What cooks do chefs admire most? Mom, of course

What cooks do chefs admire most? Mom, of course

With six boys and a husband to feed, Jacqueline Marie Tranchemontagne of Sanford always had something cooking on the stove. At least that’s how her chef-son James Tranchemontagne, the owner of the Frog and Turtle Gastro Pub in Westbrook, remembers it. He says his mother’s cooking was a big influence on his career choice, as well as some of the French-Canadian items on his menus.

Steve Corry, the chef/owner of 555 Congress Street in Portland, was also influenced by his mother, Claire Corry, and her love of cooking. Growing up in Hingham, Mass., he remembers vividly the meals his mother cooked for her family of four. And he credits her for nudging him away from a career in finance to explore his own love of cooking, beer making and food.

“She was very influential,” Corry recalls. “She always preached to enjoy what you do first, and then success will follow. That really paved the way for me.”

Before the Food Network made stars out of chefs such as Emeril Lagasse and led to an increased interest in culinary arts careers, budding chefs often developed their love of food and cooking by watching their stay-at-home moms. With Mother’s Day approaching, Corry and Tranchemontagne were happy to revisit their memories of their moms and the magic they worked with food.

“Still to this day I think of meals she cooked that were more memorable than any I’ve had in top restaurants,” says Tranchemontagne, who owned Uffa! in Portland before opening an upscale gastro-pub, The Frog and Turtle, and a nearby eatery called The French Press, in downtown Westbrook.

For Tranchemontagne, 35, growing up in a traditional French-Canadian household meant being surrounded by food. His pepe was a butcher and he remembers, at a young age, thinking the meats and salamis hanging on hooks were all very cool. With six boys to feed, his mother always seemed to be in the kitchen or out back harvesting things from her garden. Sunday dinner was an all-day affair, he recalls, where the extended family would gather at long tables after church. Friday nights usually meant grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade soups, utilizing leftovers and vegetables from the garden.

“She never wasted anything,” Tranchemontagne recalls. “Those were the Franco-American values.”

Tranchemontagne gravitated toward restaurant work even in high school. At 19, he got his first break, working at Windows on the Water in Kennebunk, where he was encouraged to pursue cooking as a career. Once he opened his own restaurant, the influence of his French-Canadian roots came to the fore. Uffa! in Portland featured gourmet adaptations of the soups, potatoes and meat dishes he’d grown up on. At the Frog and Turtle, he says his holiday pork pies and creton (pork spread) are prepared exactly the same way his mother made them. The brunch items, such as the Franco-American Benedict and Frenchie Sandwich (scrambled eggs with creton), were also inspired by meals from his mother’s kitchen.

Lovers of Tranchemontagne’s traditional French-Canadian doughnuts, which have become the signature item on his brunch menu, also have his mother to thank. He started making them at Uffa! to replace the cinnamon buns that were a popular item on the former owner’s brunch menu.

Tranchemontagne has added variations to his mom’s recipe since then. Jacqueline Tranchemontagne made her cinnamon-sugar doughnuts in a cast-iron pan with lots of lard, while Tranchemontagne’s doughnuts are the product of a commercial doughnut fryolater. He uses soybean oil, which is transfat free, and he has gone beyond the sugar and cinnamon of his youth, adding peanut butter, honey, walnuts, and an amazing assortment of ingredients to the crusty, plump masses of fried dough that customers rave about. He says his mother loves them even more than her own.

“My mother is a huge part of my love for food,” says Tranchemontagne. “It’s a shame she wasted her talent on six boys. She understands everything about cooking.”

Steve Corry’s memories of his mother cooking go back to the days before he was tall enough to see what she was preparing on the kitchen counter.

“I was always underfoot, begging to help out,” he says. “I’d reach up and grab a handful of raw hamburger and eat it before she could stop me. I guess I fooled myself into thinking it was steak tartare.”

Claire Corry’s influence on her son went beyond instilling a love of food, however. After high school, he went off to college without a clue as to what he wanted to do. He thought he should pursue a career in corporate finance, like his father. But when he struggled academically, his mother nudged him in the direction of biology, a more hands-on field that he’d always seemed to love in high school.

After college, he bought beer-making equipment to get in on the microbrewing craze, which was becoming popular all over the country. With his mom’s do-what-you-love philosophy in mind, he become a member of the American Brewer’s Guild in California and became a brewmaster for several pubs and restaurants in California.

He and his wife Michelle came to Maine 10 years ago with the idea of opening their own brew pub. But courses at the New England Culinary Instititute in Vermont sparked his interest in creative cuisine. He worked as a chef at Domain Chandon in Napa, Calif., and the White Barn Inn in Maine. In 2003, he and Michelle opened 555 Congress Street. Corry was named one of the top 10 new chefs by Food and Wine Magazine in 2007.

Corry says he uses his memories of his mom’s cooking as inspiration from time to time, as he strives to make contemporary dishes out of traditional classics. A recent menu item, in fact, the house-made rosemary-infused fettucine with braised veal, was recreated with his mom’s Hungarian goulash dish in mind.

“I like to do a twist on the old classics that mom would make,” he says.

Though he’s an award-winning chef, Corry still admires his mother’s knack for making memorable meals out of traditional comfort foods, he says.

“The last time I visited, we raided her freezer and had some of her spaghetti and meatballs when we got home,” he continues. “It’s a recipe passed down from her own mother. I still think it’s the best.”

James Tranchemontagne shares a dance with his mother, Jacqueline Marie Tranchemontagne of Sanford, at his wedding in 2006. “I think of meals she cooked that were more memorable than any I’ve had in top restaurants,” says Tranchemontagne, a chef and owner of two restaurants.Claire Corry, second right, has been a big influence on her chef son Steve. Shown here in this family photo are, from left, James Corry, Christine Duggan, chef Steve Corry, John Corry, Claire Corry and Tom Corry.

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