Michael Ek, 54, an attorney from Bartlett
When Bartlett's Michael Ek has an urge to try something new, he finds a restaurant and never hesitates to ask how the kitchen put that steaming plate of deliciousness together. Then, it's time for at-home attempts of his current favorite -- Asian flavors. "Stir fry was my first regular dish at home, with pork, chicken and sirloin being the main protein," he explained, "and I love Asian spices and sauces, Thai and Indian dishes. I seem to order curry very often." Which makes sense because his favored ingredient is any type of pepper, sweet or hot, used raw, roasted or pickled. "Blend them up in a sauce, dice them up, stuff them, use them in a side; I love spice, and hot peppers come in different heat levels and affect the palate in different ways. Also, most peppers have vibrant colors, and can be part of a great presentation," he said.
Ek is grateful that his mother's interest in food prompted her to go beyond the basic dinner of the 1960s and '70s -- pot roast, potatoes and a vegetable. "When I was about 10 years old, around 1970, my mother had a dinner party and she put out a taco bar. It was amazing, building your own meal, extra meat, less tomatoes, whatever you liked," he recalled. Another clear inspiration was watching a very young Charlie Trotter in Kitchen Sessions, a television show on PBS in the late 1990s. "Haute cuisine or fine dining was unknown to me," Ek said. "I remember watching Charlie make duck confit and being amazed."
Teresa Fiocchi, 47, from Mundelein is self-employed
When Teresa Fiocchi was in high school, she participated in a student-run restaurant that fed teachers and staff once a week. She learned to plan menus, develop recipes, grocery shop, cook and serve meals and fell head over heels in love with cooking.
In her early 20s, before one could look up a recipe in a matter of seconds on the internet or the Food Network even existed, the Mundelein resident found herself obsessed with cookbooks, spending hours at the library and in book stores. Among her 100 cookbooks, Fiocchi's favorites are the ones she inherited or received as gifts. "I love the worn edges or stained pages reflecting someone's favorite recipe and the handwritten notes in the margins and its always special to find a handwritten recipe card tucked in as a bookmark," she noted.
Cooking dinner for her family is a joyous process of connection bringing everyone to the table at day's end for sharing food as well as the day's experiences. More often than not, that's pasta bubbling on her stove because she appreciates its versatility. "I love to make various types of homemade pastas that I store in the freezer, but my pantry is also stocked with all shapes of dried pasta, too. It's a simple ingredient that paired with the right ingredients can be dressed up for a fancy meal, dressed down for a simple meal, but always is an ingredient that puts dinner on the table very quickly!"
Martha Garmon, 54, Palatine minister of worship and music
Necessity being the mother of invention, Martha Garmon and her sister were expected to have dinner on the table when their parents got home from work so she learned a lot by trial and error. "My sister still likes to remind me of the time I tried to make a cheesecake in our new microwave, she explains, "and I set the timer for forty minutes and asked my mother to take it out when the timer went off. Needless to say my cheesecake became a toy for the dog as it came out hard as a rock!"
The Palatine resident adores taking cooking classes, especially when she and her husband travel. They spent a week in Italy cooking in a castle and hope to return next year to go truffle hunting. You'll find her making all kinds of dishes in two cast iron skillets that belonged to her grandmother and she's keen on "pantry cooking" -- taking things out of the refrigerator and waiting for inspiration to hit.
Garmon calls herself a recovering cookbook junkie and a "misplaced Texan" leaning toward southern flavors. She watches cooking shows like they're sporting events cheering for contestants and coaching enthusiastically from her living room chair. Favorite ingredient? "Just one?" she laments. "Cilantro, peppers, garlic, wine, butter ... I'm getting hungry already!"
John Hampson, 48, a bank vice president from Antioch
John Hampson still remembers the first dinner he made for his family -- pan fried, under seasoned, leathery pork chops, burned Brussels sprouts and still hard white rice -- but he was only 10 years old and the epic dinner fail did not deter him. "Fast forward to my late twenties and I worked as a manager for a local restaurant chain where I spent a ton of time in the kitchen with two classically trained chefs," he explained. "They in their own way taught me the art, science, and technique of cooking."
Hampson doesn't subscribe to a specific cuisine, loving all styles, techniques and flavors whether Asian, Latin, French, Italian, or just flat out smoky barbecue. He will, however, use garlic often in all kinds of cookery.
His inspiration launched with the weekend television cooking block with chefs such as Julia Child, Jeff Smith and Justin Wilson. "While others were outside playing, I would spend my Saturday afternoons inside watching cooking shows," he admitted. "Also, I am a sucker for the bibles of the culinary world having read cover-to-cover, Child, Larousse, CIA (The Professional Chef), and McGee." Hampson considers Aaron Franklin a flat out rock star of the culinary world, too. His son suffers from Celiac disease so he has learned to convert just about everything to accommodate a gluten-free diet and he counts the family as his best critics.
• Interviews compiled by Jacky Runice, Daily Herald correspondent