Jenice Armstrong: 'Big Daddy's House' star Aaron McCargo Jr. leads the way to a big, bold dinner

Posted: June 23, 2011

MY 18-YEAR-OLD nephew, John Armstrong, gasped when I told him that the star of the Food Network's "Big Daddy's House" would be coming to my house to cook us dinner.

"He's coming to your house?"

"That's right. Big Daddy's coming to our house," I repeated, pausing for emphasis.

Yeah, I was name-dropping.

But it's not every day that McCargo cooks a meal in somebody's home.

Maybe back in the day, but not since 2008, when he became the last man standing on "The Next Food Network Star" and wound up snagging the grand prize - his own TV show. "Big Daddy's House" airs at 9 a.m. Saturdays on the cable channel.

Maybe you're wondering why McCargo was willing to make me dinner? Well, he has a new cookbook out. And I asked.

In the uber-competitive world of TV chefs, one that's already overpopulated with heavy hitters such as Paula Deen, Bobby Flay, Giada DeLaurentiis and Rachael Ray, McCargo, a Camden native who now lives in Cherry Hill, has managed to carve out a niche as a family-oriented chef who re-imagines familiar dishes with big, bold flavor.

That's bold as in put away the salt shaker. No additional salt or pepper needed, thank you very much.

McCargo's first cookbook, Simply Done, Well Done (Wiley, $19.95), is heavy on simply prepared meat dishes. I'm not much of a red-meat eater, but McCargo's scrumptious-sounding recipe for Pulled Pork Panini with Arugula and Chipotle Mayonnaise had my mouth watering. The cookbook is dedicated to his teenage son, Joshua, 17, who is in a juvenile-detention facility.

In the aisles with Aaron

I caught up with McCargo earlier this month at an Acme in Burlington, N.J. My nephew, who drove up from Washington, with his 14-year-old sister, Jacqueline, tagged along, thrilled to meet their food hero. A tall, solidly built man, McCargo was wearing jeans, a green button-down shirt and his signature hoop earrings. In his hand was a shopping list.

"I make a list out, and I categorize everything," he explained as we headed toward the produce section. "I'm a fast shopper. I want to get in and get out because I'm so excited about the recipes. I just want to get in and get out."

The man moves quickly, all right, but not so fast that he doesn't take time to sniff the melons.

"The melons are good," McCargo said, pausing to thump and squeeze before rejecting one. "This one has a soft spot. This is what I do all the time when I buy fresh fruit. This one is even softer . . . feel that soft spot where your thumb is. That's not what you want.

"Taste the grapes. Taste the blueberries. If you don't like, don't buy it," he said. "I see we're lacking in grapes, but I see we've got tomatoes . . . "

We dashed around the aisles picking up a couple of rotisserie-cooked chickens (McCargo is big on time-saving shortcuts), bags of grated cheddar and mozzarella cheese, a box of pasta and a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce, among other items.

A father of three, McCargo entered the "Next Food Network Star" contest on a whim after his wife, Kimberly, saw an ad for it. To even get on the show, he beat out thousands of TV-chef wannabes.

McCargo got his start cooking at age 4, making cakes in his sister's Easy-Bake Oven. His foodie fixation grew from there. As a youngster, he would take ravioli out of a can, rinse off the tomato sauce and fry it before serving it to his dad.

"I was intrigued by eating," he told me as the cashier checked us out. "I was loving to eat, loving to be around food and loving to look at pictures of food. My dad said, 'You are going to be a chef.' "

What was it about food that captured his imagination?

"The taste. There's something about texture," he said, as if he'd disappeared to a place where everything smells like bacon and comes sizzling hot off a grill. His obsession continued through his teen years, when he baked cakes and sold them to neighborhood friends.

"I was at Cooper Hospital as a candy striper/volunteer. I was in the kitchen from 13 to 15," he recalled. "I couldn't get working papers, so I went into Cooper's and started to do my thing."

Did he remember what his bosses had him doing?

"A lot of molding Salisbury steak," he recalled. "I would scoop the little patties out."

Nothing fancy

Back at my house in Burlington, as I waited for McCargo and his driver to show up, I had a case of the last-minute jitters. I'd spent the morning cleaning, but I couldn't help worrying that it wasn't enough. Should I have cleared out some shelves in the refrigerator? Did I have the right pots and other things a professional chef would expect?

Turns out, I'd stressed out over nothing. In McCargo's world, you don't need a lot of fancy kitchen equipment, although a panini press comes in handy. Same thing with a countertop grill. He also recommends a deep-fat fryer, but there's no way I'm getting one of those.

When McCargo arrived, he politely slipped off his sneakers and surveyed his surroundings before diving into the task at hand. He kept up his "Big Daddy"-style patter almost nonstop as he prepared two dishes - Barbecue Chicken Penne Melt and Family-Style Curry Chicken Salad Platter. (To watch him prepare the dishes from start to finish, check out our video at www.philly.com/AaronCooks.)

"I'm pretty shy," he said, his head looking down as he worked.

"I'm not that guy that always needs to be out schmoozing with the customers. Some chefs like be out in the dining room. I'm the one that likes to be in the back . . . I get in my zone - and food is my zone. I get there and worry about the food being good."

The whole time he talked he was moving, enlisting John's and Jacqueline's help in pulling rotisserie chicken off the bones for the pasta casserole. At one point, he chopped Vidalia onions and sauteed them in a pan of bacon grease.

My jaw dropped at his use of the cast-off fat, but my nephew looked like he was about to swoon at the thought of all those onions soaking up the bacon flavor. The onions wound up in the pasta with the chicken, barbecue sauce and cheese.

My kitchen smelled divine, but pork bacon? I eyed a bottle of olive oil on the counter and made a mental note to at least use nitrate-free turkey bacon later on when I prepared my lighter version of the pasta dish.

McCargo, who'd been hipped by his publicist of my food preferences (I eat mostly seafood), suggested using eggplant and other vegetables instead of boiling poultry for the curried chicken salad. (When I prepared my version later, I substituted albacore tuna for the chicken and wound up smacking my lips over it. Another substitution I tried that worked really well was giant shrimp instead of rotisserie chicken in the pasta casserole.)

Time to eat!

Before becoming a TV star, McCargo worked at numerous local restaurants. From 2003 to 2005, he operated his own bistro-style eatery, McCargo's Restaurant, in Camden, which closed because of "differences" with his business partner, Alberto Nieves, a childhood friend.

His other restaurant, Da Spot, in Camden, catered to students from Rutgers and Rowan universities, but he closed it in 2005 because of neighborhood crime concerns. For a time, he worked as the executive chef of catering at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, where he planned events and took on special assignments such as designing a holiday dish that was easy for patients to chew and swallow. (He created phyllo-dough bundles with a black-bean filling. In the cookbook, he shows how to do it with chicken.)

McCargo hopes to one day get the financing together to open another McCargo's, possibly on the Camden waterfront.

As we talked, McCargo steadily worked, sweat forming on his brow.

Soon, my 17-year-old stepson, Marshall Turner, arrived with some friends, and we had a hungry crowd watching silently as McCargo put the finishing touches on a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers alongside chunks of melon, fresh strawberries and a mound of bright-yellow chicken salad with grapes.

When he pulled the casserole out of the oven, the cheese on top had browned nicely.

McCargo took what was left of the barbecue sauce and made a zigzag pattern on the top as we moaned with delight. Then he tossed on some chopped scallions and it was done.

Even my cheese-spurning stepson scarfed that pasta down.

I nibbled a little at the edges, but I could tell by how quickly both dishes were emptied that Big Daddy's coming to my house had been a hit.

Aaron McCargo Jr. will join "Top Chef" winner Kevin Sbraga and contestant Jennifer Carroll, chef de cuisine at 10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric Ripert at the Ritz-Carlton Philadelphia, and Jack McDavid of Down Home Diner to do cooking demonstrations from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. July 7 at Reading Terminal Market's center court to celebrate the launch of the new and improved Philly.com/food.

Send email to heyjen@phillynews.com. My blog: www.philly.com/HeyJen.

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