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The most valuable lesson chef Jeff Michaud learned during the 3 years he spent cooking in Northern Italy had less to do with food than with family.

"Eating in Italy always happened at the table with family around you, especially on Sundays," says Michaud, winner of the 2010 James Beard Award for Best Mid-Atlantic Chef. "Taking the time to enjoy your life and spending it with the ones you love -- you don’t see that as often in the United States."

Italy is also where Michaud, 36, started his own family. He met his wife, Claudia, while he was honing his kitchen skills in Bergamo, in the foothills of the Alps.

As he writes in Eating Italy: A Chef's Culinary Adventure, his debut cookbook published last fall, "I fell head over heels in love not only with a woman, but also with her family, her cuisine, and her culture."

At his restaurants, he challenges himself and his staff to match the level of cooking he enjoyed abroad. They make their own salumi (cured meats), for example. "Nothing that we get imported can compare," says Michaud. "We have to be more inventive here to have the same quality products they have in Italy."

To stay in shape, Michaud boxes or practices Brazilian jiu-jitsu most mornings. Then he sits down for breakfast with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, Gaia, before a long day in the kitchen.

"Chefs spend a lot of time at the restaurant, but you have to make time for yourself and your family," he says. "Some nights I try to get home earlier to put my daughter to bed, and my days off are always spent with the family."

Michaud and his wife are already teaching Gaia what it means to eat well. "My daughter has yet to eat fast food -- instead she eats oysters, clams, shrimp, rabbit," he says. "We cook what we want, and she eats what we cook. More parents should follow that model."

At home, Michaud says, "I try to keep meals super easy, so I usually use the grill." The veal loin recipe he shares exemplifies the way he prefers to cook. "I love the simplicity of it."

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