For Chicago chef Joe Flamm, a mother’s love is the most unconditional love he’s ever experienced. The former Top Chef winner attributes his love for cooking to his grandmother Mary and his mom, Janice. “My mom was a police lieutenant on the South Side for 28 years, and she worked second shift. So, a lot of times I would get home from school, we would cook together, and then I would finish it off later when she was at work, before my dad got home.”
When he was growing up, Joe’s mother wasn’t doling out “cutesy advice” like most moms, he says. “My mother’s advice is all extraordinarily graphic. She’s not saying, ‘Make sure you wear a coat.’ Instead, she would say things like, ‘Don’t wear that hat out of the house or someone’s going to shoot you in the head!’ If you met her, it makes sense.”
Joe admits to having a very similar personality to his mother, and he credits her with his passion for the restaurant industry. “I think we both just enjoy thriving in chaos!”
The 32-year-old feels lucky to live close to his mom. “I’m fortunate that I have a great relationship with my mom. We’re still able to cook together sometimes,” he says.
While Joe’s hardworking mom handled the day-to-day family meals, it was his grandmother Mary, who was one of nine children, who oversaw traditional holiday cooking, from making ravioli to preparing calamari on Christmas Eve. “My first cooking memory with my grandma was her spreading newspapers all over the table in the mudroom, and we’d open up the squid, scrape it out, and clean it out. I’d get to use a knife, and that was a big deal. The smell of the squid and the newspaper is very nostalgic for me,” Joe recalls.
“I think what I’ve learned from my grandma and my mom in the kitchen is more about just cooking to make people happy, welcomed, and warm. A pot roast cooked in red sauce with rigatoni is simple, but you knew that meant someone cared about you and took the time to do this,” he says.
A Love That Keeps Growing
The warm love of Joe’s childhood is carried on in the family he has made with his wife of five years, Hilary Delich, and their 2-year-old son, Luka. “Love is a huge part of our family, and, especially raising a child — and soon two children — and teaching them compassion, love, and empathy is really the base for everything [in life].”
Hilary, who is expecting their second child in July, is an incredible person, Joe says. “She’s super smart, really driven, and keeps everything on track. She’s unflappable.” And watching his beautiful wife become a mother “was watching someone grow into the person they were always supposed to become,” he adds. “She’s very, very natural with it. It never feels like she has to figure it out.”
For Mother’s Day this year, Joe is going to cook dinner for his wife and hopefully get their son to be his sous chef. As far as cooking with a toddler goes, Joe says, “Luka’s not the worst helper I’ve had in the kitchen, but he’s not the best… Seasoning sometimes can be a little aggressive.”
According to Joe, cooking is a great way to show the special women in your life how much you appreciate them. “[A meal] is something that you’re creating for them. You thought about them when you bought the ingredients, when you put it together, while you made it, while you plated it, and every part and aspect of it. Let them sit back and relax and be able to see and taste how much you care about them,” he says.
What’s in a Name?
It’s fitting that Joe’s debut restaurant, Rose Mary, in Chicago, draws inspiration from the loving women in his life, from its name to its Croatian–Italian cuisine. “Rose Mary is very much about where my life has come, growing up cooking Italian food with my grandmother, and my wife whose family is Croatian and has that heritage. It’s a culmination of those things,” Joe explains.
Hilary had proposed naming the restaurant “Rosemary” — one word, after the herb, which means “dew of the sea” and grows all along the Adriatic coast from Italy to Croatia. However, Joe says, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we split it into two names?’” after his paternal Irish grandma Rose and maternal Italian grandma Mary. “Naming it after the two matriarchs in my family just made a lot of sense to me. And I thought it was a great homage to them.”
And while grandma Rose isn’t alive to see her name on her grandson’s restaurant, Joe’s confident that his grandma Mary, who is in her 90s, is sure to raise a glass. “She and her best friend Kay live across the street from each other, and they’ve come to every single restaurant I’ve ever worked at. Kay gets her gin and tonic, and my grandma drinks Rob Roys. It’s super fun,” Joe says. “She’s always been very proud, she loves it, and she’ll be in there.”
This Mother’s Day, and every day, Joe Flamm says he loves to celebrate the women in his life: “They’re the reason I’m everything I am.”