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25 Food Dads on the Best Cooking Advice They Ever Got

Chef Akhtar Nawab and his daughter Ela. Photo: Jessica Ebelhar

It’s easy to preach the requisite cooking tips: Buy high-quality olive oil. Clean as you go. Make your own chicken stock! Receiving advice — really learning and processing something, making it part of your life — is deeper. The cooking advice that guides you, consciously or not, every time you walk into a kitchen, every time you make something for someone you love, is personal, and oftentimes emotional. In honor of Father’s Day, we asked 25 food dads — cooking pros and avowed lovers of food, all — about the cooking advice that they live by, at their restaurants, in their homes, in front of their grills, and in their hearts. From how to make Masala Chai to covering up a big fat mistake, here are their answers.

Akhtar Nawab
Alta Calidad
Always get your “mise” together before you start cooking. When I was just starting out as a young cook at my first restaurant job at Dittos Grill in Louisville, I would often just dive right in without having any kind of plan. Chef Dominic Serratore would literally stop me in my tracks and remind me to get all my ingredients together before cooking, so that when I did, I could just focus on the food. Whether I’m cooking in my restaurant kitchen or at home, this advice has provided me with the best basic foundation for cooking successfully, fostering creativity and having fun. It’s so much more enjoyable to cook if you aren’t scrambling to find ingredients while your pot is boiling over, and gives you time to improvise and have fun with your recipes on the fly.

Scott Clark
Dad’s Luncheonette
I’d actually call this: The Best Cooking Advice I Never Got. My father could split a cord of firewood, filet a catfish, build an impeccable fire and pull the smallest of splinters from my doughy palm with his Herculean hands all in the same day. He spoke clearly and directly but not often. I learned early that to grasp the knowledge he possessed, I had to be swift and astute with my eyes and ears. Whether the task at hand came large or small, with instructions or blind, my father stood tall and alert and managed hardships and lessons with an unmistakable pride and resolve. When I told him I wanted to drop out of college and cook professionally with zero training and no plan, I knew he would be stunned. I remember watching him digest the statement. He looked me squarely in the eyes and told me I’d better make it work. I went forward in my career not with a blessing from my father but an ultimatum. I had to make it work with no instructions and no map to success. I took those lessons in perseverance and silent calculation and applied them to my career. Whenever I think about how I found myself where I am now, I can’t recall any one thing said to me more profound than my father’s silence and tenacity. He taught me that to be even remotely successful at any objective you had to watch and listen and slow down. To approach every problem with resolve and to never turn away.

Franklin Becker
100 Pleats
The best cooking advice I ever got was this: “Cook what others want to eat. Make it great, make it look and taste spectacular but make sure it is what people want.” When my son was younger and first diagnosed with Autistic Colitis, he could not eat things and would often writhe in pain. It was really sad to watch. So, I adapted my cooking to appease him. Throughout my career, I have adapted my cooking style to appeal to others. I never compromised my principles or my values, but I did alter my style. This has enabled me to grow as a businessman, as a chef and as a person.

Victor Albisu
Taco Bamba and Poca Madre
My Grandfather, a Cuban baker who inspired me to be a chef, was always offended by people over using expensive olive oil. He would always tell me: “Never waste oil cleaning a grill, just use an onion.” Subsequently I realized that this was a theme for him. He would put onions on burns, cuts, scrapes and even bee stings. Basically, onions are good for everything.

Justin Severino
Salty Pork Bits
Growing up, I was taught to never take food too seriously. The most important thing at the table isn’t what’s on the plate, but who’s gathered around it. That philosophy is one of the major reasons I became a chef.

Stephen Parker
Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beer
The most valuable cooking lesson I learned was from my father: it was how to properly start a fire and how to maintain a great fire for cooking. Maintaining temperature and heat is essential.

Stephane Lemagnen
The best cooking advice I ever got was to “let the food sing” — just let the ingredients speak for themselves.

Geoffrey Zakarian
The Lambs Club
I actually think the best advice I received was from Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque, from the four formative years I worked with him and Alain Sailhac. He cautioned me to never focus too much on what you like to eat. Instead, always think of your job as welcoming customers from all over the world and cooking for them. If they respond, then you can then begin to cook to your own likings. I really never got what he said, but now it surrounds my every thought when I am opening a new restaurant. He was so very right. I miss him.

Jim Lahey
Sullivan Street Bakery
Anna Teresa Callen gave me great advice: when you mess something up, burn it or cook somehow improperly, tell your guests that that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Nine out of ten people have no idea, and will believe you.

Felipe Donnelly
Colonia Verde
The best cooking advice I ever received had nothing to do with cooking. My dad was always an advocate of finding what you love and then doing it the best you can — every day. Cook what you love and hone it to the best of your ability.

Chintan Pandya
Adda Indian Canteen and Rahi
I always got the best advice from my dad. My father was the one who taught me how to make masala chai. He had his own special recipe where he would add ingredients very carefully and the right measurements. To this day, I still follow that recipe and I am very fond of drinking masala chai, as every sip reminds of him.

Lolo Manso
Socarrat Paella Bar
I tell my kids something that my father used to say to me all the time — that simple cooking, done well, is a masterpiece. When they were little, and still today as adults, we enjoy cooking together; some of our favorite dishes to cook are tortilla Espanola, beef stew, or fish in green sauce.

Salil Mehta
Laut Singapura, and Laut Malaysian
The best cooking advice I’ve ever gotten was from my father. It was to always add in salt with your hand. Your hand knows when to stop. This has never failed me, and I passed it on to my kids who I’ve been spending a lot of time cooking with lately.

Dan Kluger
Loring Place
The best advice I ever got was probably from the late Floyd Cardoz: “Always cook from your heart; if your heart isn’t in it, don’t make it … it won’t be any good.”

Justin Smillie
Il Buco Alimentari & Vineria
This time of year, everything goes on the grill. Vegetables, proteins, pizza, whatever you have — do it on the grill.

Diego Oka
La Mar at Mandarin Oriental
I’ve been lucky to have a dad who’s both a foodie and an artist. As a child I was always surrounded by art and was always watching him paint. I would wonder how he decided when he was finished with a painting. When I asked, he answered by telling me you can keep adding more and more colors and dimensions to your piece. Artwork is infinite and you can keep adding. But as an artist you must stop when you think your piece is beautiful and has just the right amount of what you want to express and showcase. “You must trust yourself,” he would say. I have applied this sentiment when I create a new dish. I know it’s infinite and I can keep adding, but as an artist and chef, I know when to stop and when I should keep going. I remember my father’s word to trust myself. As a new father to my son Malki, I will definitely pass this sentiment down to him, so he can use it in whatever path he chooses.

Art Smith
Table fifty-two, Art and Soul, Southern Art and Bourbon Bar, and LYFE Kitchen
Don’t focus on trying to be famous. Focus on being the best you can be, no matter your goal.

Yonatan Floman
Breads Bakery
I learned how to make the perfect mashed potatoes in the first professional kitchen I ever worked in, and it’s served me well. Bake the entire potato in the oven over coarse salt. It gives it a bonfire flavor. If you want to go even further and get a silky texture, peel the cooked potato, slice it in half and push it through a sifter. Butter and heavy cream will make it even silkier.

Josh Berry
When I first got to culinary school I was looking over the prep lists for multiple days of production. It was a little overwhelming to think of all the items that needed to get accomplished. My “chef” asked me a question, “What is the most important meal of the day?” I responded like most everyone, “breakfast.” “No” he said. “You’re a chef, the most important meal of the day is the one that is happening right now.” I’ve taken that advice with me and it always grounds me in the moment.

Sungchul Shim
The best cooking advice I ever received was to save trim and scraps from meal preps for future dishes, as it saves money and time. The leftovers can be used for a variety of sauces or stock. Meat scraps, even fat, is a good way to enhance deep flavor, and vegetables scraps can be used for stock and broth.

Paul C. Reilly
Beast + Bottle
One of the quotes I’ve carried with me for a long time was actually from one of the worst operators I ever worked for, who shall remain nameless. He once told me, “If you have a problem, and you don’t come with a solution, you’re just bitching.” At the time it enraged me, but I still preach its message almost 20 years later.

Brendan McAlpine
Hudson Valley Marshmallow Company
Never cook with booze you’d like to drink.

Matt King
Smith & Wollensky
Growing up, children are told not to play with their food. I started cooking when I was eight and was encouraged to play with my food to create dishes. I still follow this advice and share this guidance with children, telling them to always play with their food and enjoy their creativity in the kitchen. Except when it comes to grilling steak; don’t play with it — just let it sear and resist the urge to keep turning it!

Chris Scott
Institute of Culinary Education
My family gathered around the stove or the grill quite a bit, always sharing ideas about food. My Uncle Bertie was the family grill master, always showing up with big slabs of beef or pork. If he was coming over, we knew there was going to be more than hot dogs and burgers. One of the things he would always say to us was, “Don’t touch the grill — you’ll know when the food is done.” You could look at that in a literal sense and think, “Don’t touch or flip the meat until it needs to be flipped, this way you’re sure to get the perfect sear, or the perfect temperature on the meat without compromising the flesh or the texture.” But you see, Uncle Bertie was a little bit deeper than that. I took it as a metaphor: don’t rush into something before it’s ready. You’ll know when it’s the right time to intervene.

Marcus Samuelsson
Red Rooster
One of the best pieces of advice came from my grandmother who would taste food by cupping it in her hands. Her hands were very strong and she would get extremely close to the food to test if it needed anything. A spoon or plate would never cut it, since the act of cooking is more intimate than that. Another piece of advice came from Chef Leah Chase who told me, “No matter what you’ve got, aim high and keep cooking.” Her career lasted 70 years with that mentality. I am constantly thinking about those two cooking lessons and both have helped guide me as a chef.

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25 Food Dads on the Best Cooking Advice They Ever Got