- Chef José Andrés grew up in Spain, cooking massive pots of paella with his father. At the time, his dad wouldn’t let him do anything but tend the fire: gather the wood, build it, stoke it, manage it. Once he became an expert at managing the fire, his father told him that was the key to cooking anything. Now, he’s a chef with two Michelin stars and 26 restaurants.
Before he won two Michelin stars, before he owned 26 restaurants, and before he became known for introducing Americans to tapas, José Andrés was the boy in charge of tending the fire.
It wasn’t something he enjoyed doing – though looking back now, he sees how it helped launch his career as a celebrity chef.
On an episode of Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It,” Andrés shared the story with Business Insider US editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell:
“My father would cook, and he would cook paella, the Spanish dish that is becoming world famous. And he would make big paellas for 50, 100 people at times. He would make it over open fire, and he would always put me in charge of helping him with the fire. But I wanted to cook, I wanted to stir the pot, I wanted to put the spoon in. And he never let me. ‘You gather the wood; you make the fire.’
“It was a complicated thing. At times, you needed this low fire, at times a very heavy fire, and at times you had to make room underneath, then take all the charcoal away. And I was very young doing that, and I became very good at it. And then he came and told me, ‘My son, I don’t know if you realized, but you’ve been doing the most important thing, something nobody else could do like you, and you want to learn to cook. I get it. But you need to control the fire. Learn to control the fire, and you’ll be able to cook anything.'”
This wasn’t what the teenage Andrés wanted to hear. But as an adult, he gets where his father was coming from. In a story titled “Boiling Point,” included in the 2006 collection “How I Learned to Cook” and reprinted on NPR, Andrés wrote:
“Now that I’m a grown man, I know that he was [right]. I’ve been cooking – not just making the fire – for twenty years, and I understand that every inglorious step, from the most rudimentary chopping and prepping to cleaning up at the end of the night, is important. And that in order to reach the point where you get to be the one stirring the paella, you’ve got to master each step along the way.”
In the interview with Shontell, Andrés drew a parallel between learning to cook and becoming an expert at anything:
“This, to me, is a very powerful story because it’s beyond cooking. It’s a story that goes on exactly who we are, where we want to go, where we come from, and sometimes we want to do the cooking, but we don’t know what the heck is our fire. I always ask myself, ‘What’s my fire today?’ Then the cooking is so simple.”