My name is Mo Patterson, chef and owner of Marvelous Mo’s Catering, and I love to cook. With my obsession over the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer coming in at a close second, my love for cooking is the most well-known fact about me amongst all of my family and friends and has been something I’ve enjoyed doing since I was a teenager.
I grew up in a small apartment with my mother, father and two brothers in Mount Vernon, New York where sitting down for formal family dinners wasn’t an everyday occurrence. Because of that, the holidays stood out to me even more. I always looked forward to my grandmother’s staple dishes — pernil (spanish roast pork), arroz and gandules (rice with green pigeon peas), fried plantains, pasteles (braised pork and garbanzo beans nestled in a green banana puree, wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled to the consistency of a tamale), and of course her turkey and assortment of gravies that still taste unlike any other I’ve had. Her food always brought family and friends of the family together, and seeing that inspired me.
After graduating from Mount Vernon High School in all my band geek glory in 1999, I moved to the midwest to attend college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ironically, it took me moving 100s of miles away from home to feel how much of an influence my grandmother had on me. Left with no choice but to feed myself, I began to cook quite often. I came home for Christmas every year and savored the dishes my grandmother would make me every day, every time wishing I could do what she did. And then, the unthinkable happened.
As secretive as my grandmother was with the recipes she had in her head, she called me into the kitchen to show me how she performed her culinary magic.
Christmas 2004 was a defining moment in my life. I stood behind my grandmother with a one subject notebook and jotted down techniques and spices she used. I learned how she made her recaito (a blend of onion, peppers and herbs that acts as the base for her rice). She showed me how she infused so much flavor into her turkey and gave me the inside scoop on her gravies that accompanied every piece of protein she made for the holidays, including her infamous roast pork shoulder.
I took that notebook back to Wisconsin with me and applied what I learned in my grandmother’s kitchen to a meal I made — braised chicken breasts. I will never forget the aroma that filled the air. For the first time, my kitchen smelled like my grandmother’s. I continued exploring what I picked up during that defining visit home and applied all that I knew to a meal I made that fed my roommates and a dozen of our friends. I barbecued chicken, made rice and peas and macaroni and cheese, folding elements of every holiday I knew into dishes I never attempted to make until then. The smiles on everyone’s faces and hearing them talk about how much this food reminded them of home told me something about myself that I sort of believed but never boasted.
I was a good cook.
After spending an additional two years in Wisconsin after I graduated with degrees in English and Communication Arts, I moved back home. I lived with my grandmother for a few months before moving into a studio apartment in New Rochelle, New York, where I had my own kitchen. The oven looked like a toy, but the oval pot my grandmother roasted everything in fit inside of it, and that was all that mattered.
Having my own space gave me the chance to do whatever I wanted. I soon found myself turning to the Food Network every weekend and letting it play for hours while I cooked. I never made what was being prepared by the chefs on the channel, but things I saw and heard stuck with me. From the spices and the types of meats they used to how it was they prepared the dishes, tidbits of information seemed to seep into my brain without me truly ever focusing on them. I soon began cooking for my coworkers and started catering lunches for everyone.
The cooking continued as I changed jobs and joined Apple. I met my now husband a year before that and with every move we made, my kitchen grew. Our wedding resulted in the entire kitchen section of Bed Bath and Beyond being gifted to us by our family and friends, and with every new gadget came a new dish.
I spent four and a half years working for Apple full time while never losing sight of my love for cooking. But when my husband got a job offer which required a transfer from our house in Fairfield, Connecticut to Miami, Florida, I knew if there was ever an opportunity to pursue my dreams of being an actual professional chef, it would be now.
The move, much like the day I stood behind my grandmother with a pen and notebook in hand, was a milestone in my life. It marked the first day of what would be the rest of my life — my new life actively focusing on and channeling my passion for cooking.
Regardless of where I am, there is a feeling of home when I am in the kitchen. It represents what I have grown into as a person. Most importantly, it reminds me of my grandmother, her love for bringing people together with her food, and the meaning behind making a meal for someone other than yourself.