For more than a decade, actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson has been known for playing the serious yet big-hearted Mitchell Pritchett on the ABC sitcom Modern Family. But along the way, he’s also made waves in the culinary arena with his passion for all things food.
Not only has his love for both dining and cooking scored him the honors of hosting the James Beard Awards in both 2017 and 2019, but his side hustle — the food blog Julie & Jesse Cook with recipe developer pal Julie Tanous — sparked a cookbook, "Food Between Friends," which will land on shelves in March 2021.
Food has long been ingrained in the five-time Emmy nominee’s lifestyle, so we chatted with the 45-year-old, who just partnered with Ozo plant-based protein to promote clean eating, about his favorite meals around the globe, the international inspiration behind his recipes, and what life has been like post-Modern Family — with a growing real-life family of his own.
Travel + Leisure: Where have you enjoyed the best meals while traveling?
Jesse Tyler Ferguson: “I'm certainly inspired by the food I eat when I travel. I had some of the best food of my life in Mexico City. I was raised in New Mexico, which is a very different cuisine than Mexican food. Mexico City has some of the greatest tacos I've ever had. It made me rethink all the Mexican food I'd ever had. I went all over the city — I had fried crickets at the farmers markets, but I also went to some really fantastic restaurants, like Pujol, which is probably one of the most famous restaurants. It had a lot of ingredients that I ate on the streets, but they elevated it. There was actually a dish with crickets at Pujol that tasted a lot better than the crickets I ate from the basket on the street. I'd liken them to a Funyun — they were crunchy!”
So you’re quite an adventurous eater! Have you had anything even more unusual than crickets?
“I had some interesting meals when I was in Paris — gastro meals that were more like food science projects than anything that I would ever make at home. Also, Grant Achatz out of Chicago is one of my favorite chefs. He's super inventive and has a dessert that basically looks like a helium balloon. It comes out levitating above your table. You eat the whole balloon and it dissolves in your mouth. Plus, it’s fully vegan.”
Have any of your travels influenced your cooking back at home?
“I'm very friendly with a lot of people who have different cultures than me. Padma Lakshmi is a dear friend of mine and she taught me so much about Indian food and the differences between Indian and Thai curries, so that when I do travel on my own, I have a background. A lot of [my cookbook] is based on the food that I grew up eating, but there are places where food that I've encountered on my travels has also crept in. We actually have a Thai curry, some Lebanese food, and clean food that's inspired by my travels to Istanbul. But I don't want to take ownership of anything — it's sort of an homage to these places, rather than being an expert on any of these flavors.”
As a New Mexico native, how would you describe the cuisine there?
“Everything has green chile on it — it’s one of my favorite ingredients to work with. But it's very different from Mexican food. I recently made some tacos from my cookbook with yellow cheddar cheese, and they're in a hard shell. I photographed them and put them on my Instagram page. My friends from Mexico were like, 'That is not a taco!'”
Now living in California, how has the food there inspired you?
“I love the fresh ingredients that living in Los Angeles affords me, which is one of the twists of my cookbook — taking the [recipes] that I loved growing up and telling them with this California fresh eye. Again, California Mexican food, specifically, is very different. I ordered a burrito once and it came deep fried. That's not okay.”
How did your friendship with Julie Tanous go from blog to cookbook?
“I met her at a dinner party and we became really good friends. We bonded over our love of cookbooks and cooking. I had so many questions for her, since she had gone to culinary school. I was asking her questions like, 'What is the proper way to chop an onion?' And she was like, 'Let me just come over and we'll cook together.' We started developing recipes, and we housed them on a blog just to have them in one place. That caught the attention of a publisher and we were offered a book deal, so it happened organically.”
How strictly should people follow your recipes?
“Cooking should be fun and it’s something that should be adaptable to what you need. For a lot of these foods that I love when I travel, the ingredients can be swapped out. You can swap out the meat — ground beef, chicken, or turkey — and use a plant-based protein like Ozo. I consider myself a flexitarian. I do eat meat, but I love to take it off my diet every once in a while for health reasons. And that’s why I love my partnership with Ozo — not only are they donating $1 million worth of products to food banks for people in need, but it’s a really versatile protein. Plus, it's no secret that plant-based food is great for the environment — and for your health.”
In the midst of the pandemic, you and partner, Justin Mikita, welcomed your first child, Beckett, this summer. How has parenthood been so far — and how are his eating habits?
“This year, I've had to let go of control and let things happen as they happen. But the one certain thing that I was able to look forward to was becoming a father in July. It was a really nice, steady thing to have on the calendar. I'm just going with the flow with the situation we're in. It has been a blessing to stay at home and get to know this new person in my life. Right now, he's just really into breast milk. I'm hoping that in the next few months, we can introduce some new fun flavors. I was an adventurous eater when I was a kid, but I have nephews who just love macaroni and cheese — it has to be beige-colored food. I hope that he is a little bit more adventurous than that.”
And that wasn’t the only momentous event you’ve had in recent months: Modern Family ended its 11-year run in April. How was it closing that chapter?
“I'm just so grateful that Modern Family was able to wrap up its run before the lockdown happened. I got to experience watching the finale with everyone else — at home, as we all were, and quarantining. I was happy to have a safe place to cry and be very emotional. But we all still see each other. Ed O'Neill butt-dialed me the other day and I picked up, so I ended up talking to him for 20 minutes. I think I'm seeing Sofia [Vergara], Julie [Bowen], and Sarah [Hyland] this week — they have yet to meet Beckett. Eric [Stonestreet] is in Kansas right now with his family, but I FaceTime with him every once in a while. We all still stay very close and are missing each other very much right now.”
Now that the show is over, how will you integrate cooking more into your life?
“Well, it's always played a big part in my life. I just never had a cookbook to show people how much, so it’s been a really fun new project. At first, when this offer was given, I wasn't sure if it was something that I could do. But once I brainstormed with Julie, we realized that we had so much to say in that space — and it's been a really fun, creative way for me to express myself.”
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