Max Brody and his mom Lora Brody cook together. Max is the chef and owner of Buxton Common restaurant in Buxton. His mom was a well-known cookbook writer in the 1980s and 1990s. Photo courtesy of Max Brody

When I first heard about Buxton Common, an excellent-sounding new restaurant in Buxton, naturally I thought to myself, “Yum! Must get there soon.” But at the risk of dating myself, my very next thought was, “Hmm … chef/owner Max Brody … That name rings a bell … Isn’t he the son of cookbook writer Lora Brody?”

I called him up to ask. Indeed he is. Does he get that question a lot? On occasion, he said. Recently, there was his wife’s colleague who has a treasured, well-thumbed copy of Lora Brody’s “Growing Up on a Chocolate Diet” (1985). When she figured out who Max Brody was, or rather who his mother was, “she was like, ‘Oh … My … God!'” Max said, mimicking a breathless tone in a recent interview. “She’s not Julia Child or Maida Heatter or somebody who is well-known, but for the people who read her books …”

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was hard to avoid Lora Brody with her 22 cookbooks, including one, “Stuff It! Fun-Filled Foods to Savor and Satisfy” that she co-wrote with her son Max in 1998. OK, so Lora Brody wasn’t Julia Child, but she was Child’s friend (they both called Boston home), and she wasn’t Maida Heatter, either, but Heatter did include some of Brody’s recipes in a chocolate cookbook. When Max was growing up, his mom worked as a pastry chef, cooked food on TV, talked food on the radio, developed food for magazines, newspapers and her own books and, in the late 1970s, was a founding member of the Women’s Culinary Guild.

“Women were underrepresented in the kitchen and not taken seriously,” Max said. “She was one of the people that helped in the very beginning to foment a groundswell of appreciation of what women can bring (to the kitchen) and what they do bring.”

For Mother’s Day, I called Max Brody to ask him about his mother and their relationship, in the kitchen (mostly) and out. But first, Max wanted you to know that it all started with his maternal grandmother, Millie Apter, a wonderful cook who was, he said, “the wellspring.”

THE ACCIDENTAL CHEF: You’d forgive me for thinking that Max chose the restaurant life because of his mom. Not exactly. Though he worked in restaurants from the age of 10, he said, “I really didn’t see cooking as a career.” By the end of high school, he had kitchen skills, but no burning ambitions. A born traveler, he simply found cooking useful as a way to find work wherever he wanted to go, parlaying his ability to blanch, broil and blend into restaurant jobs around the United States and the world. He says it was a stint working in New Orleans in the early 1990s that made him reevaluate. He was awed by the level of culinary skill he found as well as the city’s culture of food. It was in the Crescent City that he discovered “what is possible.” (By the way, though we had to find this out for ourselves, he worked for a certain New Orleans chef whom just maybe you’ve heard of? Emeril Lagasse.)

UNDER THE INFLUENCE: Which is not to say his mom had no influence on his eventual career choice. He can see that now, he says, though – like many teenagers  – he had to get away from home and grow up a little to figure it out for himself. When he was just 10, his mom found him work at The Peacock Bistro in Cambridge, a restaurant owned by family friends. “She got me a job there peeling carrots, peeling potatoes, sweeping, folding napkins and polishing silverware. This was all completely under the books. I would walk almost 2 miles to the subway, take the subway into town (including a transfer). I’d work three or four hours. They would pay me cash – $10 for the day. Then I would walk to the comic book store and buy comics.” He credits his mother with encouraging his sense of responsibility and autonomy and helping him develop a good work ethic from an early age.

LIFE OF THE PARTY: Max Brody, the boy, witnessed a lot of pretty fabulous food, courtesy of mom Brody. Foods like savory smoked salmon cheesecake, featured by Craig Claiborne in the New York Times; baked stuffed lobsters, served to Julia Child; elaborate, multi-tiered wedding cakes and towering croquembouches decked out in webs of spun sugar. “She would have these lavish dinner parties. There would be meringue on everything – the phone would be sticky with chocolate and meringue. My brother and I would be upstairs. We were kind of witness to it, but we weren’t part of it until later.” In fact, his own diet as a boy wasn’t so different from what probably fueled many of his cohorts. “To be honest, she was busy a lot. I grew up with mac and cheese.”

SPEAKING OF MERINGUE: His mom was a self-made person who taught herself to cook, Max said, grabbing opportunity wherever she found it. Her first foray into the professional food world was in the 1970s when she piped a batch of fragile, lifelike meringue mushrooms and carefully carted them to Bloomingdale’s – then, the height of chic – hoping to persuade the department store to carry them. Thinking they were actual mushrooms, the buyers at Bloomingdale’s rejected them. “We don’t sell produce,” they told her. Lora Brody explained their mistake, and they reluctantly agreed to take the meringue mushrooms on consignment. “They were very skeptical,” Max remembered. “So she went straight home and made my father call right away and order five dozen. She had a lot of chutzpah! She always had ideas. She was always throwing things at the wall to see what would stick.”

NULL AND VOID: Max’s dad was an attorney. Did Max consider a life in the law? “That was never in the cards,” he said, laughing. “Growing up, I never won any of our arguments. The cross examinations – it was brutal.” To win an argument with his dad, “I had to resort to, ‘I am going to outlive you!!’ That was all I had.” His dad and mom, 74, are still very much around. Around somewhere – they were en route to Machu Picchu when we spoke with Max. “My mom, she’s known for being able to strike up conversations with anybody, anywhere, over anything. When I was younger, it was cringe-inducing. She has been able to meet people from all over the country and all over the world. And a lot of that, the common denominator is food.”

TROUBLE WITH THE LAW: To promote their joint cookbook, Max and his mom went on a cookbook tour together, making at least one highly unconventional promotional stop at Rikers Island, in the Bronx. They put on a cooking demonstration for the inmates. “She wrote this book called ‘The Kitchen Survival Guide.’ It was a very hands-on primer for people with limited experience in the kitchen,” Max explained. “One of the nice things about her is her lack of pretension and wanting people to use her books. She was trying to reach people who might not have the skills or have grown up cooking. When the inmates get out, they have to be able to take care of themselves, as far as cooking and shopping goes. That might not seem like hurdles to people like me or you, but really can be for people who have to learn these skills from scratch.”

MATCHMAKER, MATCHMAKER: Something else Lora Brody successfully cooked up? When Max was a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, some friends of his mom dropped by one evening for dinner. Two ladies – his mother’s friend and her mother. He politely joined them for a meal at the school’s restaurant. He respectfully carried on a conversation throughout dinner, though he’d never met them before. He graciously walked them to their car when the meal was done. It turned out, “They were plotting in the wings.” Lora Brody’s friend had a daughter. The two mothers had decided that their children were made for each other. Did they really think their scheme would work? “I think all mothers think they have the perfect person for their son or daughter.” Today, Max has been married to that very girl, Joanna, for 15 years, and the couple have a 10-year-old son, Elijah.

THE TROUBLE WITH BROCCOLI: Does the boy eat broccoli? We forgot to ask. But we do know that in 1993, Lora Brody wrote a cookbook called “Broccoli by Brody.” The cover pictures a hulking stalk of broccoli growing, treelike, on a gently rolling golden landscape. The cookbook promises “Recipes for America’s Healthiest Vegetable.” It seems a departure from some of her other titles, say “Indulgences: One Cook’s Quest for the Delicious Things in Life” (1987) or “Chocolate American Style” (2004). What’s with that? “That was part of a Williams-Sonoma collection,” her son said. (Chuck Williams, it turns out, was a friend. We should have known.) “I don’t think I’ll be giving away any secrets to let you know she really doesn’t like broccoli.”

 

Joanna’s Optimism Tart

Lora Brody developed this tart and named it for her son’s then girlfriend Joanna. “My mother had met Joanna, my future wife, and my wife, well, she has a certain spirit,” Max Brody said. Lora Brody wrote in her introduction to the recipe that Joanna “finds it especially easy to feel hopeful when a chocolate dessert is coming her way.”
Serves 12

FOR THE CRUST:
1 1/4 sticks (5 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/3 cup finely ground almonds

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 extra-large egg, lightly beaten

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

FOR THE FILLING:

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped

1/4 cup dark rum

1 heaping tablespoon cocoa nibs

FOR THE CARAMEL SAUCE:

2 cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in several pieces

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/3 cup dark rum

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Unsweetened whipped cream, to serve

To make the crust, place the butter and the confectioners’ sugar in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Process until smooth and light, then add the almonds, salt, vanilla and egg. Pulse to combine. Add the flour and process just until a ball of dough forms. Take care not to overmix the dough.

Form the dough into a flat disc; dust with flour if it is sticky. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate for 1 hour. On a lightly floured work surface, roll the chilled dough into a 15-inch circle, then fit into a 12-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Take care not to stretch the dough as this will make the crust shrink as it bakes. Prick the surface of the dough all over with a fork. Line the pastry with aluminum foil that has been sprayed with oil or nonstick vegetable cooking spray. Cover the bottom and sides of the pastry, pressing the oiled surface of the foil lightly against the dough. Chill the crust for 30 minutes.

While it is chilling, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F, with a rack in the center position. Bake the crust for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. Cool to room temperature before assembling the tart.

To make the filling, bring the heavy cream to a simmer in a heavy-bottomed 1-quart saucepan over high heat. When the cream is hot, remove the pan from the heat and add the chocolate. Stir until smooth. Stir in the rum, and cocoa nibs and cool to room temperature without refrigerating, until the filling flows sluggishly when the bowl is tilted. Pour and scrap the filling into the cooled tart shell. Let the tart sit at room temperature until it sets up, which will take about an hour depending on the temperature of the room.

To make the caramel sauce, place the sugar, 1 cup of water, and the lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan. Place over high heat and stir just until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Bring the syrup to a rapid boil, then cook without stirring until the syrup turns a deep amber color, 12 to 15 minutes. Do not let the syrup burn. Remove it from the heat, and stir in the butter, bit by bit, then add the cream, rum and vanilla. Cool the sauce to room temperature; it may be refrigerated to cool it faster.

To assemble and serve the tart, cut it into 12 wedges with a long, sharp knife. For each serving, spoon some of the caramel sauce onto a rimmed dessert plate and tilt the plate so that the sauce covers the bottom of the plate. Place a slice of tart on top of the sauce, and garnish with a dollop of whipped cream just before serving.

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