For most families, this Mother’s Day will look different. Social distancing means that many will be celebrating mom over the phone or on a video call. While this holiday is usually a big one for restaurants with busy brunches and dinners, many of Philly’s chefs will find themselves unusually available on Sunday, May 10.
It’ll be nice for Joe Cicala, chef-owner of Cicala in the Divine Lorraine Hotel, who plans to cook dinner for his family. Perla’s chef-owner Lou Boquila jokes that his wife is tired of his cooking after seven weeks at home, so he’s thinking about ordering brunch from one of the restaurants that’s still open. Jose Garces, chief culinary officer of Garces Restaurants, has a video call scheduled with his mom who lives in Colorado.
Chutatip “Nok” Suntaranon, chef-owner of Kalaya, will be in the restaurant kitchen on Mother’s Day fulfilling takeout and delivery orders. Her mom still lives in Thailand, but Suntaranon says “I call my mom every day no matter what. Every day is Mother’s Day!”
Here, these four Philadelphia chefs reminisce about their early memories of cooking with their moms and grandmothers. They remember the dishes that inspired them and talk about why they chose to name their restaurants for their family matriarchs.
For Joe and Angela Cicala, family is everything. From the old photos lining the walls to Joe’s grandparents’ silver serving platters, the couple’s Italian family heritage shines throughout their new Divine Lorraine restaurant.
Cicala describes his family’s kitchen as “the central nervous system of the household.” One of the chef’s earliest memories is making pasta with his family on Sundays. When it came time to name his restaurant, his family name was the natural choice.
Joe’s great-grandmother Clementina’s influence can be found throughout dishes like his stuffed artichokes, homemade sausage, and eggplant meatballs. Her name inspired the restaurant’s clementine logo and signature orange dessert.
Angela credits her own Italian family — at one time, 11 relatives shared a New Jersey home — for her pastry skills. At Cicala, she uses their recipes and antique tools to create composed, elegant desserts, like bacio pantesco. “I use my grandmother’s hand iron to make three crispy flowers with espresso ricotta in between,” she says.
What do their families think of the new restaurant? “They’re shocked that it came out so nice,” Joe jokes. “They like our food and think it looks beautiful,” Angela says. “It’s the same taste, just presented differently.”
Chef Lou Boquila has always known that he wanted to name a restaurant after his mom, Perla Sarvida Porral Boquila. “Filipino moms encourage their kids to go into the medical field or business, but I always said that one day I’ll name a restaurant for her,” Boquila says. “She always thought it was a joke.”
Boquila kept his promise, naming his first restaurant Perla. “When my mom passed away in 2011, that’s when I started experimenting with her dishes,” he says. At his East Passyunk restaurant that opened in 2016, he interprets her cooking his way.
His modern take on a classic escabeche substitutes poached and deep fried octopus for the traditional whole mollusk. He plates it with escabeche and red pepper gels, plus pickled fennel and cucumber.
“My mom would be confused at first,” Boquila says. “It doesn’t look the same as hers, but once she tasted the crunchy seafood and sauces, she’d understand. The memories still come through.”
His second restaurant, Sarvida, serves more traditional Filipino dishes. “If I’m blessed to open one more, it will be something with Boquila, so that there would be three restaurants: Perla, Sarvida, and Boquila,” the chef says. “That would be my final act.”
Chef Jose Garces takes culinary inspiration from two women in his family with very different styles.
Garces, whose Ecuadoran parents immigrated to Chicago, says that his mom, Magdalena, embraced American cooking, making classics like pot roast and chicken wings. A naturally gifted cook, she never let cooking for her three sons become a chore. “She trained me to be a good sous chef,” Garces recalls.
“My grandmother, Mamita Amada, would spend the whole time in the kitchen when visiting us,” Garces says. “She taught everyone in my family how to cook.” The celebrity chef fondly remembers her empanadas, ceviche, and soulful braised dishes. Amada — who died at age 96 in 2017 — often arrived from Ecuador with cheese and yuca. “My pride in sourcing the best ingredients probably started with her,” he says.
He named his first restaurant Amada, which “translates to loved one or beloved.” Since then, “Amada’s Empanadas” have been a menu highlight, though Garces says he can’t compete with his grandmother’s version.
“She would work the plantain into the table so that it became almost as soft as pizza dough,” Garces says. “She would be pleased that I can pull it off, but her version would absolutely be better.”
Though chef Nok Suntaranon moved away from home as a young woman, she still talks to her mom, Kalaya, every day. “We talk about food!,” Suntaranon says. They go over recipes and techniques
For the Thai chef, who has worked in kitchens throughout the world, cooking is still about family memories. “My mom’s curry paste is priceless,” Suntaranon says of the harmonious blend of spices that her mom sold at a local market.
When Suntaranon opened her Italian Market restaurant, “it had to be her name,” the chef says. “She’s generous, smart, talented, and hardworking, with a great sense of humor.”
According to Suntaranon, her mom thinks it’s nice to have a restaurant named after her, but is most proud that guests like the food. Missing her mom, Suntaranon recently added a family favorite, crab and pork dumpling, to the menu. The dumplings will be available for takeout or delivery on Mother’s Day.
“She’s my best friend,” Suntaranon says. “With my restaurant, I can send a message about how awesome my mother is!”