Chef Joe Flamm understands that cooking for kids is a crapshoot. Yeah, he’s a Top Chef winner and the owner of the popular Rose Mary in Chicago and he can whip up pretty much any kind of meal for his two young kids. But he’s fully aware that, well, little kids are peculiar beings with ever-shifting tastes who want what they want and while, sure, it might be nice to think OK, we’re going to have frittatas every Wednesday morning and that will be that, the reality is much different.
“Today, my son Luca woke up and said, ‘I want eggies and tortillas.’ So I thought, OK, cool. We’re all having breakfast tacos with eggs. So, I whipped that up and everyone was happy,” he says. “And then there are times when they’re just like ‘I want to eat six tubes of yogurt.’ And this is what we’re doing.”
No, Flamm isn’t advocating for a full-on submission to kids’ whims. He and his wife make sure their two children eat well. But he’s also not going to skirt the fact that feeding small children is complicated and chaotic and as a parent you must pick your battles. Sure, he has a particular advantage over other dads — namely, the speed at which he’s able to make food — but that doesn’t change this fact. Some days, mealtime in his house is calm; other days, it’s very not.
“It’s about finding a balance,” he says. “Me and my son, we have rolled pasta together and done some things like that and it’s great. But then, I know full well that some days, he and his sister are going to stand at the counter and scream at me while I just throw scraps of food at them like they’re wild seals at the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, you know what I mean? You’re just like ‘Get back! Stop trying to climb on top of the stove!’”
Flamm enjoys the chaos. He was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago into a large, boisterous Italian American family and learned to cook at the hip of his grandmother, Mary. She taught him how to make pastas and gravy and ignited in him a love of food that would define his life. He went on to work in several award-winning kitchens, including Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat and Tony Mantuano’s Spiaggia. He earned a national spotlight after winning Season 15 of Top Chef and opened Rose Mary, named in honor of both of his grandmothers — Rose and Mary — in 2021. It specializes in Italian- and Croatian-influenced cuisine. He oversees Chicago’s BLVD Steakhouse as well.
I know full well that some days, he and his sister are going to stand at the counter and scream at me while I just throw scraps of food at them like they’re wild seals at the Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
Flamm’s good nature and matter-of-fact South Side mannerisms made him a fan favorite on Top Chef. And when he talks about parenting his two children — Luca and Sydney — that same relatability appears. It’s easy to tell how much he loves being a dad, even when he gripes about the silly, day-to-day frustrations of fatherhood.
Consider his thoughts on his family’s “berry budget.” Never did he imagine how much he’d have to spend on their habit. “They both want to eat a pound and a half of fresh fruit a day, where you’re just like, I didn’t buy fresh fruit for myself ever, because I thought it was expensive. But then you have kids and you’re like, Yeah, I guess my berry budget per week is $225 now,” he says with a laugh.
“And then when you find yourself craving some fruit, you think Oh, I can’t eat these strawberries. These aren’t my strawberries. These are Sydney and Luca’s strawberries. And I’m like, goddammit, I paid for these strawberries. I can eat these if I want to. I should get fresh berries too.”
And then there’s Luca’s aversion to cheeseburgers. Flamm says his son is a really good eater. He loves fish. He loves a lot of different foods and will usually try anything. But there’s no amount of anything Flamm could give him that will make him eat a cheeseburger. “He’ll eat hot dogs, chicken tenders — the usual kid stuff. But a cheeseburger? He won’t even consider it.”
And here’s the thing: it annoys Flamm to no end. “It drives me insane. You know what I mean? Where you’re just like, Why do I care so much that this kid doesn’t want to eat a burger? But I do!” he says, laughing again.
All kidding aside, Flamm says one of fatherhood’s greatest gifts has been perspective. “It’s chilled me out a lot at work,” he says. “Because I’m like, Oh my gosh, we’re just cooking. Cool. Fine. It just gives you a different view of everything,” he says. “It slows me down a little bit… it separates what’s important versus what’s really, really important.”
“[Fatherhood] slows me down a little bit… it separates what’s important versus what’s really, really important.”
Flamm’s schedule is busy, as restaurant life takes up a lot of his time. He’s rarely home for dinner or bedtime. But he works hard to ensure he’s as engaged as possible. He cooks breakfast for his kids every morning. He tries to sneak home for a lunch or two and whenever he can in the evenings and weekends.
“For me, it’s just trying to get to that point where we’re working hard enough so by the time I want to be there or need to be there at 7 for the basketball game I can be like, ‘Hey, I’m dipping out, because the second grade team’s playing tonight and I want to go watch little kids be really bad at basketball.’”
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But that’s how it goes.
Given all this, it’s unsurprising, then, that the meal Flamm shared for his Dad Special is a roasted tomato sauce that’s all about efficiency. Throw a bunch of olive-oil-drizzled tomatoes on a sheet pan (do yourself a favor and invest in a proper, high-sided sheet pan, he advises) with some garlic cloves, fennel, and black peppercorns. Put them in the oven for about an hour, and then blitz the roasted results. Reduce that on the stove until it thickens, add some basil and some salt and it’s ready to be tossed with pasta or cooled and stored in the fridge for later in the week.
The recipe, Flamm says, is ideal for two main reasons. “One, you put all the shit in the oven, you put it on 300 degrees, and you let it roll for an hour and you don’t really have to touch it. And if you kind of let it go too long because you get distracted, it’s fine,” he says. “Two, it’s simple. It’s great for the kids. It’s just pasta and red sauce, right?”
It is. They might not eat it. But, then again, it’s a good bet they might. Sometimes, that — and a decent berry budget — are all you need.
Joe Flamm’s Roasted Heirloom Tomato Sauce
- 4lbs heirloom tomatoes
- 8 oz basil
- 6 cloves garlic
- 8 oz olive oil
- 1T fennel seed
- 1T black peppercorns
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
- Cut tomatoes into quarters or even-sized large pieces, toss in olive oil, and add garlic cloves, fennel seed, and peppercorns.
- Place in oven and roast for 1 hour turning halfway through.
- Pull tomatoes out of oven, put into large dutch oven, add basil, and purée with hand blender. Cook down until it thickens up a bit, season with salt, and toss with your favorite pasta.