Top chefs reflect on their favourite childhood meals

Top chefs reflect on their favourite childhood meals

by Lauren Fitchett21 February 2023

Whether it's the family roast chicken recipe or a hearty casserole wolfed down after school, we all have dishes which transport us back to our childhood. We asked some of our brilliant chefs to reflect on the meals that take them on a trip down memory lane.

Top chefs reflect on their favourite childhood meals

Whether it's the family roast chicken recipe or a hearty casserole wolfed down after school, we all have dishes which transport us back to our childhood. We asked some of our brilliant chefs to reflect on the meals that take them on a trip down memory lane.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines.

Lauren is a food writer at Great British Chefs. She joined the team in 2022, having previously been a food editor at regional newspapers and trade magazines. She is based in Norfolk and spends most of her time trying new recipes at home or enjoying the culinary gems of the east of England.

There are smells and tastes that instantly carry us back in time. It might be a corner shop snack, eaten hungrily on the way home from school, a family recipe handed down the generations or a use-up dish which became a weeknight staple. These memories often linger long past their origin, shaping our cooking throughout our lives and explaining why what we enjoyed as children tends to remain a comfort food into adulthood. Chefs are, of course, no exception – plenty point to their upbringing as the foundation of their culinary career, with many weaving those influences into their menus.

In times of strain, experts say we turn to nostalgia for comfort and stability. It's no surprise, then, that after the last few years we've looked to yesteryear for food inspiration – retro flavours flew off supermarket shelves in 2020, from corned beef to rice pudding. Indeed, the Proust phenomenon, the way we relive memories through sensory stimuli, was conceived when its namesake Marcel Proust dipped a madeleine biscuit in tea, the taste and smell triggering a flood of childhood memories. So, with that in mind, we've asked some of our brilliant chefs to share their most nostalgia-inducing childhood meals.

Asma Khan

‘I’m nostalgic about the times when we used to have our family around for dawaat, a feast. It was very frequent – we had people around all the time as my mother had a reputation as a great chef. We always had pilau and something with gravy. It was always seasonal, made with whatever was available in the bazaar. I remember we always used to have amazing potato dishes, too, always mixed with something; potato with spinach, with peas, whatever was seasonal. And an absolute favourite was keema – my brother was a fussy eater and so we always had keema with potatoes, served with ketchup and rice.’

Steven Edwards

‘The dish that sticks out is lemon meringue pie, not completely homemade – from a packet mix. I don't know how much sugar was in it but it tasted great and was my favourite pudding for ages – I can still taste it in my memory. When I was about two or three I also, for some reason, didn't enjoy broccoli so my nan tricked me and said it was magic cauliflower whenever we went to the greengrocers. I completely fell for it, and it shows how someone's experience of an ingredient can put them off something. The food I enjoyed as a child has definitely influenced my style of cooking. Growing up I didn't experience the amount of choice in my diet that is available today. I was raised on a very British diet, home cooked by my mum where possible.'

George Farrugia

‘The earliest meal that sticks out is a Cypriot barbecue – you'd come outside and smell that aroma of meat, fish and vegetables rotating over the coals. Not much beats that for me. There was souvlaki – our version of a kebab – and sheftalia, which are pork meatballs wrapped in crépinette and cooked over coals. Our use of spices in marinades further adds to that memory of first meal nostalgia. Growing up in my household, we used to have to all take part, it was often a chance to compete to see who could make the best salad or marinade or tahini dressing – unfortunately my dad still makes the best one.'

Amy Poon

'I was about eleven and had come home from boarding school. My father drove me home – en route, he asked if I was hungry and we stopped at an Italian restaurant. For pudding, I asked for zabaglione. It was late in the afternoon and the chef had left so the waiter brought the dessert trolley and tried to offer me fruit salad, tiramisu or torta della nonna instead, none of which I wanted. My father spied a gueridon and asked the waiter if he had eggs, sugar and Marsala, to which came a rather indignant 'but of course'. My father asked him to bring them with a metal bowl and the gueridon. He stood up, rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to whip up a zabaglione to the surprise of the waiters who all stood there, mouths open, watching a Chinese man produce the most classic of Italian desserts. Oblivious to the incongruity of the scene, I tucked in happily... To this day, I truly believe that zabaglione makes everything better.'

Chet Sharma

‘After school, we would eat toasted wholewheat bread with lots of salted butter and bharta, which is smoked aubergine cooked down with onions and tomato. Mum and grandma would make a big batch of bharta at the weekend and when we came home we’d make the mini toasties. I was around eight years old and still this is such a strong food memory. I remember my friend Phil from school trying these one day – he really wasn’t too sure about them as he just wasn’t used to the flavours but, for me, they were the best afternoon snack.'

Helen Graham

'Food was the time that we came together and more often than not it was related to our heritage. My most loved meal was a schnitzel sandwich – chicken schnitzel with hummus and matbucha, a spicy red pepper dip, with red pepper cooked down with tomatoes and chilli – kind of like a red pepper jam. We would have that in a pita bread with chips on the side. It was the best. Then more of an occasion meal would be Friday night dinner, which would always be roast chicken, with some kind of vegetables and chrain, which is basically grated horseradish and beetroot. It was quite fiery and would really cut through the chicken and potatoes nicely.'

Gabriel Waterhouse

'A meal that sticks out for me is jugged hare stew, my grandpa's favourite meal. Once, my brother Samuel and I had been on a bike ride with my mum and came across a hare that had been clipped by a car. It was still warm. We deliberated about what to do... In the end we decided to take it home. My dad, a biology teacher at the time, dissected the hare, giving us boys a physiology lesson. Afterwards, we cooked it for our Easter Sunday meal. I can still remember its strong, gamey smell. Throughout most of my childhood I had been a vegetarian. Growing up in rural Northumberland we often came home to a brace of pheasants hanging on our doorstep, a gift from a local shoot. We were brought up with an awareness and respect of where our food comes from, which as a young boy made the connection to eating animals difficult. I think this experience with the hare made me think more openly about my relationship with food and eating meat.'

Nina Matsunaga

'There isn’t just one specific childhood meal that stands out. Some meals were really special and we didn’t have them often, like miso nikomi udon, which are udon noodles cooked with miso, vegetables, with an egg added straight into the soup, and any desserts with anko (a sweet red bean paste) were also high on the list too. I’ve spent more time thinking about my heritage in recent years and as a result more and more meals are coming back to me, particularly those linked to memorable or happy occasions, including things like teppanyaki, okonomiyaki, tempura, oden and nabe – basically anything you can eat while you cook, or simple comforting meals such as Japanese curry with extra helpings.'

Endo Kazutoshi

'My uncle, father and grandfather, who were all sushi chefs, cooked for me a lot growing up, but it was all very traditional and basic foods like grilled fish and rice. They didn’t like adding too much stuff like mayonnaise, ketchup or soy sauce, so we didn't eat that at home. One day, a friend invited me to his birthday party and his mum made some noodles with soy sauce and mayonnaise and it literally made me cry. It was so refreshing and opened my eyes up to the world of food.'

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