the author and dad eating apples

5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned While Cooking with Dad

Last Updated on June 19, 2020

I thought of commemorating Father’s Day by sharing my Dad’s best recipes; however, they are a secret, he says! So instead, I decided to reflect on the invaluable lessons he’s taught me over the years as we’ve cooked together.

Below you’ll find five of the best metaphorical (or, quite literal) tips from him I’ve cherished.

1. The simpler, the better.

Life is complicated, but the food you eat doesn’t have to be. The best dishes my Dad creates have the simplest list of ingredients.

Our family tomato sauce is simply olive oil, garlic, tomato paste, whole peeled tomatoes, basil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Our chicken soup consists of a whole chicken, water, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, parsley, and bouillon cubes.

If we tried adding too much else, these dishes would be ruined. I see this as a metaphor for what we face in our lives—try not to complicate the simple things in life. Take them for what they are, and enjoy.

2. Sometimes you just need to follow your intuition and wing it.

My Dad rarely ever follows a recipe. He will “eyeball” the amount of spices to include, and he’ll always taste and adjust while cooking.

The best revelations in cooking, and in life, come from experimenting and facing that trial and error. The failures give you more information to then succeed and build upon that success. Approaching cooking with wonder, my Dad’s intuition rarely results in a complete food fail; I think his example led me to become the highly intuitive person I am today.

3. Let things be or stir things up—but know which moments call for each approach.

When cooking, it’s incredibly tempting to want to stand over the pot and stir constantly, if only to feel like you’re actively doing something to keep the dish going (or, out of impatience for it to be done). However, many foods—especially meat and vegetables—benefit from staying put in the pan so that sweet caramelization and browning occur.

When I act as a sous chef for my Dad, he always supervises me and lets me know when to stir and when to let a dish sit. Over time, these teachable moments have formed into a type of muscle memory as I cook on my own.

And the brilliant thing is, this concept applies to life as well—we need to learn when certain situations require rest and when others need action.

4. If what you’re cooking smells good, it will taste good.

Dad first taught me this lesson at the ripe old age of two, when we’d make meatballs together and I’d gleefully squish the ground pork and turkey with my hands. After I was done mixing, he’d always tell me to smell the mixture, and then report to him what it smelled like. Then, he’d always remind me, “If it smells good, it’ll taste good.”

This is a simple lesson in cooking that makes sense—literally—let your senses tell you what is fresh or ripe and what might be sour or bad.

5. Don’t put shredded coconut in the toaster oven.

For if you do, the shredded coconut will, inevitably, catch on fire.

Kristina DeMichele is the Digital Content Strategist at Harvard Magazine. She is also a freelance copyeditor who has worked for America's Test Kitchen as the Senior Content Editor of Cook's Illustrated Magazine.