Our most vivid food recollections often are related to family, like gathering at Grandma’s for Sunday supper, or climbing on a stool to be Mom’s little helper whenever she baked cookies or needed the pot stirred.
For me, it would be the fried bologna sandwiches my dad made on Saturdays when I was a kid, and the copious amounts of chicken my mom grilled on the deck practically every evening during summer, so that she didn’t heat up the kitchen in a house that had no air conditioning.
While such memories are reminders of loved ones, for some people, the connection they’ve forged between food and family is powerful enough that they’ve built a company around it.
I recently met three Atlanta culinarians whose family connections are a deep driver for their businesses.
Cooking with Mom: ‘Priceless’
Natalie Keng founded Chinese Southern Belle in 2010. But, the food and culture venture never would have come to fruition were it not for her mother, Margaret Keng.
“She has been the inspiration, the model,” Natalie said of her mother.
It was Margaret Keng who taught cooking classes back in the 1980s, and it was Margaret who continued to stay involved in community and cultural events in the years since. These days, Margaret shares culinary space with her daughter, like when the mother-daughter duo teaches cooking classes. (They will teach a class on making Chinese dumplings and pot stickers June 9 at Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Register at chinesesouthernbelle.com.) They also give tours of international markets and grocery stores, operate the Chinese Southern Belle stand at farmers markets and festivals, and cook and bottle their line of prepared sauces.
“I’m enjoying every minute of it,” Natalie said of running the business with her mother.
Well, not exactly every minute. “It’s not smiles and giggles all the time. We have our differences, our different styles,” she said.
But, the pros of working with her mother far outweigh the cons. “The fun part about it being multi-generational: We’re able to bring some of our respective specialties and knowledge.”
Margaret brings to the table a style of cooking influenced by her family roots in the southern Chinese provinces of Hunan and Sichuan, as well as having been raised in Taiwan before coming to the U.S. for graduate school. Having spent two decades as a public school teacher, the now retired educator knows how to handle the room. “She’s good with the crowd,” her daughter said. “She’s a very popular co-teacher and co-tour guide.”
Natalie, on the other hand, is a first-generation American, born and raised in Georgia. In contrast to her mom’s penchant for meat, she veers toward veggies, healthy and sustainable eats, and, as a “lazy cook,” quick kitchen fixes. These sensibilities translate to Natalie being the one to lead culinary classes on vegetarian cooking, one-pot dishes and low-fat adaptations. And, with a master’s degree in social and public policy, Natalie has worked to integrate topics like supporting local farmers into Chinese Southern Belle’s overarching goal of using food and culture as a gateway for learning.
The company name might be Chinese Southern Belle, but, with this business, there are two belles. And, it wouldn’t be quite the same if they weren’t both part of the mix.
“It’s just a priceless experience,” Natalie said. “The cooking classes, the tours, the events — they aren’t huge moneymakers, but they are priceless to me, because I get to do them with my mom.”
The next generation at Nino’s
Nino’s Cucina Italiano is pretty much a second home to Alessandra Noviello Hayes. The 30-year-old daughter of Nino’s owner, Tony Noviello, she recalls spending many an evening in the restaurant’s kitchen and back rooms with her sisters Gabriella and Michaela when their parents couldn’t find a baby sitter to watch them.
As they grew older, she and her siblings were called into action as hostesses, or wherever else their hands were needed.
“It’s a funny thing with a family restaurant,” Hayes said. “You just get thrown into it.”
Some 50 years after Nino’s first opened at 1931 Cheshire Bridge Road in Atlanta, Hayes’ father is retiring. Alessandra and her husband, Micah Hayes, are taking over day-to-day operations.
What will Atlanta’s oldest Italian restaurant look like under Hayes’ helm?
Regulars can expect a place that respects the restaurant’s history, acknowledges her father’s contributions (since many recipes come from his family), and that aspires to stay relevant.
Favorites like the vitello saltimbocca, spaghetti and meatballs, and baked clams — on the menu since the restaurant debuted in 1968 — will remain.
“We’re not going to get rid of anything that is a staple,” Hayes said. “But, we are going to push the limits a little bit — fine-tune, and make it as excellent as it can be.”
That excellence will come in the form of a chef’s “experience menu,” which will debut toward the end of summer, she said, to give “a true taste of what our authentic cuisine is about.”
Excellence also will come from continuing best practices she learned from her father, who purchased the restaurant in 1982. “My dad really instilled in us that you have to be here at all times. That’s his huge motto. Why restaurants fail: The management isn’t there.”
Before Noviello gets to retire, there’s the requisite passing on of recipes. Nino’s executive chef has been there for more than 30 years, but Noviello was the one who tackled the desserts. As he transitions out of daily operations, he’s sharing the baking know-how with his successors. He’s taught Alessandra. Now, he’s teaching his son-in-law.
More than anything, Alessandra wants to honor a father who has made food and drink his life’s passion. She recounted stories of Tony’s upbringing in the industry — like her father as an 8-year-old, standing on a crate in the family’s cafe in Sapri, Italy, working the espresso machine, or of moving for work opportunities to Bermuda, which is where he met his wife, Helen.
“Somewhere in the last 10 years, the family story has fallen away,” Alessandra said. “We’re working with telling a family story.”
Preserving a family’s culture
Gauri Misra-Deshpande isn’t a trained chef. But, growing up in Mumbai, India, she learned enough from her farmer father and her grandfather, who specialized in ayurvedic medicine, to know that caraway seed is a remedy for flatulence; that mouth-freshening mukhawas, a blend of roasted seeds and herbs, can pacify the tummy; and that home cooking has lasting value.
Talking with Misra-Deshpande in her Decatur kitchen over a bowl of pohe, a breakfast porridge of flattened rice seasoned with the likes of curry leaves, cilantro, coconut, cumin and turmeric, and a cup of soothing ukala masala tea, she explained the passion that drives her when she’s not working as an instructor at Savannah College of Art and Design.
It’s her 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son who are her driving force. She wants to instill in them not just a background in Indian cooking, but an understanding that, “It’s OK to be different,” especially when her kids moan and groan about their “healthy” lunches.
Gauri began offering workshops through the Decatur public library in 2016. The programming combines Indian food, culture and history in a class called From the Indian Grandma’s Kitchen.
While wanting her children to have a grasp of Indian culture, she wants them to adapt to this country.
She cheers her daughter’s new baking endeavors.
She also keeps trying to branch out, as with enchiladas. “What’s an Indian girl making enchiladas for?” she asked. It’s the latest on the learning curve for a woman who came to America in 1999. “I’m constantly learning,” she said.
Besides her class at the library, Misra-Deshpande has another venture: culture boxes (find them at Indianculturebox.org). She hopes that her boxes, filled with activities — including cooking projects — that commemorate the festivals Holi, Ganesha and Diwali, help families living outside the sub-continent “stay rooted.”