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Moms In The Kitchen

By Staff in Food on May 12, 2013 4:00PM

Roz Rubin at Eleven City Diner.
Many chefs credit their moms as inspiration for their culinary careers. Some chefs cherish mom's cooking and inspiration so much that they work with her in their restaurants. Such is the case in a handful of restaurants around town, including Rickshaw Republic, Eleven City Diner, and Nana. These are places with a distinct matriarchal influence, whether it’s a mom who chips in on desserts, helps shape matzo balls, or curates the entire menu. In honor of Mother’s Day, we tip our toques to these culinary mamas.

Rickshaw Republic is a family operation through and through. The Lincoln Park restaurant, which opened early this year, specializes in Asian street food, with a particular knack for Indonesian fare. The four-person Setiawan family at the helm splits their duties between son Oscar and dad Tommy in the front of house, and son Emil and mom Elice in the kitchen. Elice has been cooking all her life, since she was a girl in Palembang, Indonesia. When she started a family, she loved cooking for them, taking care of them, and making them happy. She brings this philosophy to Rickshaw Republic, the first kitchen she’s ever worked in professionally and the fulfillment of a family dream to own a restaurant together.

Cooking Southeast Asian food at Rickshaw Republic, the food she grew up eating and the food she has always prepared for her family, she is driven by her passion for cooking and her passion for supporting her family. The best part of working with her family, she explains, is being able to spend so much time with them and teach them, passing on some of the culinary knowledge she’s amassed over the years. When she retires, she hopes her son Emil can take over the culinary throne. Her English is a bit hazy, but one thing she makes very clear is that love is the quintessential ingredient in her food. Coming from a mother cooking her heart out with her family, that doesn’t sound the least bit cliche.

Matzo balls and moms go together like diners and sass. Eleven City Diner has more of a sleek, modern edge than most diners, but you’d better believe there’s a matriarch in there somewhere, rolling matzo balls like only a mother can do. That matriarch is Roz Rubin, mother of Eleven City’s owner Brad Rubin. The diner features a myriad of Jewish deli staples, some based on recipes handed down by Roz. Her matzo ball recipe, for instance, was endowed to her by her mother and grandmother in Russia. Though she’s handed over the matzo reigns to the diner’s adept kitchen, she admits that she does sneak in now and again to help roll matzo.

Some other Roz recipes include her gefilte fish and sweet matzo kugel, which she prepares herself at the diner for Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah. What she cherishes most about spending time at Eleven City and lending her expertise are the memories of her youth that come flooding back, not to mention her motherly memories, getting help in the kitchen from her young children. “We all pitch in and make everyone feel that they are coming home,” says Roz of the familial element at Eleven City and her role in it. “I enjoy it so much, plus I get to see my son.” Sentiments as warm as matzo ball soup.

Family is such an integral element at Nana that the restaurant is actually named after the mother figure. Nana is the heartening nickname for Maria Solis, mother of owners Omar and Christian Solis (their sister also works at the restaurant). It’s an apt name for a place with such family history behind it, considering how Nana raised her family in that very building, in the apartments upstairs. The restaurant space used to house a bar, but when the opportunity came to acquire the real estate, the brothers took it, inspired by their family to open something different in Bridgeport; something with family at the crux.

“Creativity thrives in family,” says Omar, pointing to his father, owner of a popular taqueria nearby, and his mother, who had previously made pastries at Cafe 28. Nowadays, Nana curates pastries and desserts for her namesake restaurant, with selections changing weekly. Her recipes also lend themselves to the savory side of the menu, in the form of chilaquiles, chorizo, and the habit-forming poblano sauce. She collaborated with Omar on the restaurant’s signature Nanadict, an eggs Benedict made with pupusas in lieu of English muffins, poached eggs, chorizo, and poblano cream sauce. It’s got Nana written all over it.

The food at Nana is precisely the type of food she loves to cook at home, though she admits the restaurant presentations are more refined and aesthetic. She never tires of cooking this type of food, because she says “you never get tired of cooking what you love.” Her favorite part of working at the restaurant? Getting to see her family, of course. Now that her kids have moved out of her house, it’s the perfect opportunity for them to stay in each others’ lives. As Omar describes, “It’s like Super Bowl Sunday every week” after the brunch crowds dissipate and the family gets to sit back and relax together. More of that family sensation can be felt in Nana’s weekly Sunday suppers, a robust family-style supper featuring copious platters of fried chicken, mac & cheese, biscuits, slaw, salad, seasonal side, and dessert. As the restaurant nears its four-year anniversary, they’re also looking forward to taking things back to their family roots, incorporating more of the soulful Latin dishes that Nana and her family grew up eating, like fideo, a baked Mexican pasta dish made with vermicelli-like noodles.

The old adage that mother knows best certainly holds true when it comes to these family-inspired restaurants. Whether it’s Indonesian satay, gefilte fish, or chilaquiles, motherly inspirations come in many different forms, and it’s these heartwarming elements that can make dining out such a pleasure. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there!

By Matt Kirouac