A Culinary Celebration for My Father's 90th Birthday

A special photo with my father at The Poinsettia Ball. Since my dad died before my wedding, this photo of him walking me down an aisle as I wore a white dress is poignant.

As many of you know, the reason I host Kitchen Chat is to honor my late father, Dr. Claude H. Rhea, Jr. My dad was a Renaissance Man, a gourmet home chef, a world traveler, a lyric tenor who recorded an album with the Concert Orchestra of London, a college president, a scholar, a published author, a colon cancer survivor, a person of deep faith and a loving family man. He passed away in 1990 from a massive heart attack 27 years ago while on a business trip in Paris- just months before my wedding.  Before heading to Charles de Gaulle Airport where he passed away, my father stopped at Cathedral de Notre Dame to light a candle and say a prayer as an act of forgiveness for someone who had wronged him in a business deal.  If your travels ever take you to Paris, please light a candle in honor of my father. My biggest regret in life was not going into the kitchen with my dad to learn how to cook.  Through Kitchen Chat I have embarked on a midlife and multimedia culinary journey to understand and share my father’s joy and passion for food and to learn how to cook along the way. These experiences and 200 interviews are  “hugs from heaven.”

A candle from Cathedrale de Notre Dame

To celebrate what would have been my father’s 90th birthday on October 26th, I would like to highlight some key lessons from a few of my kitchen chats. I am so grateful to those in the culinary world who have welcomed me into their kitchens, restaurants and hearts and for encouraging and educating me on this journey with their stories, recipes and tips.  Because of my father’s love for food, I now understand and appreciate that the kitchen is the heart of the world and food is its universal language.  How exciting to taste the world by interviewing chefs and then cooking their dishes from Senegal (Chef Pierre Thiam,) India (Raghavan Iyer)(Deepa Thomas) China (Chef Katie Chin), Italy (Chef Fabio), Latin America (Sandra Gutierrez), England (Chef Eric Lanlard), and many other places.  There are still more cultures and cuisines to explore. I would like to express special thanks to my friends at International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), especially Meredith Deeds, to the members of Les Dames d’Escoffier, especially Ina Pinkney and to Robin Leach who recorded such a special intro for our podcast.

A photo with Chef Jacques Pepin taken by Tom Hopkins before the Julia Child Foundation Gala at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

  1. Chef Jacques Pepin.  I am so honored that Chef Jacques Pepin has been a guest on Kitchen Chat three times.  I shall never forget his heartfelt words to me: “You say that you regret not to have been in the kitchen with your father, but you still are probably there with him in the sense that your palate has been formed and the memories of those dishes from your childhood stay with you for the rest of your life….There’s something very visceral and  very powerful about those tastes that you have as a young person.”

A true milestone in my culinary journey in Anne Willan’s kitchen

2.  Anne Willan.  I cried in Anne Willan’s kitchen.  The copper pots dangling from the ceiling reminded me of my dad’s cookware collection, especially the small pan in which he loved to make Hollandaise Sauce.  One of my biggest culinary accomplishments was following Anne Willan’s recipe for Hollandaise Sauce.  I emailed a photo and apologized that my sauce was a bit runny.  She wrote me the sweetest response: “Dear Margaret, What greater love can there be for someone than to cook for them! No need for Hollandaise to be thicker, slightly runny is just fine. P.S. For the future if the sauce doesn’t thicken you can rise the heat a litle bit — (but don’t start that way).  I once helped Julia with the same problem at a public class.  Much love.  Anne.”

The legendary Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse

3. Chef Alice Waters.  Sipping hot water poured over fresh mint at Chez Panisse is truly a taste memory that I will never forget.  How inspiring to hear firsthand about her edible education and her passion for becoming a counterculture cook.  The Edible Schoolyard Project is bringing the garden into the classrooms and empowering students with the skills and knowledge about organic produce and sustainability. “We really are what we eat, and when we eat fast food, we eat the values that come along with the food — that more is better that time is money, that cooking is drudgery and that farming is drudgery.  All of these ides come along with the fast food… As we all know, food is something precious.”  It’s important to support your local farmers’ market.

Chef Carla Hall

4.  Chef Carla Hall. I have such deep respect for Chef Carla Hall.  She is genuinely kind, joyful and humble, just as she is on The Chew.  During our kitchen chat at a recent International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference, Chef Carla shared some outstanding advice: “Do what you love and everything else will follow.  My mother and grandmother always told me, ‘It’s not your job to be rich, it is your job to be happy.’ ”

Chef Leah Chase at Dooky Chase’s in New Orleans

5. Chef Leah ChaseSitting in the dining room at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant with Chef Leah Chase is a moment I will always cherish. History and hospitality are hallmarks of this landmark in New Orleans. During our kitchen chat, Chef Leah said, I feel like in some ways in this restaurant we changed the course of America.  The civil rights people planned what they were going to do over a bowl of gumbo and some fried chicken.” She further emphasized that everyone can talk about problems and solve them at the dinner table.  She encourages us all to learn about other countries’ food and ask them what they eat.  Then you will better understand the people who live there.  “Food changes the world.”

Always a delight to learn from the Maestro of Mexican Cuisine, Chef Rick Payless

6.  Chef Rick BaylessThis award winning chef, cookbook author, podcast host and successful businessman has a huge heart for the small farmer.  The culinary arts and charitable hearts always pair well.  Through his Frontera Farmers Foundation, Chef Bayless has raised over $1.5 million to help small, Midwestern farms become more profitable and productive.  “Our quality of life is enhanced by the beauty and bounty of the farmers markets.”


7. Barbara Lazaroff.  I treasure my friendship with Barbara Lazaroff.  She is an outstanding businesswoman, beloved mother of two sons, restaurateur, an award winning designer, philanthropist, fashionista, and she exudes the same “joie de vivre” of my dad.  As co-founder of Wolfgang Puck Enterprises, Barbara has helped build an international brand. During our kitchen chat, Barbara shares great advice about hosting memorable Oscar viewing parties along with tips for entertaining. Please check out her Flame of Life dinnerware whose proceeds benefit Meals on Wheels.

On the red carpet with Chef Jaime Laurita at the James Beard Awards

8. Chef Jaime Laurita. People call us Pearls and Tatoos.  We are completely different from each other, yet our friendship is genuine.  Chef Jaime has become like a brother to me, and in fact has the same birthday as my late brother, Randy.  Jaime is known as the Celebrity Rock Star Chef.  He has traveled the world on tour with Madonna, Steven Tyler, Sarah McLachlan and Sting.  For the James Beard Awards, he co-hosted Kitchen Chat with me on the red carpet  and came up with a fun tagline “Kitchen Chat is where it’s at.” To celebrate my 55th birthday, Chef Jaime cooked dinner for me in his kitchen on his red Viking stove. One of my biggest lessons from Chef Jaime is to not allow fear to become an ingredient in your dish.

A photo with Stephen Bruce, founder of Serendipity

9. Stephen Bruce. Serendipity3 in New York City is truly a happy place, and Stephen Bruce is one of the original founders.  This iconic restaurant has been serving smiles with frozen hot chocolate for over sixty years and is a family favorite of many generations.  How fascinating to learn that James Beard himself taught Stephen Bruce how to make an omelet and that Andy Warhol loved to draw charcoal sketches of Stephen at Serendipity! Stephen is a gracious host and is the one to answer the phone calls and write down the reservations.

Chef Lasse Sorensen

10. Chef Lasse SorensenMy very first date with my husband was seeing the Oscar winning movie, Babette’s Feast in New York City. Who knew that almost 30 years later, I would have the delightful honor of a kitchen chat with Chef Lasse Sorensen, the chef for Babette’s Feast and to learn some surprising foodie secrets about the film.  Chef Lasse’s father was the Royal Pastry Chef for the Queen of Denmark.  His culinary journey from Denmark to DeSoto, Illinois is fascinating.  As executive chef and owner of Tom’s Place in DeSoto, Illinois, Chef Lasse has become like Babette in elevating the culinary experience of a community.

A photo of my father, a lyric tenor performing at one of his many concerts.

Dear Foodie Friend, I want to express my heartfelt gratitude for joining me on this culinary journey.  I hope you will take a deep dive into my Kitchen Chat archives featuring 200 interviews with some of your favorite chefs, cookbook authors and food industry experts and be encouraged and inspired.  I am forever grateful for my father’s legacy – that food unites us all around the table and that the world becomes a smaller place when we share a plate.

Savor the day!

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