When Chefs Kaitlin Wines and Ryan Elmore of Mom-Mom’s Kitchen started their dinner series at Volver in collaboration with Jose Garces’ Chefs-in-Residency program—running March 29 through April 23—the self-taught chefs’ twists on Eastern European cuisine and traditional Polish dishes were as uniquely endearing as they were tasty.
Growing up in predominantly Polish neighborhoods meant shared soulful meals and communal cuisine. That warmth and invention came through in every elevated bite of Wines and Elmore’s Volver meal – from their clever Truffled Cheesesteak Pierogis stuffed with ribeye to an updated take on cabbage rolls, their sweetly-sour Polish Easter Soup and their playful Sausage Stuffed Pretzel.
Covering the close of Women’s History Month, Wines talks elevating Polish food, her partnership with Elmore and pierogi-pinching Zen.
You’re at Volver to represent yourselves, along with the inspiration of Eastern European/Polish cuisine. How does your Volver menu serve those purposes?
We’re named “Mom-Mom’s” for a reason—my great grandmother came from Poland – she was “babcia.” But naming ourselves after my American-born grandmother who turned 100 last month says a lot about who we are. We represent and give voice to “Polonia”— the Polish-American diaspora which is diverse in experience and taste. As grandchildren who learned much from their grandparents— what comfort is, tradition— Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop loved to spoil us. But we are still 90’s kids. Maybe we “rebelled” a little from what was expected of the older generations — and not just with food — becoming a little more inclusive. While I could expect the same dishes at every holiday pretty much, I also grew up in Philly and the Jersey Shore. Our cuisine is kind of a blend of that— a nod to tradition but indicative of where we’re from.
Pierogi are a great vehicle to get creative. We definitely offer something for traditionalists. Kapusta or farmers cheese pierogi, golabki… but we try to keep it fresh by having festive specials per season, depending on what local ingredients are popping off, as a tribute to a certain theme or person, like a wedding or birthday. We customize our food to how we’re feeling, but are led by tradition, or core flavors and ingredients that are at once nostalgic yet re-imagined at times according to how we prepare or present them… It’s definitely an honor to be working with the team at Volver. Expect Mom-Mom’s food— homey, rustic, a little fun—just a little more refined and “fancified.”
How and why did you get into cooking in first place?
My Mom-Mom grew up in Port Richmond, met my Pop-Pop during WWII and started the Chmielewski bakery with him in Bridesburg after he returned from the war. In 1985, when I was 6-months-old, my grandparents and parents moved to Ocean City, New Jersey. Family members from Philly brought Polish treats to the shore – like Czerw’s Kielbasa – I did a lot of baking with my grandparents when I was young. Babkas, pound cake. Pop-Pop had a real sweet tooth. My great-grandmother was the cook as far as pierogi went, but she passed when I was young.
So, when deciding on Mom-Mom’s as a business, Ryan and I were happy to do some trial runs with Polish food and developed these recipes ourselves. As we learn more about the cuisine, we continue to be inspired. There’s s a wealth of deliciousness that people might not be familiar with. However, many people who try out food love to be surprised. I’d say we’re a mixture of old and new… plus we love using local, seasonal ingredients to guide our way.
Do you have a favorite dish to prepare?
Pierogi pinching Zen is a thing. I’m always happy to bang out a few hundred at a time. Especially the blueberry pierogi, because as simple as that is – height of the season fruit wrapped in our dough which I consider pretty luxurious – are so delicious. Pair that with my homemade ice cream – sour cream ice cream being a perfect pairing – you have a winner.
I know Mom-Mom’s already has a sense of elevated Polish fare. Tell me about the flavors you use.
I think it’s true that you can actually taste when food is “made with love.” We care about what ingredients go into our food and want people to feel taken care of. We love working with local farms and purveyors whenever possible— 3 Springs Fruit, Green Meadow, Triple C Angus in New Jersey, Birchrun Hills cheese, Zaydas. It makes a difference. We want to make things nice, keep it interesting.
What is the division of labor between you and Ryan?
Ryan focuses on the fusion aspect of things, using pierogi as a vehicle to try something new, and he also does more meat-based entrees… the hearty stuff. I love the consistency in our basic menu, providing the classics for people’s families, holidays, special occasions, etc. I also — like Pop-Pop — have a sweet tooth and love when I get the chance to focus on the dessert side of things a little more.
The small rotating crew we have been lucky enough to have with us over the years has been an inspiration, too. Everyone has their “dream pierogi” and it’s fun to try and make a special flavor combination happen—often it comes out as a hit. But the test for me is, do young kids (Mom-Mom’s great-grandchildren for example) and older people (especially Polish ones) like it? Those are the harshest critics who, if we are successful, become our biggest fans. And of course— I cook FOR Mom-Mom. She’s 100 so she gets a break. I keep her stocked, and I’m happy to say she is proud of us.
What does it mean to you to be this sort-of chef at the present time?
The pandemic changed our business model, shifting to include something that ended up being profitable for us— distribution of our pierogis. You can find us in certain stores, and we’d love to expand that. However, we are still small. At our busiest, we crank out approximately 10,000 dumplings a week, they’re all hand-pinched. It’s labor intensive. Overall though, we are honored to be noticed in such a sea of talent here in this city. Polish food is underrepresented— maybe because it’s so labor-intensive it’s literally “dying out” – Grandma/comfort food at its finest. Our mission is to keep it alive. People appreciate it. We’ve had people in tears when eating our stuffed cabbage.
It is fair to say that your Volver Cheesesteak Pierogi is your tribute to Philly?
Yes! Cooper Sharp American cheese and steak “wit” onions and black pepper ketchup—how I personally like to hook my cheesesteak up. Not traditional, but honestly addicting.
What should diners understand about you, your culinary heritage and Polish dining from this Volver meal?
Poland is something we have yet to explore more thoroughly— we are Polish-American, amongst other things, and I think that comes through in our food. We are excited to learn more as we go, as long as we keep it delicious. There is constant inspiration and we won’t stop experimenting with traditions as we also establish some of our own. We keep an open mind as long as we stick to our priorities. Comfort, wholesome ingredients (nothing artificial, local when possible), inclusivity, creativity… keeping the concept of “Mom-Mom” alive indefinitely.
For more information, visit volverrestaurant.com and mommomnomnom.com