Canovas were raised with a love for creating their own fine dining

Chris Canova didn’t let a tight budget deter her from teaching her two young children about fine dining, cooking and ethnic cuisines.

They learned their lessons well. Today, son Brad Canova, 41, of Baton Rouge, tackles complicated dishes, improvising and cooking by taste, and loves to cook for crowds of family and friends.

His sister, Natalie Treigle, also of Baton Rouge, is a good cook, too, but is more likely to follow a recipe, their mother said recently.

She and their father, Johnnie Canova, of St. Gabriel, had divorced, and “when they were little, as a single mother, I didn’t have the money to take them out to eat. So, on my weekends to have them, I’d cook something they weren’t familiar with.”

She’d call them in from playing to “clean up, dress up like they were going out for dinner and we’d set the table with fine china.” She filled their stemmed glasses with grape juice and put music on.

“It was a production,” recalled Brad Canova, who operates Canova Design and Construction. “We did a lot of dancing.”

He also remembers waking up to his mother cooking early in the morning.

“I’d start my sauce at 7 or 8 a.m. on Sunday” to make sure it was ready for dinner, Chris Canova said.

“She would have the windows open, the sauce going and jazz on,” Brad Canova said. “That’s a common bond for me, my mom and sister.”

“Actually, I tweaked my recipes to their tastes. They liked my spaghetti sauce and my ‘mystery meat’ sauce made with little bits of chicken, pork, sausage, beef, whatever I had,” she said. “I also made crawfish bisque and told them, ‘If you don’t help me stuff the heads, you don’t get any.’ ”

Another dish they liked was her moussaka, which Brad Canova assumed was one passed down by his mother’s Lebanese relatives, but instead she developed it from a recipe she found in a St. George Catholic School cookbook. “The Lebanese make stuffed vegetable dishes with a rice dressing and my mother, who was Lebanese, always did that,” Chris Canova said. “She always stuffed squash, mirliton, eggplant and bell pepper, and Brad remembers those and her rolled cabbage leaves, which are traditional for New Year’s Day.”

Her children also loved her version of the Italian rolled steak dish, Bruccialuna, a dish that Brad Canova still makes, but with his own touches added.

“He was a baby, probably 10 years old, when we started making those dishes,” Chris Canova said.

“My mom taught me the majority of what I cook,” Brad Canova said. “Now I even cook wild hogs. I do have some bad days. I don’t follow recipes. I make ‘wing it’ meals.”

“When he started cooking, I ate a lot of bad meals,” his mother laughed. “I’d eat it … and as he cooked, he got better.”

Today, his wife, Danielle, doesn’t worry about getting the evening meal on the table. He cooks every night for her and their four daughters — Caitlin Smith, 14; Isabella, 13; Alexandra, 10; and Sophia, 3.

“He’s the cook now,” said Chris Canova, a nurse at Regional Eye Surgery Center. “I go to his house, but he’ll tell you, I still give him pointers while he’s cooking.”

“My weakness is white sauce,” Brad Canova admitted.

“Yes, that’s because you start talking and walk away” from the sauce, his mother admonished him.

When she began their family’s at-home “dress up” dinners years ago, “I didn’t realize the impact it would have on my children,” she said. “I did it for entertainment for myself. It gave me something to do when they were home. It was a fun time for all of us. I thought we were just having fun, but this is something Brad has always remembered.”