When Mary Beth Thornton was young, her brother and sister asked for toys and gadgets for Christmas. Not Mary Beth. She wanted cooking classes at Le Titi de Paris. While on vacations, while others were buying ornaments or T-shirts as souvenirs, Mary Beth was picking up cookbooks.
"Cooking is my thing," shrugs Mary Beth, who now lives in Cary, and it has been her thing ever since she first cooked a blueberry crisp for her family when she was 8.
"It was from a Disney cookbook!" Mary Beth recalls laughing.
In fact, Mary Beth wanted to go to culinary school, but her parents talked her out of it. "They had friends who owned a restaurant. (The friends) were never home and worked so hard, and my parents didn't want that for me. But I still kick myself everyday, and so I just try to learn as much as I can."
An avid curiosity and the courage to ask questions is her first strategy.
"I'm always asking the waiter, 'how did the chef make this?' I usually get an answer."
Like the time she was at a small restaurant in Tuscany, and the chef came out and took her back to the kitchen to teach her how to make veal Milanese.
"The kitchens aren't what you would find here," she laughs. "There was a cat walking across the kitchen!" Apparently the chef's secret to the Milanese was beer in the batter and the use of peanut oil. Working side by side, they made a dish and brought it out to her family's table.
On that same trip to Italy, Mary Beth and her family frequented a little bakery in her father's hometown. She asked Fabio, the baker, if he would teach her how to make some of his Italian pastries.
"'Sure,' he told me, 'just come and I show you how.' I asked him when. '4 o'clock in the morning!' My family didn't think I'd do it, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; I had to go." Mary Beth canceled her plans to travel to Florence and instead learned how to make pastry, biscuits and tortes with Fabio.
"Three months later I found out that Fabio had a heart attack and died. You always have to take opportunities when they come to you," she advises. One of her greatest regrets is not taking the opportunity to spend more time in the kitchen with her Italian grandmother.
"Grandma was the kind of Italian cook who never used measuring spoons or a recipe. They were all in her head. We never got her cabbage roll recipe!" Mary Beth laments.
Mary Beth uses recipes, but she often tweaks them to suit her tastes. She put together a cookbook for friends and family with more than 400 recipes and though she gives credit to many people for their recipes, she confesses that most of them have been altered a bit by the time she is done with them.
Many of Mary Beth's favorite dishes to cook arose out of simple need.
"My daughter and I love Chinese food, but my husband is allergic to MSG, so I realized if I wanted to eat it, I had better learn how to cook it." Ditto Mexican.
"My husband comes from Southern California and is pretty particular about his Mexican food," she smiles. Mary Beth talked her Hispanic friends into coming over to give her cooking lessons. Her chalupas are rumored to be fabulous. But her forte is Italian.
"I love gnocchi. Most people make the dough too hard and it tastes too floury. I've only found one restaurant that makes good gnocchi, so I have to make it homemade! It's just what I do!" she says. "I believe that how a person makes their food tells you who that person is."
• To suggest someone to be profiled here, send the cook's name, address and phone number to Deborah Pankey c/o Cook of the Week, Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006 or to firstname.lastname@example.org.