Lessons fromMom

Renata Dos Santos with her mother, Carol Dos Santos, for a special occasion.

Mothers are our first teachers. We become receptors of their knowledge and values and, in turn, carriers ourselves. They define our lives in multiple ways. They lead by example.

Often, the first “classroom” is the kitchen. Lessons involve food and techniques, of course, mixed with science and wizardry, love and togetherness. It’s a powerful combination that can make a lifelong imprint on a child’s mind. For Mother’s Day, we asked four daughters, all who have ended up in culinary careers, about their mother’s influence in shaping who they’ve become as adults.

Carrie Morey, 39, is the owner of Callie’s Charleston Biscuits, which is named for her mother, Callie White. The two launched the business in 2005 with a ham biscuit as its flagship. In seven years, however, the number of products has grown to more than a dozen. The business has received a generous shake of national exposure as well as awards. There’s even a Biscuit of the Month Club.

Carrie was raised in Charleston. After her parents split, she mostly lived with her father. While their time together was more limited, Carrie grew up in awe of her mother, now 62.

“All my memories are food. My family was the family that sat down at breakfast and talked about lunch, sat down at lunch and talked about dinner. Everything revolved around food.

“I think all daughters want to be like their moms, and I just remember her always being a planner of sorts, she did event planning at Kiawah when I was really young.

“She was always into food and decorating, what Martha Stewart would have been like. She was this grand force, this beautiful woman who had fabulous parties and made great food, just the perfect entertainer. ... Everything was just so, just perfect, every detail.”

But family meals were equally as important, Carrie recalls.

“Everything was very thoughtful, she didn’t just come home and throw some frozen chicken fingers in the oven. It was a conversation. Every meal was what are we going to have, how are we going to make it?”

That didn’t mean that every plate was a production. “She’s always impressed upon me that the simplest food is usually the best tasting,” Carrie says, like a peeled tomato for the perfect tomato sandwich, or using cracked instead of ground black pepper.

Carrie sees a passing-down happening in her own family.

“My second child, Kate, had her fifth birthday, and we have this tradition, they get to choose whatever they want (to eat). She wanted chimichurri (sauce), and I was so proud that my 5-year-old wanted me to make chimichurri for her steak. She was absolutely adamant about having my mom’s Vietnamese spring rolls. It was like the best meal ever. Now, my almost 8-year-old is saying, ‘I want to have chimichurri on my steak on my birthday.’ So it is infectious.”

Carrie and Callie talk nearly daily, and the conversation almost always touches upon food. “(It) definitely has been the glue” of the relationship, says Carrie.

Proprietor of the Square Onion in I’On, Mary Zapatka is an Upstate transplant who has lived in Charleston since 1985. She and husband Cary opened their gourmet sandwich and soup shop and takeout business in 2003, and do catering as well.

One of Mary’s deepest memories formed around a weekly ritual: “Every Sunday we were at my grandparents’ house and we had to go pick in the garden, then we would sit down to lunch. Which is why you will never see frozen vegetables in my house. Everybody had to help, because we would string beans, shell peas and pull corn, do whatever. It was a family project.”

Her mother, Carole Austin, now 69, learned to cook from her mother-in-law. She honed her skills and along the way passed her skills on to Mary, now 44.

“I learned to cook fried chicken by watching her, and making pan gravy after the fried chicken in the cast-iron skillet, by watching her. What we find out when we get in the culinary world is my mother was making roux but didn’t know what it was called.”

Mary, a graduate of the College of Charleston, says she started working in food and beverage as a teen, loved it and never left. When it came time to open her own restaurant, her mother was her muse.

“When we made the decision to do the Square Onion, off the top of my head I could think of 20 things that my mother made that people would love to buy. The chicken pie ... we make the biscuits by hand to go on top, just like she did.The spaghetti casserole is hers, too. Her Lemon Daffodil Cake (angel food cake folded with a lemon cream), her pound cake, her coffee cake. There’s so much.”

Mary and her mother, who lives in Greenville, talk by phone at least four times a week. “I am all the time calling her. We still love to cook together.”

Mary’s standout memory is of a holiday dinner.

“Every Christmas Eve my mother made a full-blown fried chicken dinner, and everything you can imagine to go with it. She set the dining room table, pulled out the silver goblets, all the beautiful Christmas china and set the table to the nines just for the four of us. She still fries chicken on Christmas Eve.

“Food tells people you love them,” Mary says.

Although she describes her mother, Carol, as an “awesome” cook, Renata dos Santos didn’t want any part of that as a young girl in Trinidad, her family’s home. “The funny part is that I used to run away from the kitchen. ... It (cooking) was more of a chore than anything else, than something fun.”

One of her few remarkable memories connected to food is laughable: “When I was probably 4 years old, my mom came in and saw me feeding the stereo spaghetti. She asked me why I was doing that. I said, ‘Well, the people in there need to eat.’ Of course, when they opened it up they realized how much food I had been putting in that stereo.”

Fast forward to today at age 35, and Renata is an award-winning graduate of the Culinary Institute of Charleston and the owner of LIME (Local. Impromptu. Moveable. Evening.), a mobile dinner event service. She also is a personal chef and does catering.

What happened? Renata says her mother, Carol, 59, could not have envisioned her as a chef because she certainly showed no interest, and thus no ability, for so long. But as a young adult, Renata had an idea that she wanted to own a restaurant and nightclub. Not working in the kitchen, but in the front of the house. She went to England to get experience and perspective, and ended up being exposed to the culinary side. The tide began turning for her.

“She didn’t think that I could cook, but she still was the driving force because the main lesson she gave all of us was to follow your dreams, and follow your passion, so that is what I did.

“It’s funny now, I talk to her almost every other day on the phone, she has all these ideas on what I can try.”

Michelle Weaver, 47, is the only female executive chef among all those who work for the several dozen Orient Express properties worldwide. They include Charleston Grill at Charleston Place, where she has led the kitchen since 2009.

But her mother, Pat Weaver, has never eaten in any restaurant where her daughter was cooking.

“It’s too hoity-toity for her,” explains Michelle. “Now I’ll cook for her all day long, and she loves to watch me cook, but she is not comfortable going to a restaurant.”

Down-to-earth is what her mother knows and values, and Michelle respects that, because it laid the foundation for her own success.

Pat Weaver, 64, is still growing a garden every year “canning, preserving, the whole shebang,” says her daughter. “That’s her passion.”

Michelle says the vegetable patch was the backbone of the family’s diet.

“We grew up with farm to table. We didn’t know at the time it was going to be the revolution that it is now. That was just a way for us to eat. Because my mother always grew a garden and you know, we grew up with not a lot. ... That was our staple.”

Michelle, who grew up in Decatur, Ala., recalls her first cooking lessons with her mother, “standing in a chair over a cast-iron skillet. ... It was my mother’s cooking utensil, nothing fancy. There were no Cusinarts, blenders or anything like that, it was just learning how to do basic cooking.”

Those rudimentary skills came in handy when her grandmother became ill and Michelle had to take charge of the home cooking while her mother was often away. It was her duty, but Michelle found she wanted to know more. She started experimenting, and watching more Julia Child on television.

Excluding fancy restaurants, Michelle says her mother always encouraged exploring the unknown.

“If I saw something crazy in the produce section that we never had before, and it was like, ‘If you want to get one, let’s get one.’ The first time we got a pineapple or a coconut, we didn’t know what to do with it. There was no Internet then to Google how to break it down.”

To this day, Michelle says, “she will grow something that she doesn’t know what it is, just because she’s either seen me use it, or heard about it. Every year she challenges herself to something new, and then she’ll call me, ‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ It’s kind of full circle, which is kind of fun.”