‘Never go to battle hungry’: Australian chefs on their mother’s best advice in the kitchen – and beyond

<span>‘In her everyday life she’s quite impatient, but when she’s in the kitchen she relishes the process’: former Raja head chef Ahana Dutt (left) with her mother Sharmila Basu Thakur in 2023</span><span>Photograph: Supplied</span>
‘In her everyday life she’s quite impatient, but when she’s in the kitchen she relishes the process’: former Raja head chef Ahana Dutt (left) with her mother Sharmila Basu Thakur in 2023Photograph: Supplied

From our first breath we all look to our mothers for sustenance, so it makes sense that the bonds formed between mothers and their children around food run deep. But even from those earliest days, there’s more to it than just filling our bellies.

Nourishment might be the first language we understand, but as we grow up, a mother’s stove-side manner and approach to cooking often begins to articulate more complex ideas and advice, inevitably influencing far more than what we cook for dinner.

It’s little surprise then that for those in the food and hospitality industries, those early lessons, be they philosophical or practical, hold particular resonance and continue to inspire them long after they’ve cut the apron strings.

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From frugality and intuition to the value of preparation and efficiency (and a good rice cooker), five Australian chefs, cooks and restaurateurs share their mothers’ best advice in the kitchen – and beyond.

‘The most basic ingredients can be made into something special’

Julia Busuttil Nishimura, cookbook author, Melbourne

My biggest takeaway from my mum in the kitchen is how she has always made people feel with her food. When I was little it was always about putting more chairs around the table – the more people at the table, the better. Food was about a welcoming feeling; an act of generosity and love.

She has always been a confident cook, but never takes it too seriously. And she really knows how to cook intuitively and frugally too. We didn’t have a lot growing up, but she would still put on a Sunday lunch every week for at least 10 people. The menu was often the same: french onion soup, roast pork with all the trimmings and chocolate mousse. The smell of those onions and brandy cooking at 7.30am was like an alarm clock to me.

She taught me how to make pantry staples and humble ingredients shine and this is something that has informed the way I now cook. The most simple and basic ingredients can be made into something special to share with others.

‘She sees food as a way to communicate and connect’

Victor Liong, chef-owner of Lee Ho Fook, Melbourne

Mum always says: “If you’re going to do something hard, eat first – never go to battle hungry.” My mum is an amazing homemaker and an incredible cook. She grew up in restaurants in Kuala Lumpur so she knows her way around a kitchen and her scope of cuisines is very broad.

She’s a classic tiger mum with very high standards. According to her, a dumpling should have at least nine pleats and even this week my staff were joking about having to do 13, minimum, because I’ve absorbed her love of finesse and technique – and maybe even taken it up a notch.

But more than being a stickler for details, what she’s taught me is to always be learning and interested. When I was at school she was always trying other mums’ recipes and taking food to neighbours. She sees food as a way to communicate and connect and those are really the lessons that mean much more than what pan is best.

‘Not everything can or should be a quick process’

Ahana Dutt, former head chef at Raja, Sydney

I fell in love with cooking because of my mum. She worked a lot but on weekends we spent a lot of time together in the kitchen. Back in Kolkata we would go to the markets every Sunday and shop for the big weekend meal. It taught me the value in knowing your suppliers – you get the best deals and the best product.

Back in the kitchen much of what I learned from her wasn’t through instruction but observation. Tempering spices for example is not something you can do with a timer, but it is an exacting task. You have to watch the signs of the fats to know when to add the spices and in what order. If you aren’t prepared or rush the process there’s no coming back from that – you will have to start all over again.

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My mother is a very busy woman and in her everyday life she’s quite impatient, but when she’s in the kitchen she relishes the process. Cooking with my mother taught me that not everything can or should be a quick process: preparation, staying relaxed and taking your time always gives the best results.

‘An efficient meal can be just as full of love as the most elaborate dish’

Junda Khoo, chef-owner of Ho Jiak, Sydney

My mum worked full-time and had three of us to look after. Back in Malaysia it was so cheap to eat out, she didn’t even need to cook, but putting that effort in was a way to show us how much she cared.

She had so many great one-pot wonders, which taught me that an efficient meal can be just as full of love as the most elaborate dish. She also loved equipment – steamers, rice cookers, anything that made it easier and faster; and sharp knives were essential.

Slicing ginger paper-thin, according to my mother, is the key to any dish’s success. She learned that from her own mother who policed all our ginger slicing while I was growing up. I used to think this was just an old Asian lady thing, but of course they were right: the thinner you slice ginger the faster the oils and aroma are released and the less you need to use to get that flavour.

‘Cooking together is a real love language’

Durkhanai Ayubi, co-owner of Parwana Afghan Kitchen, Adelaide

We came to Australia as refugees in the mid-80s. Our food culture was something we could bring with us as we started our life again. Cooking and eating have always been a central part of family life for us; a way for us to come together.

Dumplings are a huge thing in Afghan cuisine. I can remember from a young age my five sisters and I all sitting around my mum and having our own little jobs. My mother encouraged us to see collectivity and working together as a main ingredient of a good meal. We still cook like that as a family and it’s taught me that food, and especially the act of cooking together, is a real love language.

My mum always said: “Afghan food is a treasure and the knowledge of it is something I’m going to pass on to you.” As I’ve gotten older I’ve understood more and more what she meant. Dishes are a legacy and cooking together is a really powerful way to stay close to your heritage and your people. And that doesn’t have to mean blood or cultural ties – cooking together is a way to bond with and welcome anyone. It speaks to the very core of what it is to love and connect with others.