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5 Star Chefs on the ‘Best Damn Meal I Ever Had’

Food is just part of what makes a memorable feast

 Andrew Cebulka

What’s the best damn meal you’ve ever had? Often it’s not just about the food, but who’s eating it with you.

Rodney Scott

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, South Carolina; Birmingham, Alabama; and Atlanta

“My mom’s pork chops and sweet peas. She’d make this on Sunday afternoons, her big day to cook. I was 9 or 10 the first time I had it, and I remember her putting the peas from our garden into a pot with black pepper, a little bit of sugar, and onion. The taste was amazing.

“The pork chops would go into a bag with salt, pepper, flour and a touch of Jesus’ tears — what we called MSG — and she’d shake them up and pan-fry them in cast iron. This meal had no limits. You just live on the edge with it.”

Eli Kulp

High Street Hospitality Group, Philadelphia and New York

“We were driving down from Milan to Tuscany in 2014, and on the way we stopped in Genoa. Pesto is Genoa’s claim to fame; you see it on every menu. We were just rolling down the streets, looking for lunch. But we wound up picking the perfect restaurant — I don’t even remember the name — with amazing cheese-filled pasta in pesto and, even more memorable, fried tripe.

“I just remember feeling so happy in that moment. And definitely a sense of pride as a chef and a dad to see my 2-year-old son chowing down on tripe.”

Warren Weekes

Miraval Arizona, Tucson

“For a few years, I was the executive chef at a 350-acre vineyard outside San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We served lovely food out front, but in the back, what we were preparing for ourselves was the best.

“One night, we were celebrating a birthday, and the staff and their family members put together tacos de carne asada: arrachera [skirt steak] seasoned with salt and pepper, grilled over mesquite, the aroma going through the air, the pickled red onions where the acidity just cuts through the fat, watching everyone participate in the making of the tortillas.“

Damian Sansonetti

Chaval and Piccolo restaurants, Portland, Maine

“My wife’s best friend and her husband live in Spain, and they told us about this restaurant in Asturias, right on the Cantabrian Sea. Old-school place: bright colors, fishnets, a bunch of old men and women cooking in the kitchen.

“Their specialty is seafood rice soup. And you have to call ahead because it takes 45 minutes to cook, and they start it before you arrive. This huge pot hits the table, they take the cover off, and inside is this super dank, heady broth, like the ultimate reduction of shellfish and the ocean — I swear they probably make it with ocean water — with lobster, crab, all kinds of shellfish.

“The rice was just cooked, and as the soup rested, it started to get into that congee range, then settled into a thicker risotto going towards paella, with a little bit of socarrat [the crunchy prized bottom crust of paella]. So as a cook, I’m thinking, How the hell did they get that perfect balance?

Jose Enrique

Jose Enrique, San Juan, Puerto Rico

“All over Puerto Rico, in the small streets, there are guys selling avocados, baby bananas, etc. And at a traffic light, I just couldn’t help myself when I saw this guiro avocado. It’s long and yellow with really soft skin.

“I brought it to the apartment, and this meal just started coming together: My mom put on a pot of rice. A neighbor brought these fresh pink beans from her uncle’s farm. My dad bought pan de abuela [Grandma’s bread] from the bakery across the street. My sister’s husband had caught a mahi-mahi, so I was cooking that, and I did the avocado with red onions, salt and olive oil.

“Out of nowhere, there were seven people eating and having fun and enjoying the homey feeling of family. I felt like I could breathe a little bit.”