published Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011

Side Orders: Local foodies talk about childhood cooking

I really look forward to my daily walks. Not only do I feel like they're doing me some good -- I've actually come to believe there is a muscle in my derriere, not just a blob of blubber -- they also give me time to consider whatever thoughts cross my mind.

Recently, I was trying to remember when I first realized my love of cooking. My first thought was: I have no idea. Maybe like other relationships that grow into love, you can't pinpoint the exact time you "knew." Maybe it had something to do with loving to eat.

My Aunt Charlotte Berg often tells the story about when my sister and I would visit her house to play with our cousins. While the others were outside, I'd be in the kitchen wanting to help cook. Maybe that's when it started.

I also think it has something to do with parents who aren't scared to let you help out with dinner duties, letting you help stir the pot or cut the onions rather than scooting you out of the kitchen simply because it's easier to do it themselves.

For me, I guess it was just a combination of things. The memories made me wonder about other cooks, especially the celebrated chefs in our area who have taken their love of cooking to new levels. They've gone to school, trained under renowned chefs and continue learning everything they can about the culinary arts to share with local diners.

I contacted a few to see what they remember about their earliest times in the kitchen.

n Lee Towery, chef/owner Lee Towery Catering: "When I was 8, my mom was working late and the rest of the family was not going to be home for dinner, except my dad. The baby sitter let me boil some water, and I prepared a bag of Green Giant boil-in-bag corn niblets, as well as a bag of boil-in-bag lima beans.

"I set the table, and when my dad got home and the sitter left, I proudly presented 'dinner' to him. He ate all of it and raved and raved. I'm sure he ordered a pizza after I went to bed.

"That's when I realized I loved to cook, that you could make people happy with it.

"The first real dish I remember making was quiche Lorraine. I memorized the recipe from the Julia Child show when I was about 9."

* Susan Moses, executive chef/co-owner, 212 Market: "As a child, the first thing I can really recall that I actually cooked was crabs in Mississippi. ... My brothers and I would go to the Back Bay in Biloxi, on a pier, and find frog eggs and turtles. We had crab nets and would catch them, bring them home and cook them in boiling water. I mostly remember falling off the pier trying to pull up the crab pot."

That was Moses' first cooking experience, and it wasn't until a few years later as a teenager that she really began experimenting in the kitchen, she said.

"As a teenager, I had my own little yogurt maker, and it was always on. I experimented with yogurt for years. I also made a lot of potato caraway bread. In college in California, I existed on cheese, avocado and brewer's yeast quesadillas -- my very own 'fast food,' which I concocted on a hot plate."

* Erik Niel, executive chef/owner, Easy Bistro: Niel grew up in Mandeville, La., and says his passion for cooking was born in his backyard watching his father boil crawfish while he chased them around the yard.

"The whole experience was great," he said.

It wasn't until he was 12 that he prepared his first dish by himself. While most kids would settle for a grilled cheese sandwich, Niel went a step further and made a cheese quesadilla.

"I thought it was the best thing I'd ever done," he said.

* John Lopopolo, executive chef, Mount Vernon Restaurant: Lopopolo grew up in New Orleans, where his dad owned a restaurant. Lopopolo began working for his father at an early age and realized a love for cooking at that time.

"I was intrigued by the combination of all cuisines around New Orleans," he said. "The French, the Southern, the African -- they all played a part in the cuisine of New Orleans."

The first dish he can remember making, though, was at home.

"We lived on the canal and had a neighbor who was a chef on an offshore oil rig. He taught me how to make gumbo. I guess I was about 12."

It seems like an improbable location -- a barn-shaped, former barbecue eatery in Lakesite -- but a Japanese restaurant has surprised me with its success.

Business has been quite brisk at Kioto every time I've gone by. So I gave it a try and came away very pleased. It's cooked hibachi-style in the kitchen, not at the table, but the flavor is excellent.

I can't say I was overwhelmed with the white (shrimp) sauce, though. It's homemade, for sure, but was a little too sweet for my taste.

Kioto has a takeout window for easy pickup. Address: 8714 Hixson Pike. Phone: 521-8444.

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