quesadillas, burritos or the emerging trend (thanks to TikTok) of quesa tacos, dipped in the consomme.

GIOVANNI NOVELLA, EXECUTIVE CHEF, BAR CORALLINI

“In Italy the food culture is so intense, you learn how [to cook] the food that is hard to cook at a young age,” says Giovanni Novella, who grew up in Torre del Greco, which is near Naples. “I always had a natural love to be in the kitchen and see what [my mom] was doing.”

His mom, Teresa Paolinio, was the inspiration for the polpette di melanzane (eggplant fritters), served as an appetizer at Bar Corallini. “I adapted it a little bit [and] it became a staple on our menu,” says Novella.

Similar to a traditional meatball, Novella’s recipe uses fried eggplant in place of the meat. The eggplant is chopped and soaked in salt water to eliminate the bitterness, then dried and deep fried, and placed in a covered container so the steam can soften it. The eggplant is mixed with garlic, shallots, herbs and bread soaked in milk. Next, several cheeses are folded in and the ingredients are shaped into round fritters, chilled for a day, rolled in panko and deep fried. They’re served over a base of San Marzano tomatoes slow-simmered with celery, carrots, onion, garlic and lots of basil.

Novella’s mom recently paid a visit to the restaurant and approved of his version of her recipe.

“When I have a good product, I like to make it shine,” says Novella. “I’m lucky to grow up in a family of foodies, people that really love food, really go out of their way to find the right product.”

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