Aaron McCargo, Jr. is often referred to as Big Daddy. When you meet him in person, you understand why. Although he looks like an NFL linebacker, he is a gentle man who immediately disarms you with his smile and hearty laugh. After a few minutes of conversation, you’ll feel as if you’ve known him for years.
You probably know McCargo as the fourth season winner of Food Network’s “The Next Food Network Star.” That victory led to his own cooking show, Big Daddy’s House.
McCargo became interested in cooking at age four, when he began baking cakes in his sister’s Easy-Bake Oven. After learning more about cooking and working in various restaurants, McCargo realized that being a chef was his destiny. With the support of his wife, McCargo opened his restaurant, McCargo’s Creative Cuisine, in 2003.
“Opening that restaurant was a huge leap of faith, but I knew that I had to take advantage of the opportunity while it was there,” he said. “Too many people live life with regrets. I never wanted to be one of those people.”
When McCargo isn’t filming his show or making public appearances, he spends his time teaching young people to cook and encouraging them to follow their dreams.
I sat down with McCargo at the Dad2.0 Summit to discuss food and family.
Mocha Dad: How did winning “The Next Food Network Star” change your life?
Aaron McCargo, Jr: It didn’t change my life that much because I’m a simple guy, and I don’t let the success go to my head. Of course, people recognize me on the street, and I’ve been blessed with more business opportunities, but I try to keep it all in perspective. I still live in New Jersey and my family keeps me grounded.
MD: In your bio, you mentioned that you started baking on your sister’s Easy-Bake Oven. What are your thoughts on the new gender-neutral Easy-Bake ovens?
McCargo: I think they should hire me as their spokesperson. I was baking on those ovens before it was cool. Seriously, I’m for anything that gets kids involved in the kitchen.
MD: What is the best way for parents to get their kids involved in the kitchen?
McCargo: You have to start when they’re young. Allow them to feel, touch, and taste the ingredients. By using all of their senses, they get a better understanding of the food. Next, you must give them age-appropriate tasks. For example, I let my younger children crack eggs, mix ingredients in bowls, and set the table. My older kids get to cut vegetables and operate the stove. Cooking together is how we spend quality time in my household. It’s a great way to connect.
MD: Many kids are finicky eaters. How can parents get them to try new things?
McCargo: Including them in meal preparation helps. If they help to cook the meal, they are less likely to reject it because they were part of its creation.
MD: Some of my friends only know how to cook meat on the grill, but they want to learn more cooking techniques. What advice do you have for them?
McCargo: When people ask me this question, I always find out what they like to eat. Learning to cook is easier if you start with dishes you enjoy. Find a cookbook and follow the directions. Many people get frustrated with cooking because they fail to follow the instructions and the meal doesn’t turn out right.
MD: I have to confess that I’m one of those guys who like to improvise.
McCargo: Confession is good for the soul. Now I have to rebuke you (laughs). The authors spent a lot of time crafting those recipes to perfection. You need to prepare it as it is written if you want to get the best results.
MD: How do you create a recipe? I’m adding more cooking posts to my blog, but I’m never sure if my measurements are correct in the recipes I write.
McCargo: When I’m writing a recipe, I get a piece of paper to write down notes. I’ll gather the ingredients and start my process. I’ll measure small portions of each ingredients and taste the dish to figure out what’s missing. From there, I will gradually increase quantities until the dish is perfect. I write down my changes on my sheet of paper. By the time I’m finished, that sheet is covered with food and I know that I’ve created a good recipe.
MD: Are you a harsh critic when you go to restaurants?
McCargo: Now it’s my turn to confess(laughs). I’m a pretty harsh critic. My mother won’t even go out to eat with me because I’m always sending dishes back. I’m not doing it to be snobbish. I just want my meals prepared the way I like them. If I’m going to take the time to go to a restaurant and spend my money, I want to have a good experience. It doesn’t matter if I’m in a greasy spoon or in a five star restaurant. The owner and chef have a responsibility to provide good food and good service.
MD: When I lived in Jacksonville, FL, my wife and I frequented a restaurant called Notre Gormet (it has since closed). The owner shared a story about a patron who wanted an Italian dish. Although the restaurant served Caribbean food, the owner offered to cook the dish. The patron responded with, “You’re not Italian. What do you know about Italian food?” The owner replied, “I’m a chef. I know about all types of food.” Have you ever had a similar experience?
McCargo: I’ve had these experiences quite often. People always ask me what type of food I cook and I always say, “Flavorful food.” They try to pin me down to a specific cuisine, but I refuse to play that game. I’ve worked hard to earn the title of chef and I’d like people to respect that. I can cook any type of cuisine, but I do it in my own style.
MD: Who would win a Throwdown between you and Bobby Flay
McCargo: I would definitely win!
MD: Why do you say that?
McCargo: Because I have confidence in my cooking ability. I respect Bobby Flay, and I’m sure that he would say that he’d beat me. I’ve worked hard to develop my skills and I’ll put them up against anybody.
MD: What dish would you make?
McCargo: Probably grilled steak or chicken wings. Those are some of my specialities.
MD: What do you cook for your own family?
MaCargo: We like to each chicken wings, pasta, and sandwiches. I’d eat sandwiches every day if I could.
MD: Final question – where can I get some of those sweet earrings?
McCargo: I’m thinking of starting a line of men’s jewelry. I’ll let you know when I launch it