While some of the area's top chefs are laboring over ambitious presentations like saffron-poached sea scallops and red-wine-braised veal cheeks, they often experience pangs for more familiar foods from their youth-basic dishes that mom cooked. And every now and then, they're happy to put aside the duck confit and black truffles and go home to mac and cheese or pot roast-and reconnect with mom all over again.

Michel Tersiguel, Tersiguel's

With parents like Fernand and Odette Tersiguel, who are longtime restaurateurs, it was inevitable that their only son, Michel, would land in a professional kitchen one day. From the time he was a small child in New York playing with pots and pans and, later at age 10, making lunch on Saturdays, Michel was surrounded by a family who loved to cook and garden.

"I'd make exotic stuff," he recalls. "Well, Thousand Island dressing was exotic to me."

But he grew up with fare that might seem a little strange to many American children: periwinkles, frog legs, crêpes, radish sandwiches, and dandelion salad. He moved to Maryland with his parents when he was 8 and got his first job as a dishwasher at 11.

"For me, it was always fun," says Michel, now 43, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1984.

Now, he heads up the kitchen at Tersiguel's in Ellicott City, taking over most of the cooking duties from his semiretired dad. And while his father may have been the professional chef in the kitchen, his mother also cooked.

In addition to dandelion salad, Michel also enjoys eating her buckwheat crêpes and apple fritters. He remembers living in New York and his mother making and selling crêpes to other transplants from her hometown, Brittany, France. She met her future husband Fernand, also a Brittany native, while both were picking green beans in a field there.

Now, his mother has other ideas about what she likes to eat, Michel says. "She wants to go out for Chinese food and an action movie," he says with a laugh.

Dandelion salad

  • 4 ounces apple-wood bacon, cut into small dice
  • 3 tablespoons chopped shallots
  • 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 handfuls of freshly picked
  • dandelion greens (before they have flowered), washed 3 times
  • 1 cup freshly made croutons (see recipe)
  • 2 eggs, hard boiled, peeled and roughly chopped
  1. Cook bacon in sauté pan slowly until slightly crisp. Remove bacon with slotted spoon and reserve on paper towel. Use bacon fat to sauté shallots and garlic until they color slightly. Add vinegar and salt and pepper. Add dandelions and toss.
  2. Place greens on plates and garnish with croutons, crispy bacon and hard-boiled eggs. Serves 4.

Fresh croutons

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 stale baguette, 1/4-inch diced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. In medium-size sauté pan over medium heat, add olive oil. When pan sizzles, add all croutons. Sauté gently until croutons are browned evenly, stirring every few minutes. Using slotted spoon, remove croutons from pan and reserve until needed. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Croutons will keep for one week in an airtight container after cooling. Makes 4 cups.

Christian DeLutis, The Wine Market

Executive chef Christian DeLutis turns out sophisticated fare at The Wine Market in Locust Point, but his interest in all things culinary began much earlier. He grew up in central Pennsylvania surrounded by an extended family-Italian on his father's side, German on his mother's.

One of the biggest influences in his cooking was his Italian grandmother, Jeanet. "She was a pretty good cook," he says. "She would make a traditional Sunday supper. There was always pasta-that wasn't the main dish-but other things, too."

It wasn't until he was in college studying English and took a job as a cook at a small Italian restaurant that he realized his destiny was food. "I just went nuts. I thought, 'This is awesome,'" says the 29-year-old chef, who went to the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh.

It was at the Culinary Institute that DeLutis developed a taste for more rarified fare. But make no mistake. DeLutis still very much craves his mother Maria's home cooking, especially her cookies and braised meats like goulash and pot roast. His mother's food is simple, he says, but he savors it when he heads home to Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, not far from Hershey. "It's food I like to eat, like tomato soup," he says.

His mother says there were no early indications that her son would become interested in food. "He was the pickiest eater you can imagine," she says with a laugh. "I can remember him in his high chair screaming because he didn't want to eat."

Obviously, that's not the case now.

The chef especially likes his mom's kiffel, a family recipe for a sugar cookie filled with ground walnuts and cinnamon that's been passed down for generations. "I always look forward to them," DeLutis says.

Kiffel 

Dough:

  • 3 sticks margarine (Blue Bonnet recommended), softened
  • 4 cups flour
  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 lemon, grated zest and juice
  • 2 egg yolks Filling:
  • 8 ounces brown sugar
  • 1 pound ground walnuts
  • 1 stick margarine, melted
  • Small can evaporated milk, enough to moisten mixture
  • Powdered sugar, to dust cookies
  1. For dough, mix together all ingredients in a large bowl until blended. Form into ball and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
  2. For filling, mix together all ingredients. Filling can be made ahead of time and refrigerated.
  3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll out chilled dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Use a glass or cookie cutter with a 2-inch diameter to cut circles. Place 1 teaspoon nut filling in each circle. Pinch edges to seal. 
  4. Bake 10-12 minutes or until golden. Cool on rack. Dust with powdered sugar.

Bill Crouse, Sotto Sopra

As an executive chef, Bill Crouse is responsible for the fine Italian cuisine at Sotto Sopra. Turns out it's a job he's been prepping for since he was a little kid watching his mom, Lois, in the kitchen at their Aberdeen home.

At 13, he began working at a sub/ice cream shop in Churchville and was hooked. "I realized I wasn't an artist, but I could be creative in other ways," he says about his discovery of the world of food.

When he made his first beurre blanc sauce, he gained an appreciation of the skill and passion it takes to be a chef, he says. He earned three associate degrees from the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute in Pittsburgh and worked at several high-end Baltimore restaurants before landing at Sotto Sopra.

His mother said she loves that her son became a chef, adding in true mom fashion, "He's so enthusiastic. I couldn't be more proud of him."

And while you may be able to put the boy in a fancy restaurant, you can't take him too far away from the kitchen that weaned him. "You can't beat mom's pot roast and meatloaf," says the 28-year-old chef. "She always had good food on the table."

His favorite dish, though, is his mom's creamed chicken and rice. "It's hearty and soulful," he says, with sudden longing in his voice.

Creamed Chicken 

  • 4 large chicken breasts
  • 1 (14 ounce) can chicken broth plus additional broth, divided use 
  • 2 (10 ounce) cans cream of chicken soup 
  • 1/4 pound mild cheddar cheese, grated 
  • 1 tablespoon chopped onion
  • 1 cup sliced, fresh mushrooms, optional
  • 1 cup cooked peas
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed 
  1. Place chicken in large pot, and add can of chicken broth and enough water to cover chicken. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and continue to cook chicken until it is tender and falling off the bone. Let cool. Cut into chunks and set aside.
  2. In another pan, combine cream of chicken soup, cheese, onion, mushrooms (if using), peas, salt, pepper, and dried rosemary. Cook until heated through. Thin with chicken broth, if needed. Add cooled chicken and heat through.
  3. Serve over cooked rice, slices of toasted, buttered Italian bread, or biscuits.

Jesse Sandlin, Abacrombie

After honing her cooking skills in California and Australia, Jesse Sandlin came back to her home state and is now wowing diners with creative cuisine at Abacrombie in Mt. Vernon. At a recent Baltimore Foodies dinner at the restaurant, appropriately titled "A Celebration of Female Chefs," Sandlin was joined by the ladies in her kitchen, sous chef Jackie Torres and pastry chef Sarah Acconcia, and other local women chefs to turn out a stellar dinner, which included a hefty, red-wine braised lamb shank.

It's a bit of a culinary jump from the Steak 'Em sandwiches she used to eat as a kid. "My mom didn't cook," Sandlin explains. "She baked." The plus side was that Sandlin got in the kitchen at early age to make dinner for her working parents. "I made a lot of roast chicken," she says with a laugh.

But then after the family dinner, Sandlin, now 29, would watch her mom, Kathy Caverly, bake cookies and cakes. She treasures a Christmas Eve ritual where she and her mom would bake 12 different kinds of cookies in a marathon baking session. The tradition changed when she became a chef and worked long hours, though she recalls getting home at 11 p.m. one Christmas Eve and baking cookies until 4 a.m. with her mother.

Now, mother and daughter are split by geography-her mom lives in California. Sandlin stays connected by baking her favorite mom recipes at home-carrot cake and chocolate chip cookies.

Carrot Cake 

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 cups canola oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 3 cups finely grated carrots (the finer, the better; use the smallest hole on the grater; see note) 
  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together dry ingredients. Add oil and sugar, mixing with an electric mixer. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add vanilla. Fold in carrots by hand.
  2. Pour equal amounts of batter into three eight-inch cake pans, and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until tester inserted in center is clean. (You can also use a 13-by-9-inch pan. Bake for about one hour, checking for doneness with tester.)

Note: The secret to this carrot cake is to grate the carrots really finely, so they retain their moisture, and the cake doesn't dry out.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
    1 box powdered sugar
    1/2 cup butter or margarine
    2 teaspoons vanilla
    1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  1. Blend cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter, and vanilla. 
  2. Add chopped nuts, and mix well by hand. 
  3. Spread evenly over top and sides of cake layers.

If using a 13-by-9-inch pan, make only half the recipe.


Jenkins, Darker Than Blue

Casey Jenkins, chef/owner of Darker Than Blue in Waverly, owes some of the restaurant's menu items to his stepmother, Sandra Jenkins. "We have salmon cakes on the menu because of her," he says. He speaks fondly of the woman who raised him in White Plains, New York, with his dad, Sammie Jenkins, and encouraged him to go to the Culinary Institute of America after he got out of the U.S. Marine Corps and tried his hand at odd jobs.

"He really enjoyed cooking," his stepmom recalls. "When your child has a dream, never kill it. You should push them along."

Casey found the CIA experience humbling, he says. "I thought, 'This is great. I cooked for 4,000 Marines. This will be the easiest degree I ever got.'" What he wasn't expecting was the level of cooking sophistication. "I never made velouté in the Marine Corps. I thought, 'What's a velouté?'" he says, with a laugh, about the white stock and roux mix that is the foundation for many classic sauces.

Still, even with a prized diploma from the CIA, Jenkins, 39, found some gaps in his cooking knowledge. "I didn't know how to properly fry chicken," he says, incredulously. "My stepmother had to show me how to fry chicken the proper way."

Sandra Jenkins is a casual cook-a dash of this, a splash of that (see recipe). She doesn't have exact measurements, but the finished dish is to drool for, according to her chef son.

The results of her hands-on tutelage can be found in the Southern fare at Darker Than Blue. "It's amazing," his stepmom says of the modest storefront restaurant. "Casey has an eye for decorating. I was so impressed. It reminds me of places in Greenwich Village."

But the chef always looks forward to going home to New York to visit his family and savor his stepmom's cooking, especially her fried fish, spaghetti, and those amazing salmon cakes. "She always has them waiting for me," he says.

Salmon cakes

As mentioned, Sandra Jenkins adapts her recipes as she goes along. "Everything is to taste," she says. Here is her recipe for salmon cakes: Mix together a little mayonnaise, a little mustard, seasoned salt, pepper, onion powder, chopped onion (which has been sautéed), egg (if needed to bind ingredients), some flour, seasoned bread crumbs, hot sauce, and two or three cans salmon. Shape mixture into patties and coat with flour. Heat oil in frying pan and cook salmon cakes until golden brown, turning once. Makes six patties per can of salmon.