Favorite recipes & fondest memories from local restaurateurs
Mother’s Day is a time for gathering and honoring those mother figures in our lives who mean so much to us. In reverence to this holiday, local chefs and restaurateurs in the Fox Valley have kindly shared their fondest memories — and best recipes — from the women who made a significant impact on their lives and careers.
Nam Khao (Lao Crispy Fried Rice with Fermented Sour Pork)
Larry Chomsisengphet, Basil Café
Universally a favorite among Laotians, nam khao is a nostalgic dish that brings back memories of family and the labor of love shown by those making the dish, explains Basil Café general manager Larry Chomsisengphet.
“It’s a dish that is always served at large events and gatherings,” he says. “It’s a family favorite because our mom would always make it for holidays or special events. It’s a nostalgic dish that just brings back a ton of memories from childhood.”
For Chomsisengphet, the recipe stands out in the way his mom, and now his sister — the owner and head chef of Basil Café – make this dish with so many flavors and textures.
“The impact that the way my parents, sisters and family in general show our love is through food, and I think that is a cornerstone of what we do at Basil Café.”
The dish features rice balls made of a mix of jasmine rice, red curry paste, freshly grated coconut, shallots, garlic and lemongrass. Those, once fried and broken apart, are mixed with cilantro, green onions, limes, crushed roasted peanuts and chopped nam/som moo (sour fermented pork) or cooked and diced tofu. The mixture is often eaten like a lettuce wrap, with additional cilantro and mint added in for extra flavor.
“It’s such a special dish for us, again, because of the nostalgic factor and how much it reminds us of our childhood, of holidays or special events/gatherings, of family, and of our Lao heritage, especially as refugees and immigrants just trying to assimilate,” Chomsisengphet says.
See the recipe for Chomsisengphet’s nam khao.
Brussels Sprouts with Onions, Pancetta, Cream, Parmesan and Fried Egg
Matias Whittingslow, Author’s Kitchen + Bar
Author’s Kitchen + Bar co-owner Matias Whittingslow says he has many amazing memories of his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. Originally from a small town in the province of Buenos Aires, he spent a lot of time at his grandmother Mercedes’ house while his parents worked. There was always a lot of cooking going on, he says.
“In Argentina, we do have a lot of Italian influence, a lot of European influence, when it comes to food especially,” he explains. “You know after the wars, World War I and II, there were a lot of immigrants who moved to Argentina from Italy, Spain – and my last name is Whittingslow, which is an English last name. So I grew up eating a lot of pasta, a lot of meat and a lot of Italian-influenced dishes. My grandmother made killer homemade pasta, and then she passed it along to my mom, who was her daughter-in-law.”
An ode to his grandmother’s homemade pasta can be found on the ABK menu in the form of the ultra-popular ravioli that Whittingslow says will always be on any menu he creates. It’s also a dish tied to his mother, Maria del Carmen, who made amazing kale-filled ravioli, Whittingslow says.
And while Whittingslow doesn’t have the exact recipe written down, his mother’s version of a dish featuring Brussels sprouts stands out in his memories.
“Back in the early ’90s, in a town like Navarro in Argentina, you could only source local and seasonal ingredients,” he explains. “So, she would make this dish with Brussels sprouts, and it was delicious. But you can only eat it at a certain time of the year — in the winter time, so June, July, August. She would cook down onions with pancetta, and then [add] Brussels sprouts, and then she would put in cream and Parmesan cheese, and she would serve the Brussels sprouts with fried eggs on top, which is the bomb.
“It’s the bomb-dot-com!” he adds with a laugh.
Whittingslow owes much of his life to the time he spent in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother.
“I think if it wasn’t for them, I’d probably be doing something else,” he furthers. “But maybe I wouldn’t even be here in Appleton. I would probably be somewhere else in the world. I think of them a lot. And, you know, obviously they have determined my present and my future. If it wasn’t for them, who knows where I would be right now?”
Nicole DeFranza, Carmella’s, An Italian Bistro
Paying homage to their grandmother is at the core of what Nicole DeFranza and Kristen Sickler do each week in their roles as Fox Valley restaurateurs. Owners of both Carmella’s and SAP, the sisters named Carmella’s after their grandmother, Carmella DeFranza. Carmella and her husband owned a small Italian restaurant in the New York town where the sisters grew up.
As Nicole explains, both sets of the sisters’ great-grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Italy and brought with them the beautiful food and tradition of their native home — the area around Naples, in the Campania region of southern Italy.
“When I think of all the amazingly delicious food that my grandmother made, the one that stands out the most in my mind is her marinara,” says Nicole. “Of course, she would never have called it that. To her and the rest of my very Italian family, it was always referred to as ‘gravy.’ There was almost always a pot of gravy on her kitchen stove and the smells of garlic and basil are so heavily imprinted within me, that it is literally impossible for me to smell either and not think of her.”
While Nicole couldn’t share the exact recipe, Carmella’s marinara includes tomato, fresh garlic, extra virgin olive oil, fresh onion, fresh basil, fresh parsley, sea salt and black pepper.
“The ingredients are simple and when combined, make magic,” Nicole adds.
For those looking to get that exact magic into their home pantries, the sisters also sell the sauce — and several other patron favorites — at many locations throughout Wisconsin. It’s a lovely way to continue honoring a woman, who as Nicole describes, was so many things to so many people.
“It’s impossible to think back and not remember her absolute presence. She was a force to be reckoned with and if you were smart, you knew better than to take a discussion or disagreement too far without regretting it,” Nicole states with a wink.
“It was always that way and in ways I can’t really begin to describe, she shaped what it meant to be a strong and powerful voice, when women were often expected to be less,” she says. “Kristen and I watched her work and cook and take care of those she loved. … She was stubborn and unafraid to make herself heard. I am certain that we inherited so much of this from her — from both of my brave and beautiful grandmothers, actually.”
“I feel so fortunate to have grown up with such powerful examples of what it means to be a woman,” Nicole adds. “My sister and I could not be who we are today without them.”