Food Network star Aaron McCargo, Jr. is the national spokesperson for Share Our Strenth’s Great American Dine Out® (September 20 – 26, 2009 in cities across the United States.)
Aaron is also a Jersey boy and the 2008 winner of The Next Food Network Star. He is now the host of his own Food Network Show, Big Daddy’s House. I got the pleasure of interviewing Aaron about his Jersey roots, his experience in the Next Food Network Star, his show and his passion for ending hunger. It really was a pleasure too, he is a sweetheart and very funny.
JB: Growing up in Camden, New Jersey, what or who inspired you to start cooking?
McCargo: I always had a thing for cooking, I was greedy and I had a large family, 6 brothers and sisters, so I knew that if I didn’t learn how to cook I wasn’t going to eat. Both my Mom and Dad really inspired me. I remember when I was 7, I made a meal for my parents that the average 7 year old probably wouldn’t try. Looking back now as an adult, I’m sure the fish was still frozen inside and the vegetables were too, but my Dad kept eating it and told me I was going to be a chef one day. And, he was right.
JB: Are your parents still alive?
McCargo:Yes, they both are and they’re very proud. Everywhere my Dad goes he tells people to watch my show.
JB: What foods say “Jersey” to Aaron McCargo?
McCargo: Well of course I think about tomatoes & corn. Blueberries but I don’t use them that much. It’s something I want to change in the future. I want to do a Jersey show actually and use all of the fresh produce we’re known for.
JB: What is your favorite “Jersey” food?
McCargo: My favorite food is wings. I know New Jersey isn’t known for its wings, but my favorite place for wings is in New Jersey at the The Jug Handle Inn in Cinnaminson. When I made that statement recently it started a storm of competition. I get invitations from all over the country, Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, inviting me to come try their wings. I am slowly making my way.
JB: Do you have a favorite restaurant here in New Jersey?
McCargo: Brio Tuscan Grille in Cherry Hill. It’s Italian food done a little differently. They’ve Americanized it. Their customer service is amazing, they are consistent and their prices don’t beat you over the head.
JB: We were really pulling for you here in New Jersey when you were competing on the Next Food Network Star in 2008. How did you get involved with the program?
McCargo: I was working as a chef at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital at the time and my wife saw a commercial for the show. I didn’t know anything about it, never watched it, I was just busy cooking my own stuff. But, my wife kept bugging me about it, so I told her if you get me the application I’ll do it. My Brother in Law came over and taped me doing a cooking demo. We sent it in and a couple months later they called.
JB: And your life hasn’t been the same since?
McCargo: Ah, I still clean my own toilets, take out the trash, cook my own meals. But, it is definitely cool.
JB: Was it intimidating being a part of the competition for the Next Food Network Star?
McCargo: I tell everyone, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Just look at the intensity on Iron chef and do that for weeks.
JB: How would you describe your style of cooking?
McCargo: Basic and bold. I like a lot of flavor, not over salting, just a lot of flavor. I don’t follow any one style of cuisine. I’ve been labeled a freak in the kitchen.
JB: Your show is all about bold flavors and hearty recipes, do you have an all time favorite recipe when it comes to Big Daddy comfort food?
JB: Share our Strength is a very impressive organization. I’ve covered some of their events in the past on Jersey Bites. How did you get involved with Share our Strength?
McCargo: As a child my parents had a tough time making ends meet. We took advantage of school lunch programs and the kids in my neighborhood were able to benefit from other programs. In the restaurant business I couldn’t stand throwing away all of the leftover food and I always wished we could give it to someone, but unfortunately, there’s too many liabilities. I am on the Board of Cathedral Kitchen, our local soup kitchen, so when I got the call from Share Our Strength all they had to say was “hungry kids” and I stopped them and said “I’m down.”
JB: So what is the Great American Dine Out event?
McCargo: The Great American Dine Out is a week-long program that raises money to feed kids at risk of hunger in our communities.Thousands of restaurants across the country are registered to participate by donating a portion of proceeds from the week, creating special menu items or selling promotional coupons to generate extra sales.
JB: Can you tell me a little bit about the special episode of Big Daddy’s House you’ve got coming up on September 20th?
McCargo: It’s at 1:30pm Eastern time on the Food Network. I’m kicking off Great American Dine Out by teaming up with New Jersey’s Chef Jose Velez of Rod’s Steak & Seafood Grille a participating restaurant. We’ll be making Roast Beef Strip Loin with Bourbon Mushroom Sauce and two tasty sides: Stick-to-the-Ribs Barley and Currant Cake and Braised Kale with Toasted Almonds. We also make Homemade Lemon Doughnuts.
JB: I’ll definitely be tuning in for that one. So, what’s in store for Chef McCargo and Big Daddy’s House in the coming year?
McCargo: I’ll be coming out with a cookbook and I’m in an upcoming episode of the Best thing I’ve Ever Ate, I’m also very excited about my new spice blend called “Everyday Spice” which will be coming out either for Thanksgiving or Christmas. It’s a blend of sweet and savory spices and can be used on everything. I’m also now the spokesperson for Wright Brand Bacon.
Man, if I ever get to be the spokesperson for something, I hope its bacon. Thank you so much for taking time out of your incredibly busy schedule to chat with Jersey Bites, Chef McCargo. I know the Great American Dine Out will be a huge success. To find a participating restaurant in your area, go to: GreatAmericanDineOut.org and follow the “Find a Restaurant” link.
And, I can’t wait for your New Jersey show, Aaron. I’ve got some great fresh corn and tomato recipes just waiting to make it to the big time (hint, hint).