When chefs cook at home

  • Article by: STORIES BY MEREDITH DEEDS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 26, 2012 - 3:10 PM

The pickiest diners of all? They're the hungry kids seated at the family table.

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Michelle Gayer and her daughters Isabelle, 11, and Ava, 10, prepare kale to be roasted. Healthy food is always on the menu when she cooks at home.

Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune

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In the world of home cooking, there are moments when most cooks feel as celebrated as a chef: when they've prepared a meal that surpassed even their own expectations, that results in oohs and ahhs at the dinner table. It's a good feeling and one that doesn't happen often enough for most of us. What happens, though, when a professional chef steps into his or her own home kitchen? Do they feel like rock stars every time? Or find themselves making multi-course dinners for appreciative families?

More likely than not, the answer is no.

Chefs at home are really not much different from the rest of us. They have kids who can be picky eaters and hectic schedules that often make quick and easy dinners a necessity. Sound familiar? Just like the rest of us, they often cook the same dishes over and over because they know what works for their kids.

Still, what a professional chef does bring to the equation is an understanding of food and techniques that can make the task of feeding a family much easier. Find out what three local chefs consider as they cook dinner for their families.

Alex Roberts

Alex Roberts, of Restaurant Alma and Brasa, has come to a stage in his professional life that allows him to be home for most family dinners. His wife, Margo, actually does much of the cooking. "I have to give her credit. She has three hungry mouths to feed, plus a husband who cooks for a living," he said. Although he enjoys taking his turn at the kitchen stove, he's the first to admit that cooking at home is a different experience from cooking at one of his restaurants. "It's very rare that I make anything like what I cook at Restaurant Alma at home," said Roberts. "Nor are my kids interested in that kind of cooking."

What part of his restaurant experience does translate to home cooking? Basic cooking techniques.

"We do three- or four-course meals at Alma and it's pretty involved. But the components of Alma's cooking, while we may be cooking with special ingredients, are all simple techniques, just a lot of them at once," he said.

Like most young kids, the Roberts children -- August, 6, Ellis, 5, and Nia Belle, 21/2 -- prefer uncomplicated fare. "One meal we do maybe once a week is simmering a whole chicken in a pot with water and vegetables. My children love it. They love the clear broth and the plain chicken. Sometimes we make a soup out of it, add vegetables or serve it over rice. It's something simple that we all enjoy. My wife and I can spice it up if we want, and the kids can have it plain."

The Roberts kids do eat their vegetables, though, probably because Alex doesn't shy away from preparing them with other enticing ingredients. "As a chef, I don't believe in the whole low-fat thing. I use high-quality fats like butter and cream, just a touch, to make things taste better. It's a universally appealing flavor, and it works."

Isaac Becker

Sunday dinner is a don't-miss experience in the Becker household. While Isaac and his wife, Nancy St. Pierre, both partners in their two restaurants, 112 Eatery and Bar La Grassa, aren't able to eat together with their two sons, Klaus, 15, and Winston, 8, every night of the week, they make a point of never skipping the chance to be together on Sunday.

Those special weekend meals don't necessarily include elaborate dishes with unusual ingredients. "I have pretty typical kids," Becker said. "My youngest likes noodles with butter, bread, pizza with no sauce and definitely no green stuff. He's not adventurous. So we focus on getting him to eat a nutritious food more than getting him to try new things.

"My oldest son was the same when he was younger, but as he's gotten older, he's changed." That may be partly due to the fact that Klaus is a teenager, but he has had more opportunity to spend time in the family's restaurants eating different foods, Becker said. "He still is not eating a lot of sweetbreads and sea urchin rolls, but he does try things. Sometimes he likes it, sometimes not, but he tries."

Becker isn't worried about his kids' limited tastes. "I don't feel pressure to have my kids have a wide palate. As long as they're getting a balanced diet and something nutritious to eat, I don't care if they're not adventurous, because they will be eventually."

Part of his confidence comes from personal experience. "There were a lot of things I hated until I became a cook. I didn't even like tomatoes, but when it was my job to cook them, I grew to love them."

Michelle Gayer

Being a single mother, one of the more celebrated pastry chefs in town and owner of the Salty Tart bakery would lead some to wonder if Michelle Gayer is too busy to make dinner every night for her two daughters, Isabelle, 11, and Ava, 10. But that isn't the case.

Gayer makes sure the family sits down together for an evening meal, even though her schedule creates some challenges. "I'm juggling every ball all the time. If I'm going to get any down time, I've got to get everyone fed, get homework done, get everyone's needs met first." Years of culinary training and restaurant experience certainly has made it easier. "I can rock out dinner in 20 minutes without too much trouble. I'm lucky that way."

She's also lucky that her kids are good eaters, "probably because they've been eating healthy, delicious food since they were born," Gayer said. And while her kids have come to enjoy most of the dishes their mom cooks for them, there is a rule in the Gayer house. "If I make dinner, and you don't like what's cooked, then you're in charge of finding something you like to eat, but this is the meal that we're having as a family."

Gayer feels that her kids have benefited from this philosophy by being compelled to try new things, many of which have become their own favorites. "My kids have fallen in love with a lot of the things that I like to eat. For instance, I love roasted cauliflower, and now they love it, too."

Meredith Deeds of Edina is the author of "Everyday to Entertaining." Reach her at meredith@meredithdeeds.com. Follow her on Twitter @meredithdeeds.

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