9 Chefs Relive Their Most Embarrassing Packed Lunches

Photo: Getty Images.
We've all been food shamed at some point: that uncomfortable moment when someone looks at what you're eating, crinkles her nose up in disgust, and blurts out something like, "Ew! Gross!" As adults, we can laugh these missteps off and tell people they need to be more adventurous (and less rude!), but when we were kids, the lunchbox food shame was really just the worst. (And for some of us, the flash of embarrassed hot cheeks is forever burned in our memory). The culinary heavyweights of today also had to endure taunting over their packed lunches. With stories of tuna tinged with neon-green relish, and braised chicken feet with steamed tripe, it’s no wonder these chefs learned to cook!
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Photo Courtesy of Chef Michael Hung.
Michael Hung, Viviane (Beverly Hills, CA)
“One weekend when I was with my family in Chinatown for dim sum, my dad found an old lunch box that was the same one he had used as a child — shoddily hammered stainless steel with multiple stackable compartments and jangly clasps,” recalls Michael Hung, chef of Viviane in Beverly Hills. “The next morning, he’d packed my new lunch box with dim sum delights — braised chicken feet, steamed tripe with fermented soybeans, thousand-year-old duck eggs with black vinegar — NO! I tried to run out the front door without it, but my father picked up the clanking lunch box and thrust it into my arms.”

Chef Hung explains that things only got worse from there, when a boy at school started pulling chicken feet from the box and flinging them around so that eventually, “a chicken claw struck me in the center of the forehead.” Hung punched the boy in the nose. He sat in principal's office for two full days after. “At first, my shame festered. ‘A nice Oriental boy should know better,’ the principal had told me. But shame eventually gave way to understanding. I was a chicken claw; I was a smelly soybean, a black jellied egg, a funk of ferment and dried fish and everything else my classmates feared. And they had no idea what they were missing.”
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Photo Courtesy of Jimmy Bradley.
Jimmy Bradley, The Red Cat (New York, NY)
“I grew up in Rhode Island, and my parents were health nuts. My mom would pack me lunch boxes with homemade freshly ground peanut butter on Ezekiel sprouted grain bread, dusted with powdered milk to activate the proteins and give some extra calcium. And she'd pack a carob bar as a snack,” recounts Jimmy Bradley, chef of the iconic Chelsea restaurant The Red Cat. “I'm sure it was all very good for me, but I was definitely jealous of my friends who got the normal ham-and-cheese sandwiches on white bread, or leftover pizza. Needless to say, I wasn't very popular when it came to lunch swaps.”
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Photo Courtesy of: Richard Sandoval Restaurants.
Lucero Martinez of Pampano (New York, NY)
“My grandfather lived on a ranch outside of Mexico City, and one year we took a trip to visit him,” recalls Lucero Martinez, chef of Pampano in New York City. “He had pine trees that produced pine nuts and he would always send the children back to the city with a huge sack of pine nuts. When I came back home, I was at school and I opened my lunch box and inside I found only a Tupperware full of pine nuts still in their shells! I wasn't just embarrassed by the monstrous tub of nuts, but I had to sit there and crack the shells in my mouth and peel them one by one. The sound was extra loud and everybody stared at me. Thank goodness that my teacher loved them, too — she ended up sharing my lunch!"
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Photo Courtesy of: Daniel Holzman.
Daniel Holzman, The Meatball Shop (New York, NY)
"All of my friends always had bubble gum as an after-lunch treat, and I really wanted gum, but my mother would never allow it,” explains Daniel Holzman, the chef and cofounder of The Meatball Shop. “She made me amazing lunches — always all natural and homemade, and artificial candy was way out of the question. I lied and told my mom that I wanted gum to freshen my breath. The next day, she packed me a quiver of parsley stems wrapped in a moist paper towel and told me I could freshen my breath with parsley, rather than gum. Needless to say, my friends had plenty of fun when I pulled out my parsley after lunch!"
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Photo Courtesy of: Richard Blais.
Richard Blais, Juniper & Ivy (San Diego, CA)
"My mom used to pack me canned salmon salad sandwiches,” says Richard Blais, chef of Juniper & Ivy and the winner of Bravo's Top Chef All-Stars. “I don't think I even need to expand there, but as a kid I didn't understand why my tuna salad was orange, nor did my classmates. In retrospect, it now sounds like an elegant lunch for say, tea time with Jackie O., but not the best option for my Return of the Jedi lunchbox."
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Photo Courtesy of: Bobby Will.
Bobby Will, Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House (Port Chester, NY)
“My parents were basic in packing my lunch. It was your standard soggy PB&J or bologna sandwich, even though I hated bologna,” Bobby Will, chef at Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House in Port Chester, NY, tells us. “I think my worst school lunch memory was when my mom let me make my own lunch when I was in the third grade. I thought it was a great idea to make bacon bits, ketchup, and tuna fish on potato bread. Not only did it not taste good, the look of it got me an earful of teasing from my lunch table that day."
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Photo Courtesy of Chad Brauze.
Chad Brauze, The Back Room at the Park Hyatt Hotel (New York, NY)
Chad Brauze used to love his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but one day things got a bit crazy. “One day, my grandma accidentally swapped her Braunschweiger (liverwurst) and onion on pumpernickel with my peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he says. “It was on a field trip. It smelled up the entire bus. I never lived it down." Poor Chad.
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Photo Courtesy of: Jared Hill.
Jared Hill, Hello Betty Fish House (Oceanside, CA)
“I got tuna salad sandwiches. But mine were a classic concoction of shredded, canned tuna held together by mayo thinned with the unsqueezed juice left in the can, then mixed with neon-green sweet pickle relish,” says Chef Jared Hill of Hello Betty Fish House in Oceanside, CA. “How anyone could expect two slices of bread and a flip top sandwich bag to hold that slop together amazes me! Needless to say, if it didn’t just squeeze out of the bag, my lunch often ended up squished into some shape or another and had to be reassembled before eating. I usually did this in the corner, by myself to avoid the inevitable teasing."
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Photo Courtesy of: Heather Carlucci.
Heather Carlucci, Lassi (New York, NY)
“My parents were health nuts who sent me to school with ’70s health-food-horror food,” Carlucci recalls. "There were whole wheat sandwiches with sprouts and muenster cheese, and carob cookies for dessert. Carob is really not a dessert, and it was the death of me. I constantly got made fun of for the cookies, especially when I tried to pawn them off on someone else. It's no wonder I became a pastry chef!”
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