25 Essential Cooking Lessons Chefs Learned from Their Fathers
"Through my dad’s cooking lessons, I realized how much power good food has to win over the love of your family."
With Father's Day approaching—it's June 17, for those of you who were about to Google—we asked chefs from around the country to reflect on the most important lessons they learned from their fathers in the kitchen, and it got very cute very fast.
From hamburger-flipping technique to refrigerator organization skills, these father-approved tips will help you in your own kitchen—and may make you a little emotional.
Cultivate a bratwurst obsession.
“My childhood summers were defined by (and measured in) my grandfather’s obsession with grilling bratwurst. Start with a big pot on the stove, simmering with tons of PBR, sweet onions, bell peppers, spices, and brats. Let them simmer long enough for a lazy game of solitaire and two cold beers. Then, heat up a grill and char the brats, and reduce the remaining cooking ingredients to a liquid gold that you’ll spoon over the brats on a freshly toasted bun. To me, this is summer, and some of the fondest memories I have.” - Chef Brian Riggenbach, The Mockingbird (Nashville)
Laugh through mistakes.
“My first cooking experience really ever was with my dad. He still takes credit for my career. We made sugar cookies and laughed the entire time. The kitchen was atrocious. Flour everywhere. He taught me how to have fun cooking. Not take anything too seriously. Laugh through whatever happens. At the end of the day, it’s all just baking cookies. My mom came home and was not thrilled about the state of her kitchen, but we made up for it in delicious cookies.” - Chef Kate Williams of Lady of the House (Detroit)
Up your mise en place game.
"My dad did most of the cooking in our house. While I learned how to make killer chili in the winter and grill great burgers and steaks in the summer, the biggest thing I learned from my dad was the efficiency of menu planning and mise en place! He would make a menu for the week on Saturday morning, then do a massive shopping trip that involved going to specialty stores as well as big box grocery and wholesale spots. Depending on the menu he would either begin prep on Saturday afternoon, or just start fresh on sunday morning, and by Sunday evening the fridge would be full of casseroles, sauces, soups, and anything that he deemed fridge-stable for a couple of days. I didn't realize it at the time, but he was also budgeting and delegating the labor to my brothers. We would get the call when dad was on his way home from work, 'Set the table, do the dishes, and ... get dinner started.' At first 'get dinner started' came with detailed instructions written on the fridge mounted dry erase board. Things like 'in a medium sauce pan, bring the chili to a simmer over medium heat then, cook covered on low, don't forget to make spaghetti at the same time: boil water, add salt, add spaghetti.' If you are confused by the chili spaghetti combo visit Cincinnati, Ohio once and all weirdness will be revealed...." - Chef Nick Korbee, Egg Shop (NYC)
Live a little.
"My Sicilian father taught me a lot about cooking through his Caponata recipe. He expressed the importance of adding the ingredients and cooking the vegetables in a very specific order, and then letting it marinate. First the eggplant, onions, zucchini, then add tomatoes, olives, and raisins or capers. The best line, though, is, 'Sometimes I add a pepper for excitement!" — Chef Tony Galzin, Nicky's Coal Fired (Nashville)
Start with good ingredients.
“My dad didn’t cook very often, but when he did, he took it seriously. On special occasions he would roll out his chuckwagon grill and fire it up, normally cooking steaks—but not just any steaks. Early in the week he’d call his butcher friend Mr. Miz to bring something special for the occasion, like a friendly delivery of prime filets or something equally spectacular. The lesson learned was to always start with good ingredients.” - Ray “Dr. BBQ” Lampe, Dr. BBQ (St. Petersburg)
Beat the eggs until your hands hurt a little.
"We grew up in Mumbai, India, and my dad was a restaurant owner, but he adored the simplest of Indian comfort foods. So the first thing I learned to cook at the age of 10 from my father was a 'desi omelette,' aka an Indian style omelette. We would cook this dish together sometimes 3 to 4 days a week. From simple whisking of the egg to seasoning the right way to controlling temperature, he taught me this dish, which is still to this day my favorite meal to cook for my family. To make the ideal desi omelette, my dad said that you have to beat the eggs pretty well, until your hand hurts a bit. For one person, four eggs is a good amount, and then add fresh cilantro, onion, garlic, tomato, roasted cumin, black pepper, and salt to taste. It has to be cooked on medium high heat. Add a slice of American cheese in the middle and then serve with mint chutney if available. Through my dad’s cooking lessons, I realized how much power good food has to win over the love of your family." - Chef/Owner Salil Mehta, Chinese Club New York
Give things time.
“Patience is the biggest thing my father taught me in the kitchen. When I was growing up, he would make an amazing rum and raisin eggless ice cream that required long hours of stirring, and then it had to freeze overnight. He showed me that it takes time to create deliciousness.” - Chef Maneet Chauhan, Chauhan Ale & Masala House (Nashville)
Keep it simple.
"My father taught me to love every single ingredient, cook with simplicity, and use natural ingredients in my dishes such as fresh thyme, honey and mountain oregano." - Chef Nicholas Poulmentis, Akrotiri (Queens)
Tip over the refrigerator.
“My father always taught me when you are hungry 'tip over the refrigerator and whatever falls out is dinner.' He basically meant that you have to be creative, frugal and work with minimal ingredients to make something delicious. This has really meant something more recently in my career when I started to realize people like more simple foods prepared with love, just as my father always did cooking for our family.” - Chef David Almany, 1 Pico (Santa Monica)
Strain out the seeds.
“My dad loves his babaganoush. I remember growing up he would always tell us stories of how his mother would make babaganoush for him and spend hours straining out the seeds. I always loved that story. My dad introduced babaganoush to me at a young age, and I knew when I was putting together the menu for DEZ that I was going to serve my take on it. I served it to him at the restaurant recently ... Dad approved.” - Chef/Co-founder Eden Grinshpan, DEZ (NYC)
Start the charcoal with newspaper.
“My father couldn’t boil water, but he did teach me to grill flank steak on the backyard BBQ on Father’s Day. Score the steak with a sharp knife. Start the charcoal with old newspaper, never with fluid. Rub plenty of salt and pepper all over the steak and grill for 3 minutes on each side on the hottest part of the grill. Slice on the bias, against the grain.” - Chef Bernie Matz, Bodega Taqueria y Tequila (Miami)
Put brown sugar in your ramen.
"My father loved making classic chashu shoyu ramen when I was a kid growing up in Yamanashi Prefecture in Japan. He taught me that the key ingredient to making the soup base rich and deep in flavor is brown sugar." - Chef/Co-Owner Koji Hagihara, ROKI (NYC)
Use sharp knives, clean as you go, and season everything.
“I have always had an interest in cooking since I was eight or nine years old. I would find time to be around my dad when he was whipping something up. Over the years, my dad has given me some pretty good advice when it comes to cooking. 1. Try not to use a dull knife because you are more likely to cut yourself. 2. Try to clean as you go, don’t leave a big pile of dishes for later. 3. Can’t rush a good thing, meaning to let the food cook correctly and always season your ingredients.” - Chef Tony Van Hang, Blue Harbour (Tampa)
Treat octopus with the respect it deserves.
“My father in Greece, as a hobby, was a fisherman. He would always catch octopus to make for us at home. Thanks to him, I learned how to prepare, season, and cook octopus.” - Chef Giuseppe Scalco, Merakia: Greek Mountainthief Spithouse + Steak (NYC)
Don't cook cold meat.
"My father was definitely the cook in the family. He prepared meals for the week; which was no easy task with two children that had different palates. His occupation was a teacher for blind and visually impaired children, which gave me a unique persecutive growing up. The biggest lesson I learned from him is organization. Organization is the key for success in a kitchen ... from having all your mise en place to ordering/scheduling. I would like to think that my cooking skill has surpassed his at this point ... but I still use his meatloaf recipe." - Chef Eric Rentz, Clinton Hall (NYC)
Take care of your people.
“Growing up in my parents’ restaurant, my dad not only imposed a strong work ethic, but also stressed the importance of your staff — 'Always take care of your people' — because they are what make you (or break you). It’s something that has always been with me, and I’m very fortunate to have learned that as I’ve been working with some of my team for several years. That, and always bring a pen to an interview.” - Chef Perry Pollaci, Castaway (Burbank, CA)
Put hot sauce on everything.
“My father was a super fit guy who always loved spicy foods, as he said it increased his metabolism and gave him energy. My dad would straight up eat pepperoncini right out of the jar and season everything on his plate extra hot. He was the reason and inspiration for many things in my life, but I am truly obsessed with fitness and hot foods/sauces because of my dad. I'm always reminded of him whenever I put extra cayenne on my Spicy Boss' Kale Salad.” - Co-Founder Greg Horos, Locali (L.A.)
Grill with beer.
“My dad and grandpa T were my biggest inspirations when it comes to grilling. My dad would grill with lots of fire and as the steaks were near done, my grandpa would lather them with homemade BBQ sauce on all sides, which always made the flame extremely high. Then they would sip their beer, place a thumb on the top and shake beer all over the steaks and grill to put out the flames. It went on like this for years and years, and now I still grill with high heat, tasty BBQ sauce, and fresh beer. Now as a father, I look forward to sharing these moments with my kids.” - Chef Brandon Thordarson, Moxie’s Grill & Bar (Dallas & Houston)
Remember: 'Everything has always been about the meal.'
"Our dad taught us to live life in search of the next great meal. Growing up, trips to France were based on which sites were closest to the markets and best restaurants. We always took the long way to summer camp in Maine so we could stop for the best lobster rolls along the coast or clam pizzas in New Haven. Where do you get the best egg roll in Chinatown? That's where we'll have dinner tonight. Everything has always been about the meal." - Bruce and Eric Bromberg, Blue Ribbon Restaurants (NYC)
Pay attention to flipping technique.
"My dad, who lives in Hawaii, taught me a good bit of what I know about grilling. He said to always use wood or charcoal when grilling, and never gas – he’s pretty old school like that, but it really does make all the difference. He also taught me about how the fire works – you have to look at how much heat it's giving off, know when to start flipping, how the wind and air affect the grill, and what to look for before flipping your meat. He also gave me the best teriyaki sauce recipe! Most importantly though, he taught me that food makes people happy and food gathers your friends and family. Cooking has always made both my dad and I happy.” - Owner/Chef Troy Guard, atTAG Restaurant Group (TAG, bubu, TAG Burger Bar, Guard and Grace, Los Chingones, Mister Tuna, HashTAG, FnG)
Dried shrimp is the secret to perfectly umami octopus balls.
"Takoyaki, which are grilled octopus balls, is a famous comfort food from Japan that legend says originated from my hometown of Osaka. I tried cooking it on my own when I was young but I could not produce the umami flavor, but luckily my father showed me that the secret ingredient was dried Sakura ebi or shrimp, and I have been using that in my dish till this day." - Chef/Co-Owner Satori Hagihara, ROKI (NYC)
Time your French press with a stopwatch.
"Well dad was into the science of cooking and he taught me to do things like emulsify oil into egg yolks for mayonnaise. And he taught me how to brew coffee in a French press. This was the late '70s early '80s, and he had me weighing out beans and timing the steep with a stopwatch. But more than anything he taught me how to eat. We’d do blind tastings and he’d give me ingredients on a spoon like peanut butter, smoked salmon, aioli and caviar. He taught me to be interested in food how to use my palate. - Chef/Owner Laurence Edelman, Left Bank and Poulet Sans Tete (NYC)
Respect the fish.
"My father spent 30 years in the United States Navy. Which means for most of my childhood he was deployed overseas on massive Aircraft Carriers, remote islands in Alaska, the Middle East, you name it. He was often in harm’s way, and our only communication would be through letters and the occasional land line call (this is before computers and cell phones). As a child I would sometimes see him only three to four months a year. His impact on my career is obvious in many areas. First and foremost, he paid for my culinary education, so thanks, Dad. I learned my work ethic, my loyalty to my team and all about sacrifice from him. Cooking was never his strength. But surprisingly some of my basic culinary skills come from fishing with him as a kid. We would cook either at the camp site or bring our catch home. He showed me the fine techniques of filleting the fish, to respect the fish as to not waste anything. At the campfire he would exercise restraint and season the fish simply and cook it to perfection. Simply cooking food when its in its freshest state and most flavorful is still how I treat food to this day." - Chef Jeff Axline, Bobby Hotel (Nashville)
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"Most of the cooking tips I learned growing up were from my mother and grandmother. When my dad was in charge of dinner, it was always my favorite night of the week because it meant we would be ordering pizza. There's nothing more exciting than that as a kid." - Chef Preston Madson, Bellwether (NYC)