A Busman's Holiday: In the Kitchen with Chefs and Their Kids

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Photos by Katie Noble

This winter (2015) was pretty tough. Schools were closed, work was impossible to get to, and events were postponed as storm after storm dumped over 100 inches of snow on the greater Boston area. In restaurants and cafes, perishable ingredients sat unused as patrons stayed away, with roads impassible and parking illegal in the city. Many chefs turned to social media to attract customers however they could, offering discounts and free drinks to those brave enough to walk in.

But there was a silver lining under all that snow. As Bay State residents heeded the dire warnings to stay off roads and hunker down indoors, they stocked up on pre-blizzard groceries, filling their larders with comforting foods to get them through the storms. People took to Twitter and Facebook, posting photos of empty milk shelves and bread departments left bare. The night before the first storm, even the broccoli display at my local Whole Foods was completely picked clean, with just a few sad little florets sitting on the ice. (It’s an encouraging sign of changes in the American diet when pre-storm shoppers hoard vegetables!)

People were eating at home, or at least that’s what my Instagram feed told me—photo after photo of cookie projects, homemade pizzas, and lasagnas-in-the-making. So much unexpected time off from work and school brought families together in a way we don’t often get these days. We were stuck together inside, with little to do but bake, pop some corn, play board games, and watch movies. Even the chefs whose restaurants had to close during the storms, and were consequently losing business, must have had some unexpected fun, the snow bringing an unforeseen opportunity to spend time with their families, catch up, and cook.

This got me thinking: how often do busy restaurant chefs even get to cook dinner at home on a weeknight? Do they leave the cooking to a spouse, or maybe enlist their kids in the action? I reached out to a few local chefs between blizzards in hopes they’d let me into their kitchens, watch them cook with their kids, and write about it. I learned so much about these families, and what it takes to work in the restaurant industry and still be present for their children, still be influential at home. Each family in its own way balances the work life of parents with the important task of raising strong and independent children. And snow day or not, letting kids help out in the kitchen helps build confidence, trust, and most of all fun.

Nine-year-old Bella, daughter of DAVE and JUDIANNE GILLIS of Salt Kitchen + Rum Bar in downtown Ipswich, welcomes me into her Danvers kitchen clad in a new apron and a big smile. Younger brother Aiden, age six, bounces around the room, tending to the family’s new beagle puppy, Charly, carefully locked behind baby gates, busy chewing on her ball. And some books, and a corner of the sofa.

Dave was chef and partner at Finz in Salem for more than ten years before he and Judianne went out on their own; a Caribbean vacation planted the “rum bar” seed, and once they found the spot in Ipswich and learned about the town’s importance in Massachusetts’ historical rum trade, as well as the two local distillers presently producing world class rum there, it all fell in to place and Salt Kitchen opened in 2013. Dave’s gastro-pub menu, featuring local ingredients from many North Shore farms and fishermen, pairs beautifully with the over 40 rums behind the bar (from both nearby and farther afield), which patrons sip while lingering over Judianne’s comforting desserts.

Today, at home, Dave and the kids are making a family favorite: local fish tacos with sweet potato fries, the menu meticulously written out on the kitchen chalkboard. Bella’s been given her first big-girl knife as a Christmas present from her dad, and she’s very proud of what she can do with it. She dices tomatoes and stirs together an egg-flour-soda water batter for the fresh, local pollock. Aiden, giggling, stirs lime juice into sour cream for the crema, and tears lettuce into strips for garnish. Dave mans the deep fryer, letting the kids sprinkle coarse salt on the hot fish and fries as soon as they come out of the oil. When everything’s cooked, we assemble our own tacos on lightly charred flour tortillas, with sprinkles of grated cheese, some lime crema, and cilantro for the adults—I even layer the sweet potato fries right onto mine. I’m pretty sure if Dave ever puts these on the menu at Salt Kitchen, they’ll go perfectly with rum.

The Gillis Family

The Gillis Family

“Fish + Chips” Tacos with Sweet Potato Fries and Lime Crema
Serves 4

2 cups sour cream
2 limes (for lime crema and garnish)
Vegetable oil, for frying
3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into fries
2½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 teaspoons salt
1 can soda water
1 large egg, beaten
16 ounces local pollock (or other firm, white fish) cut into strips ½ inch–1 inch thick
1 package 6-inch flour tortillas
Chopped tomatoes, for serving
Shredded lettuce, for serving
Shredded cheese, for serving
Chopped cilantro (optional), for serving

For the lime crema, squeeze the juice of one lime into the sour cream and stir to combine; set aside.

Heat 3 inches of oil in a deep fryer to 325°F (if you don’t have an electric fryer, use a cast iron dutch oven or deep heavy skillet, a candy thermometer, and a slotted spoon). When the oil is hot, put the potatoes in a fryer basket and lower into the oil. Fry the chips for 2 to 3 minutes; they should not be crisp or fully cooked at this point. Remove the chips to a paper towel-lined platter to drain. Crank the oil temperature up to 375°F.

In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour, baking powder, salt and pepper. Combine soda water and egg and pour into the flour mixture. Dredge the fish pieces in the remaining flour and then dip them into the batter, letting the excess drip off.

Put the par-cooked chips in the bottom of the fryer basket and carefully submerge in the hot oil. Carefully lower the battered fish into the bubbling oil on top of the chips. Fry the fish and chips for 4 to 5 minutes until crispy and brown, then remove to paper towels or a clean brown paper bag to drain and season liberally with salt and pepper right away.

While the fish cooks, char the tortillas directly on the gas flame of your stove until blackened in places and heated through. Keep warm in a towel-lined basket until ready to serve; you can also use corn tortillas, charred the same way, with delicious results.

Build tacos with fried fish, lime crema, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and cilantro, if using. Serve alongside fried sweet potato “chips,” and a few lime wedges for squeezing.

KEVIN CONNER, Chef de Cuisine of Community Servings, greets me at his door with two-year-old Zoe in his arms. I’ve arrived just as his wife, Liliana, is departing for work. It’s Kevin’s day off (vacation week, actually), so he’s planned an afternoon cooking dinner with Zoe, letting her get a little messy in the process, before her nap.

Kevin has a lot on his plate. At Community Servings headquarters in Jamaica Plain, he manages a permanent staff of 12 along with 50 volunteers as they prepare meals for close to 1000 critically-ill, homebound patients in the Boston area. Aside from being delicious, restaurant-worthy food, each meal is tailored to the patient’s individual dietary needs, making Kevin as much a dietician as he is a chef. And his kitchen is the recipient of thousands of pounds of donated produce from local farms and markets, adding a “Chopped”-like challenge to his menu planning. He’s got to use the ingredients he has, when he has them, all with an eye towards building the most nutritious meals possible for the people who need it most.

So by the time Kevin and Liliana return on a typical day after their long hours working in the city, far from their Scituate home, they’re ready to wind down with their adorable Zoe. Cooking dinner is precious time spent together, and she loves to help. The recipe they’re making today—potato gnocchi with roasted chicken, asparagus, and sage—is easy enough to make on a weeknight, and fun for a toddler to get her hands into and play, peeling roasted potatoes, squeezing them in the ricer, and rolling the gnocchi like play dough. Flour on her cheeks and nose, repeating her daddy’s instructions in her tiny voice, Zoe is every bit the chef-in-training. The open kitchen is the heart of their home, where the family gathers to eat delicious meals together, passing along Kevin’s love of good food to the next generation.

The Connor Family

The Connor Family

Seared Chicken Breast with Brown Butter Gnocchi, Asparagus, Leeks, and Sage
Serves 4

8 medium-sized Russet potatoes, scrubbed
Kosher salt
2 large egg yolks
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
pinch freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting board and dough
4 split chicken breasts, bone in and skin on
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 bunch asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup thinly sliced leeks

Preheat oven to 425°. Prick the potatoes with the tines of a fork and bake until soft and collapsed, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle, then peel. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°.

Use a ricer or box grater to mash the potatoes, then add egg yolks, cheese, nutmeg, salt and pepper and stir to combine. Add half the flour, and using your hands, fold into the potato mixture, adding more flour if needed, just until it comes together as a dough. On a well-floured board, divide the dough into 3 parts and roll, using your hands, into a rope about ¾-inch in diameter. Cut the rope into ½-inch long gnocchi and dust them with flour; set aside until ready to cook. (You can prepare the gnocchi in advance up to this step, then freeze them, or you can boil them now, chill, and reheat them with the chicken and asparagus another day.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Using a slotted spoon, lower the gnocchi into the water and poach for 90 seconds. Drain on paper towels and keep warm.

Season the chicken breasts well with salt and pepper on both sides. Heat a cast iron skillet and add 1 tablespoon olive oil; sear the chicken, skin side down, 3-4 minutes until golden brown. Place the skillet in the oven and set a timer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, toss the asparagus with the remaining oil and season with salt and pepper; arrange on a baking sheet and roast alongside the chicken 5-7 minutes until softened but not browned. Remove from the oven and set aside. At the end of 15 minutes, test the chicken with an instant-read thermometer; remove from the oven when the internal temperature reaches 165°, then place chicken on a platter to rest.

Return the skillet to medium heat and melt the butter. Add the sage and leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter browns. Add the lemon zest, cooked gnocchi, and roasted asparagus, and season with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with Parmigiano Reggiano and divide among four plates, topping each serving of gnocchi with a roasted chicken breast. Serve with a wedge of lemon at the table, if you like.

CORNELIUS (NEIL) ROGERS, Chef de Cuisine for the Niche Hospitality Group, lets me into his Worcester house as his daughter, four-year-old Scarlett, calls to me from upstairs. She’s having her hair fixed, and she’ll be down soon. Neil’s girlfriend Alicia is busy braiding and pinning up Scarlett’s thick, dark hair, while son Bear, three, runs a circuit through the kitchen into the dining room, around to the hall, and back in the kitchen again. It’s a bright, sunny Sunday, and I’m here to watch this young family make breakfast.

Neil’s a busy guy: designing menus for nine restaurants in two states, all while working on the opening of Niche’s commissary test kitchen next month. It’s amazing he has time for the non-profit work he’s really passionate about. On the board of Lettuce Be Local, Worcester County’s Local Food Hub, Neil donates time cooking at farm fundraisers, and works hard to introduce as much local farm produce into his restaurant kitchens as possible.

The adorable children visit weekly on Neil’s two days off (they live nearby with their mother), and cooking and eating together is a big part of their weekend activities. Today’s menu is apple and oatmeal pancakes, Scarlett and Bear’s favorite, made mostly from Worcester County ingredients: oats and flour from Upinngil Farm in Gill, apples from Carlson Orchards in Harvard, maple syrup from B&B Farms in New Braintree. Even the yogurt is local: Narragansett Creamery, based in Providence, is only 40 miles from here. But the star of the pancakes just might be the peanut butter drizzled on top, bought from BirchTree Bread Company up the street in Worcester—darker than any peanut butter I’ve tasted; it’s rich and toasty and truly different.

Sitting up on the kitchen counter, sun streaming through the windows, the kids stir and mix and measure and toss flour in the air like snow. Daddy lets them flip the pancakes when they’re ready, and then they eat, pancakes tucked into chubby fists, dripping with syrup and that glorious peanut butter. Scarlett gives me an owl off the “good behavior” chart from her room; Bear gives me a star bandage for my finger; Neil and Alicia send me off with a loaf of BirchTree’s incredible raisin-coriander bread. It’s been a good day in Worcester!

The Rogers Family

The Rogers Family

Apple Oatmeal Pancakes
Serves 4

2½ cups whole wheat flour
½ cup oats 1 cup rice flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
3 eggs
2 cups milk
¼ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
2 cups Greek yogurt
6 apples, peeled, quartered, cored, and sliced into ¼-inch pieces
Butter for cooking and melting on top

Optional toppings:

Peanut butter from BirchTree Bakery (or other peanut butter, melted a little so you can drizzle it) Maple syrup, warmed Honey

Preheat oven to 200°. In a mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, oats, rice flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, combine the eggs, milk, maple syrup, brown sugar, cinnamon, and yogurt. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and fold in with a spatula. When fully incorporated, gently stir in the apples; set batter aside for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a griddle or nonstick pan over medium/medium-low and add pats of butter to melt. When the foam subsides, spoon the batter onto the pan to form 2-inch pancakes. Cook until brown and crispy at the edges, and bubbles form in the batter, then flip and cook until fluffy and cooked through, about 5 minutes. Place on a sheet pan in the oven to keep warm and repeat until all the batter is used up. Top with butter, peanut butter, syrup or honey and serve hot.

MOLLY HANSON and KATE HENRY’s home in Concord is warm and inviting on this bitter, snowy afternoon. The mid-century modern design means big picture windows connect the indoors to the outside—where they assure me a big vegetable garden lies, out there somewhere buried in the snow, where they grow most of the food they eat throughout the year—but today our focus is on the bright, open kitchen, where the two moms bake with their daughters and the youngest, three-year-old Violet, hosts a tea party for her stuffed animals.

Mamma Molly and Mamma Kate, as their girls call them, both work in pastry; Molly as Executive Pastry Chef at Grill 23 and Post 390, and Kate working under Maura Kilpatrick at Sofra. Their enviable schedules (for anyone in the restaurant business with kids) means Kate arrives home in the afternoon in time to greet the school bus, and Molly returns early enough in the evening for the family to have dinner together most nights. Eight-year-old Beverly loves to help in the kitchen, usually assisting Kate as they prepare dinner. Her favorite meal? Bratwurst and Brussels sprouts, of course.

This snowy afternoon they’re all cooking together, making a spring-like blush pink cobbler with their own rhubarb, harvested last year and frozen for just such a wintertime pick-me-up. The recipe is based on one Molly designed for Grill 23 (she makes it in a ring mold at the restaurant and changes the fruit to fit the seasons), but for the children she adds whole wheat flour and makes a no-churn maple-ginger ice cream to go with it. The cobbler is easy to put together, kids stirring and whisking and separating eggs, and it’s ready just in time for the neighbor boys, arriving to fetch Bev for a play date, to help devour it.

The Hanson-Henry Family

The Hanson-Henry Family

Serves 4–6

1½ pounds rhubarb, cut into ½-inch pieces
zest of half an orange, finely grated
1¼  cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
6 ounces butter, room temperature
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons milk
½ teaspoon vanilla turbinado sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 325° and lightly grease a 9-inch pie plate.

Combine rhubarb, orange zest, and ½ cup sugar, and the cornstarch in a large mixing bowl and allow to macerate for approximately 30 minutes. Drain about half of the liquid from the rhubarb mixture (leaving about ½ cup juices in the bowl.)

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter, remaining ¾ cup sugar, and salt on medium speed for 2 to 3 minutes. Mix the flours and baking powder together in a medium bowl. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and mix just to combine. Add the milk and vanilla and mix until the dough comes together.

Press half of the cobbler dough into the bottom of the pie plate. Place the rhubarb on top. Take the remaining cobbler dough and divide into 6 equal pieces. Roll the dough into balls and then press into circles approximately ½-inch thick. Arrange the dough circles on top of the cobbler. Brush the dough rounds lightly with milk and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

Bake the cobbler in the oven for 40–45 minutes until the fruit is bubbling and the dough is nicely golden. Serve warm.

Makes 3 cups

This recipe is adapted from the children’s cookbook Apples For Jam by author Tessa Kiros.

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1-inch piece of ginger root, sliced into thin coins
½ cup maple syrup, preferably grade B
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt

In a small saucepan, bring the cream and ginger just up to a boil. Take off  the heat, cover and infuse for 5 minutes. Strain the ginger-infused cream into a medium bowl and add the remaining ingredients.

Transfer the mixture to a large shallow pan—either glass or metal works great.

Place in the freezer for 12 hours or overnight, breaking up the ice crystals with a fork 2 or 3 times during the freezing process.

JOSH ZISKIN and his wife Jennifer, owners of La Morra in Brookline, have pretty demanding schedules these days. In addition to running a popular, bustling restaurant—where Jen serves as Wine Director and Josh as Executive Chef—they’re in the process of taking ownership of the 18th-century Sherborn Inn, renovating it, and reopening sometime this spring. Oh, and they also have three sons, each in a different school in their hometown of Needham.

I’m greeted at the door by Josh and the enthusiastic Anakin, a gorgeous Golden Retriever, and introduced to his three boys: Miles, 11; Lucas, 13; and Julian, 16. They’re off from school today and eager for a meal. The menu is simple and very teen-boy friendly, with a nod toward the Italian cuisine that is Josh’s specialty. They’ll be making polenta with pork pizzaiolo, which is essentially a dish of pounded pork cutlets, sautéed and smothered in tomato sauce with mozzarella melted on top. Sometimes they make it with chicken or beef, but the pork is a family favorite.

Josh seasons the meat and gets it into a smoking hot pan with olive oil and butter. Lucas and Miles help flip the cutlets, and once the sauce is ladled on top, Julian adds the cheese before it hits the oven. The boys used to help their dad once in a while at La Morra in its early days, forming arancini and other cicchetti on the Northern Italian menu. But as time has passed, and the boys have grown, school, sports, and work schedules have taken precedence on weeknights. Sometimes the boys will even make their own supper, scrambled eggs and frozen pizza being high on the list of favorites. But Sunday and Monday is family time, with Jen manning the kitchen and making the boys’ favorite roast chicken, or this pizzaiolo, and the whole family sits at the table together, catching up on busy lives. With yet another restaurant on the horizon, these family dinners will be ever more precious.

The Ziskin Family

The Ziskin Family

Pork Pizzaiolo with Polenta
Serves 6

1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
extra virgin olive oil
2 10-ounce cans whole tomatoes (or fresh peeled tomatoes in season)
4-6 boneless pork chops, pounded thin
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups corn meal
4 cups milk
5 cups water
½ stick butter Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
1 8-ounce ball fresh mozzarella, sliced
fresh basil, for serving

Preheat oven to 400°. Saute onion and garlic in 2 tablespoons olive oil until onions are soft and translucent. Add canned whole tomatoes and simmer until thick, breaking up tomatoes with a wooden spoon, 30-40 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

While the tomato sauce cooks, make the polenta. Bring milk and water to a boil, then whisk in cornmeal. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, 30–40 minutes, then stir in butter, Parmigiano, and salt to taste. Set aside and keep warm while you cook the pork.

Season the pork chops with salt and pepper. Heat an ovenproof skillet over medium-high and add 2 tablespoons olive oil; sear pork on both sides until golden brown. Spoon tomato sauce over each chop and top with mozzarella, then place in the oven to roast, about 10-12 minutes or until cooked through and cheese is melted. (You will likely have extra tomato sauce, which freezes well and is nice to have on hand for easy weeknight meals.)

Spoon polenta onto each plate and top with a pork chop, some more grated Parmigiano, and chopped fresh basil. Serve immediately.

This story appeared in the Spring 2015 issue.