'Big Daddy's House' spices the life of Chef Aaron McCargo

Posted: August 21, 2008

HE WAS WORKING at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital as a catering director when suddenly fame came knocking.

It was an accident, really, a stroke of luck that handsome, fun-loving Camden father of three Aaron McCargo Jr. suddenly found himself not in a hospital kitchen but on a TV kitchen set where the cameras were rolling just for him.

Having devoted his professional life to cooking - whether in commercial kitchens or, briefly, his own restaurant - homegrown McCargo is now "The Next Food Network Star."

The reality show, in its fourth season, is part MTV's "Real World" and part Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" as it pits everyday cooks against each other to win a six-episode series of their own.

First-season winner Guy Fieri, the spiky, bleached-blond restaurant nomad, scored big time. His show, "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," has become a cult fave of sorts with twenty- and thirtysomethings.

McCargo hopes his fortunes will be as sweet with "Big Daddy's House," which aims to show even the most novice cooks that preparing good food can be fun, flavorful and easy. Relaxed behind the camera, the boisterous, bald chef with the signature earrings whips up soul food, barbecue and other comfort foods.

His familiar, friendly banter makes a viewer feel like they're cooking in the backyard with a neighbor, not a Food Network personality. All about sharing his tricks and secrets, McCargo wants cooks to feel confident about their kitchen skills.

The show airs at 1:30 p.m. Sundays through early September. After that, McCargo's future with the Food Network will be in the hands of network bigs - and viewers.

"You know what? I take it day by day. I look forward to good times. It will be good whether it's six shows or 60 shows or 600 shows," McCargo said recently. He's left his job at the hospital but feels confident about the future. "There will be more to come from Aaron McCargo. I just have to continue to be myself and cook good food."

So how did stardom find a Camden native whose only prior claim to fame was throwing good barbecues for his friends? If you ask McCargo, he'll say it was part luck, part hard work and most definitely, part divine intervention.

Q: How did this exciting journey to Food Network begin?

A: It pretty much started with me, and my wife kicking it. . . . She saw a commercial for "Next Food Network Star," and she said I have the personality for it and to go for it. I said, if you do the paperwork. . . .

Three times we tried to send it in and we kept missing the deadline. The third time was the charm - they said they wanted me to come to New York.

Q: Did you always cook? How did you start?

A: I've always had a passion for food, and cooking is in my blood. I made my first meal out of the microwave at age 7.

At 13, I got a job candystriping [at Cooper Hospital]. I hated it. I walked around on my break one day and found the kitchen and saw this guy with a uniform on. I said I wanted to cook. I had to get paperwork signed, then he took me under his wing. His name was Clem.

I used to own a restaurant in Camden on Cooper Street; it lasted for two years. It was a great ball of fun. Bistro food, vegetarian dishes, hearty salads with lots of flavors. It was a dream to open a restaurant, and it was a dream [to do it] in my hometown.

Q: So were the show and the competition itself nerve-wracking?

A: You know, I took every day for that day and I never [worried]. You can't control the future. My thing is whatever comes, comes. The toughest three parts were being away from my family and friends for a couple of months - a lot longer than I am used to - and living with people I've never lived with before. [The competition and his show were filmed in New York.] And, from a cooking aspect, having to cook with someone you never have cooked with before.

Q: Tell me what winning was like, what went through your head?

A: You know what? The win . . . every time I think about it, all I hear is the pop sound of the confetti falling out of the ceiling, and seeing my wife and my sister come running from the [audience]. It was awesome just to know, after all that pain and suffering and good times, that it came down to where I was the winner.

I believed in myself from the beginning. My friends, they are all cocky. They believed way back when I was in elementary school that I could do this. I have a buddy named Burt since kindergarten . . . he was always there with me throughout this.

Q: What was it like being behind a camera for your six pilot episodes?

A: It was great. That was the best part of all the challenges, because I was allowed to do what was inside of me. I was keeping it simple but doing flavorful food. [It's all about] bringing cooking tricks to people without making them feel intimidated.

I was excited, I was like, "Oh my god, they are going to see me on TV." And it was exciting to think I had the whole world listening to what I had to say about food. The camera didn't matter. I had a great producer . . . and it just flowed.

Q: So if you had to tell America one thing about your show, what would you want that to be? What are you aiming for?

A: Fun . . . bottom line. This is about having fun with your children, your spouse, your neighbors. I was actually joking with my mailman, saying, "I am going to bring you on my show."

Q: So what will you do if Food Network keeps you and give you more shows?

A: Girl, we are going to have a party. Six more shows? Hot diggity dog, Camden and Philly are going to be on fire! *

E-mail April Lisante at

lisanta@phillynews.com.

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