'Worst cook' learns his way around a stove

Onetime "worst cook" Vinnie Caligiuri of Jenkintown with his wife, Jeanette, and sons Dylan, 12, and Nick, 15. The boys' older brother, Ryan, nominated Caligiuri as a contestant on a Food Network reality show where he was taught to cook. "An amazing experience," Caligiuri says.
Onetime "worst cook" Vinnie Caligiuri of Jenkintown with his wife, Jeanette, and sons Dylan, 12, and Nick, 15. The boys' older brother, Ryan, nominated Caligiuri as a contestant on a Food Network reality show where he was taught to cook. "An amazing experience," Caligiuri says. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 09, 2012

No one would ever doubt that Vinnie Caligiuri was a loving father of three boys and a devoted husband.

Great cook?

If you had asked his wife, Jeanette, last year, she would have said: "It really isn't his strongest suit. [Diplomatic pause.] He's like a good-time guy who lights up the room with his big personality. [Pause.] But cook, no."

It wasn't Jeanette, but the Jenkintown couple's oldest son, Ryan, 22, who nominated Caligiuri to appear as a contestant on the forthcoming season of the Food Network reality series Worst Cooks in America (premieres 9 p.m. Sunday).

"He's suffered the longest," Caligiuri, 47, said of Ryan.

Caligiuri's lack of kitchen talent was never much of an issue. Back in 2005, he was "chasing the dollar bills - they're fast and they're slippery" - juggling work in mortgage banking and as a radio personality (the sports ranter Vinnie the Crumb, first on WMMR and then on WYSP) when Jeanette, who sold real estate, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"It was a disaster," Caligiuri said.

While his wife fought cancer, Caligiuri became caregiver to Ryan, middle son Nick, now 16, and Dylan, now 12.

Caligiuri thought he had it down. "I'd put Steak-umms on mac and cheese and call it macaroni and cheesesteak," he said. The boys didn't seem to mind that.

Not only was he cooking unhealthfully, he conceded that his prep style was to "slap it together and throw it in the oven." No refinement.

Are you kidding?" he said. "A bum wouldn't eat this slop. My kids really suffered."

He and the boys drifted into fast food. Jeanette's full recovery, and her return to the kitchen, was a blessing for all. (She now owns two boutiques, Faith & Hope, affiliated with Abington Memorial Hospital.)

So when the call came from the Worst Cooks producers, Caligiuri was an eager student. On the show, chefs Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell teach hapless recruits to cook.

"What an amazing experience," Caligiuri said. "I was lost like a puppy in the woods in the kitchen. Then they bring in Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell. The first thing they want you to do is cook for these renowned chefs, and they're critiquing you and showing you everything."

"In the first episode, they go way easy on you," he said. "Eggs and pancakes - things they think you can't mess up. They start out slow. This is like teaching an adult to walk again. Super, super basics to give us the skill set we need. We all make pancakes out of a box, right? Once you do it from scratch, you'll never eat the other kind again."

Finding out whether Caligiuri wins the $25,000 grand prize will have to wait for the finale on April 1. But his kitchen transformation has been amazing. "I have to tell you," said Jeanette, who frequently steps aside for him, "the kids and I think he's an expert now. He's telling me what to do."


Contact Michael Klein at mklein@philly.com.

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