Taste Bud Profile
Chef Stephanie Izard grew up knowing that food was not confined by geographical boundaries. Inspired by her mother's curiosity about global cuisines, she found herself leafing through cookbooks and magazines for new flavors and recipes, planning menus, and participating in the kitchen from a young age. Read on to see how that early curiosity inspires the menus at her award winning restaurants today, and how she's fostering the same sense of wonder in her own tiny Taste Bud, Ernie.
Stephanie Izard: My mom was a really good cook. We grew up eating food from all over the world, which is a big part of why I think I cook food from all over the world. I was just exposed to so many different things. My family is a mix of lots of cultures, mostly French and German, but my mom didn’t grow up eating any traditional foods from those places. She didn’t grow up with a mom who cooked very well at all. I think that’s why she became so obsessed with it, and why she wanted to try so many foods from as many places as possible.
My sister and I would sit with my mom and look through recipes from Gourmet magazine, and her collection of cookbooks, and we’d plan a menu for the week that she’d hang on the refrigerator. For my birthday last year, my dad sent me my mom’s old recipe index that we used to look at together to set our menus for the week. Setting a menu for the week like this was so organized—I’m way less organized than my mom! I had friends who would take a look at the menus every week and decide they were coming over for dinner that night. ‘Oh, you’re having Yorkshire pudding on Wednesday? I’ll be there.’ I only realized later how different this was from other kids’ experiences with food. Not only did she cook from all over the world, she exposed us to vegetables that lots of my friends wouldn’t have even known how to eat, like whole artichokes with hollandaise.
To me, that’s what cooking has always been about—I never stick to one cuisine, because I don’t come from that kind of tradition.
I am jealous of my friends who learned how to make pasta with their grandmothers, or dosa with their moms—I felt like I missed out because I didn’t have a connection to one cuisine. But my mom did teach me to look at everything with interest and cook food from all over the world, and I guess that’s why I do what I do.
The first time I remember actually cooking was after a trip to the fake Paris at Epcot. We had these mushroom and cheese crepes that I became completely obsessed with. So when we came home from the trip, I used one of my mom’s French cookbooks, and I figured out how to make the actual crepes. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but my mom would always tell people that my crepes tasted exactly like the Epcot ones. From that point on, I was always in the kitchen cooking with my mom, and actually helping instead of just watching and snacking. At a certain point, she started to hand the reins over to my sister and me, and we were in charge of choosing and cooking meals. In hindsight, being part of the process was a really big deal for me. I remember my mom wanting to make mu shu pork one night, and we went to the grocery store, but back then it wasn’t like now where you have 10 kinds of mushrooms in the aisles, it was just button mushrooms. So she’d find all these different kinds of dried mushrooms and we’d rehydrate them, and my sister and I would be in charge of picking the stems, and also things like pulling tiger lily buds in half. I put something with lily buds on the menu recently, and I was standing there cleaning them and immediately remembered doing this as a child for my mom. This is why I love food, why I love eating so many different kinds of food. I look up to my mom so much for exposing us to all these different foods, but also including us in the process. She made me want to hang out and be in the kitchen and help. It never felt like a chore! I actually always would have preferred prepping something in the kitchen than playing video games.
Growing up, there were characters for learning about all kinds of topics and lessons but not a kid-friendly entry point for learning about food, cuisines and ingredients. For kids reading it today, Kalamata is that relatable character for them to explore and discover new flavors and tastes. She's someone they can connect with and experience her adventures through and leave more open-minded and curious.
I’m not trying to push my son Ernie into chef-dom at all, but it's fun to get Ernie in the kitchen with me to do hands-on projects like whipping cream or rolling dough!
I want him to get excited to explore food from all over the world! But we are exploring slowly as his little taste buds develop. I want him to try different vegetables (one thing we've been doing is trying a new vegetable by going through the alphabet of vegetables) but we are totally ok with pizza for dinner when that’s what he wants! He recently started really loving soy sauce and rice, which makes me proud because I love super salty food and I’m happy that he already has a taste for that. I do these virtual cooking classes for people as well, and I recently did one on slap noodles, which is super fun for a kid or a grownup. And then I also had this sort of silly realization of why Play-Doh is called Play-Doh—it’s from playing with actual dough.
And it just reinforced to me that playing with dough in the kitchen is fun, and it’s a way to get kids excited to be using their hands, and it’s not like it’s a huge loss if you don’t end up eating the actual dough that they’ve been playing with—they’ll still feel like they participated and have pride in the end product.
In so many other cultures it’s just much more normal to use your hands and really get in there and have this tactile experience with your food. I love teaching people that, and maybe exposing them to something new at the same time. And whether you have kids or not, trust me, making things like slap noodles and dumplings can bring out the kid in all of us.