Secrets of a Stay at Stove Dad


John Donohue

Once a year my dad made his one-hit wonder: Spaghetti a la Liebman, a recipe he invented as a skinny and starving single guy in the 60s. (The namesake dish was basically pasta with heavy cream and cheese.) As kids we loved it because it marked a special and rare occasion—when dad wore the apron.

These days dads account for nearly one-third of the time the family spends cooking, according to New Yorker editor and Brooklyn dad John Donohue in his excellent new anthology Man with a Pan. Donohue became his family’s chef when he realized that if he wanted them to dine well, he needed to start putting meals on the table. He recorded his triumphs on his blog, Stay at Stove Dad. Then he came up with the idea to collect essays by other stovedads, including Stephen King, Mario Batali, Mark Bittman and an impressive roster of introspective and successful men who reveal their own unique and inspiring paths to becoming a cook, why they do it and how they do it, including favorite cookbooks and personal recipes.

We interviewed Donohue last week, just as Man with a Pan hit shelves.

What’s a typical breakfast like for your family?
Breakfast is the one meal that we almost always get to eat together. On weekdays, we’ll have something basic, like oatmeal with cinnamon and butter; yogurt and cereal; or scrambled eggs with toast. On weekends, we will have pancakes made from scratch or French toast.

What do you make your young daughters for lunch?
Their school lunches typically include a fresh carrot, a sunflower butter sandwich made with Bread Alone sourdough, and a pack of Annie’s gummy bunnies or some such treat.

What is a typical dinner routine?
Most weeknights I’m at work, so my wife or the babysitter ends up giving my children dinner. On weekends, we almost always eat together. I’ll cook up a big meal and we’ll serve the food family-style, in big platters at the center of the table.

What is your policy on sweets?
Sweets are tricky, because my daughters seem to be obsessed with them. And unlike the world I grew up in, childhood today seems to be drowning in candy and the like. There seems to be a birthday party every weekend, and each one results in bags and bags of candy. A little while ago we instituted a new rule. Each child gets to keep three pieces of candy and that is it. We generally only have sweets and desserts on the weekends.

Mario Batali, in his essay in Man with a Pan, humorously discusses his kids’ “food issues.” Do your kids have food issues?
I think all kids have food “issues.” They’re learning about the world and what is a more intimate way to gain knowledge than to put something in your mouth? One of my daughters doesn’t eat fruits, not even the cherry in the bottom of a Shirley Temple. The other doesn’t seem to have this issue.

How much credit does Mark Bittman get for the fact that so many more men cook these days?
Mark Bittman deserves enormous credit for getting men (and women) to cook. His How to Cook Everything is a tremendous resource.

What’s your favorite recipe in the book?
My favorite recipe in the book is Peter Kaminsky’s one for whole roast cow. It’s so audacious. I’ve never made it, obviously, but the accompanying recipe for chimichurri makes meat taste delicious.

What is your favorite or go-to cookbook?
Besides How to Cook Everything, I rely on the 2001 Food & Wine cookbook. It was a wedding gift and it’s served me very well ever since.

Were there any big surprises for you in reading/editing these essays? Did you pick up any significant tips?
The biggest surprise about talking to all these men was their passion. They are serious cooks who know what they are doing in the kitchen. I was blown away by the ambition of many of them. Adam Bonin, for example, is relentless in his pursuit of the perfect duck breast recipe.

Do men cook differently than women?
It’s very hard to find a man who likes to bake, while it is not hard to find a woman who does.

What has cooking for your family taught you–in realms other than cooking?
Patience, organization, dedication.

Do you believe in “kids food”? Or should kids be eating exactly what the adults eat?
I don’t think kids should drink wine or beer. (Hard liquor is okay. Just kidding.) But other than that they should be exposed to all adult foods. I’m not entirely up on it, but what do children in Asia grow up eating? Do they have baby Thai food? I doubt it.

Do you want your kids to learn to cook? Are you teaching them now?
I want my kids to be healthy and to enjoy life. Cooking is a great way to accomplish both of those things. Eating the right foods at the right time, is very rewarding, on a physical, emotional, and social level. I’m teaching them by example at the moment, and I’m hoping that they continue to be interested and find it fun, like I do.

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