José Andrés on fatherhood, food waste and dealing with picky eaters

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Chef José Andrés opens up about food and fatherhood. (Photo: Courtesy photo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Chef José Andrés opens up about food and fatherhood. (Photo: Courtesy photo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

Spanish chef José Andrés isn't simply one of the most renown culinary minds and restaurateurs working today, someone with the range to serve Michelin-caliber meals and pop up on Michelle Obama's Netflix food series for kids, Waffle + Mochi. (Tune in for his "gazpacho party" with puppets.) He's also a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and National Humanities Medal recipient thanks to his tireless work feeding those in need — those affected by natural disasters, frontline workers, Afghan refugees — as founder of World Central Kitchen

Though his work sees him filling bellies around the globe, Andrés's latest food cause hits closer to home: the fridge. In a new partnership with Hellmann's, the chef is aiming to help save one million meals — as approximately 40 percent of food waste in the U.S. happens at home — by sharing tips on how to make the most of the ingredients we already have on hand. Andrés will be offering personal virtual fridge hunting sessions and advice for winners of the #FridgeHunters sweepstakes, which runs now through Oct. 28. 

"It's very sad that we have to be throwing away food when American families work so hard to bring food to the table," Andrés tells Yahoo Life. "Having that kind of consciousness of 'we can do better,' we're trying to share with you ways to save those ingredients... and have a fun, family time in the process."

Being stumped by creative cooking solutions is part of the problem, but so is our collective tendency to jump the gun on throwing out food once it approaches its expiration date or no longer looks, as he puts it, "Instagram ready."

"You're seeing leftovers in the refrigerator," he says. "The refrigerator's a cold place. If it smells good and looks good — even if it doesn't look good, like an avocado doesn't look good, but you know it's going to be great. It's not going to be the perfect, Instagram-ready photo with a beautiful green, but that avocado is going to be delicious. You cover it with some mayonnaise, put some sesame seeds, some salt, a little bit of olive oil... and you have the best avocado ever."

With parents of picky eaters knowing all too well the sting of seeing perfectly good food go to waste, Andrés shares his tips for winning over young eaters. Ahead, the father of three daughters reveals what worked for him and his kids, and shares more about his family life. 

Do your daughters share your passion for cooking?

Yeah — obviously in different ways, at different moments and levels of intensity. They like to go to restaurants, they like to cook at home. The older one already graduated; she has her own apartment and she cooks at home, but she loves to go to restaurants and find new ones so now she can claim that she went before I ever did, which is actually a good thing. The second one is still in college; she loves to send me pictures of the food she cooks for part of the people sharing her house... My youngest likes more desserts and likes to cook her own little meals in between classes when she's been studying from home through Zoom. So everyone has their own [style]. I would say yes.

How do you pass those values onto your daughters?

That's a question as a father I keep asking myself. You're trying not to be a preacher, right? Nothing wrong with preachers, but preaching without doing is very much nothing, right? To ask others to do what you never did yourself, that's not really the way. So in my home, we try to cook. Big celebrations, we give them the right importance. Everyday cooking, we try to give it the right importance. Bringing people home or going to [restaurants]. I love to go to my restaurants, but I love to cook at my home. And meal by meal, day by day, table by table, slowly you keep building that feeling that you hope your daughters are going to capture. 

The stories you tell when you were young, like cooking with my dad or my mom... certain things bring memories, and all of a sudden we're able to share with them, in real time, the same moments we lived with our parents. Right now, without even realizing it, we're experiencing [those moments] with our daughters. 

I always tell this story of me making the paella in an open fire with my dad. My dad would always put me on making the fire, and I got upset with him. He sent me away because I wanted to do the cooking. He told me, "My son, to make the fire is the most important thing beyond cooking. If you control the fire, you can do any cooking you want." It's obviously a great lesson for a cook in the making, but a better metaphor for life: Control and master your fire. Find your fire. And then you'll do whatever you want with your life. It's amazing for me that some of my daughters have been helping me make that same fire. And even making paella on their own under my supervision. It's very good to see that the stories keep moving forward in the timeline of life. 

You're working with Hellmann's on tackling food waste — something parents no doubt deal with when their kids throw food on the floor or won't eat a dish. Do you have any experience with that?

Every kid and every family is its own universe. I remember my mom, she was a nurse. We were middle class but at the end of the month, my family had to look for every penny. You had to pay [bills for] the house and the car and everything else. And until the next paycheck came, my mom would be a master of making things out of nothing. Like croquetas — those were not dishes at the beginning of the month. Those were dishes at the end of the month. A little flour and a little milk — and if there was no milk. It would be water, or it would be a little chicken stock — and adding whatever leftovers [we had]: the little boiled egg that nobody ate for a week and still is fine, chopped; or a little piece of ham, chopped or a little piece of chicken, chopped. Put it in the béchamel, put it in the breadcrumbs — the bread that during the month my mother would gather and turn into breadcrumbs — and then fry them... those croquetas have no equal. And that you're able to make something so delicious out of leftovers is fascinating too....

For toddlers... My mom [gave me] three days. I didn't want to have fried green peppers on a Wednesday night. Thursday morning, when I got to the school cafeteria, they didn't let me go through the line. They served me the same green peppers. I didn't eat them. That night, my mom served me the green peppers again. Next morning, the school served me the green peppers again... That night I ate the green peppers. Today, green peppers is the best thing I can eat. I'm not saying that everybody should be doing this, but it worked with me. The love I have today for green peppers? It's unbelievable. I know my mother would say, "The day you eat these, you're going to love them in ways you don't imagine." I cannot believe how truthful that was.

I'm not saying that every mom and every dad [should try that approach] because that's not the way, maybe, in today's DNA, but it worked for me. Every child is different. My mom knew that I was eating — that my friends were giving me their sandwiches [laughs] so I wasn't going hungry — but she was making the effort of saying, "You're going to be eating these because they're actually great for you." 

With my daughters, I took a different approach: "Just taste it. If you don't like it, make it a fun game. Throw it into the garbage can. Don't worry; I'm not going to get upset, but taste it." This is a good way to do it, to tell them, "If you give it a try and you don't like it, it's fine. We'll try it again because your taste buds one day are going to change, and if you don't taste it, you don't know when they change."

Finally, what was your favorite dish as a child?

My father would make these sandwiches every time we would go on a school trip that would be one day long or sometimes a weekend. We would stay in one of those rural homes, somewhere in the mountains. When we would go for the weekend, we would have a cook, but for the trip, he would always have this kind of between-breakfast-and-lunch kind of sandwich... He would make us wake up very early to buy the bread; we would have to wake at 6, 6:30 in the morning to buy the bread so by 7 we could be at home and then by 7:30 be ready and drop us at the school by 8 so the bus can leave. 

And the sandwich... he had a baguette, nice and crunchy, soft on the inside. He would cut it, he would toast it. And then he would put mayonnaise, he would put slices of tomato — and sometimes if he didn't have enough tomato, he would rub the tomato, like we do in Catalonia, against the bread on one of the sides, the other mayo. And then he would make an omelette with canned tuna, or bonito. 

That mix of the egg, the tuna, the tomato, the mayo... You could argue that it was better right after he made it because the bread was crunchy. But in a very strange way, when I would eat that sandwich two, three hours later, the moisture of the eggs would make the bread soggy, but keep it together. There's something I'm missing about that sogginess, the juices of the tomato dripping, the bread, the eggs that he would never overcook because I like them more medium-rare. And you put that together... oh my God.

My father is no longer with us, and I obviously left home early [to go to culinary school at 15]. And then one day you realize, man, that sandwich was special.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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