Jeff Mauro Talks Kitchen Crash, And Shares His Best Cooking Tips - Exclusive Interview

Jeff Mauro, his silver tongue and superpower (making food so inspired it makes your mouth water even though you can only see it on a screen) has been a household name since 2011. That's when he won "Food Network Star." Shortly after, he hit the ground running, turning sandwiches into the Mona Lisa's of the culinary world with Food Network's "Sandwich King."

Whether giving us insider secrets into the art of perfecting a grilled cheese, tipping us off on how to find a truly delicious sausage, or giving us a tantalizing behind-the-scenes look at "Kitchen Crash," one thing is clear. The Food Network star has got authentic Chicago cuisine and community running through his blood. Family for Mauro includes two beautiful Goldendoodles, Jojo and Pinot G. They, in turn, inspired him to find time between family dinners, hosting "Kitchen Crash," and co-hosting "The Kitchen" to collaborate on a new "Pup-Up" dining experience. (Bobby Flay and his cat Nacho, have got some serious competition.) Jeff Mauro dished on all that, and much more when he sat down exclusively with Mashed.

Jeff Mauro gives us his best cooking tips

You have a Chicago cheesesteak recipe [in your cookbook, "Come on Over"] and you season the bread. That was mind-blowing to me. What other bread should I be seasoning? How?

Oh, like grilled cheese? You should season the outside of the bread. Right when you flip it and it hits that butter, give a little kosher salt on the outside. It really does change the entire experience. But you know, people don't think in these terms of building layers of flavors like that, but it's such a simple move that really gives back a lot.

 Scrambled eggs. You make yours only with salt and butter in your book ... no dairy, no seltzer water for fluff. What's the secret?

[The] secret is timing. Right? Controlling your heat. When you're shaking the pan, the secret's butter. Really. I'm not an oil and eggs guy. Some people like it. Some people put the half and half ... Or salt it before and let it sit, so you develop tighter curds. Man, whisk it up so it's even. Get it in a medium pan, shake it and get it, you know... Apply pepper later. Not before. I like fresh pepper on top of the eggs. I never dictate anybody's. 

You worked in a deli before, what's your warning sign for bad sausage?

If it comes pre-packaged, it's usually not a good sign. If you see it in a deli case in a rope form, that's usually a good sign. If you ask them, "Where's this made? Is this made here?" And they say, "Yes," that's the best sign. And you want fat too. If you bring it home and you make it, you're like, "This is not fatty enough." I mean, what's the point? Come on. You want diet sausage?

Jeff Mauro shares behind-the-scenes Kitchen Crash secrets

You always have giardiniera stocked in your fridge. If you were in "Kitchen Crash" and somebody knocked on your door, what other things would they find in your pantry?

Oh, you would find a lot of mustards. You would find a good amount of meat in the freezer, ready to go, perfectly portioned and vacuum-sealed, which always makes it easier to defrost quickly too, which is a big challenge in "Kitchen Crash." A good amount of vegetables, fruits, all the essentials. But the problem is, if you come to our house Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, you're going to find all these things. All the fresh goodies. You come to our house Friday and Saturday, which we've done on "Kitchen Crash"... and it's so interesting seeing the difference in people's fridges at the beginning of the week and at the end of the week. Because I know Friday's like pizza night, or go out to dinner night. Saturday's out with a friend. So it's like, we're not well-stocked. So just don't come to my house Saturday. God forbid Sunday morning. Wake me up? I wouldn't be happy.

What's the most off-putting or surprising thing somebody's found in a fridge during "Kitchen Crash"?

There was one, it was in the fridge. I think this was in Jersey ... It was by far the largest zucchini I've ever seen in my life. I mean, it didn't even look like a vegetable, and it was grown in their backyard, and it was in their fridge. And it was this big ... I'm like, "First of all, it's going to take you a couple of days just to fabricate this thing, and it's going to be full of a ton of water." But I mean, I was shocked at the ... I'm like, "What are you guys fertilizing with here in Jersey?"

What's the best thing somebody's cooked up on the show so far?

There was a hot broccoli sandwich, which was like a fried broccoli steak that was done in a Nashville hot preparation. Phenomenal.

Are there any other behind-the-scenes rules that you can share with us? 

Other than they didn't know we were Food Network and that we were shooting a food show there. People knew that there was a television crew shooting on their block, and the houses that wanted a chance to participate in whatever we were doing signed off on that. But they didn't know, because we don't want people stocking up on their fridges. Or going shopping. That doesn't make it fun. What makes it fun is people, these chefs, having to use their creativity and their whole bag of tricks with whatever they have. Whether it's Monday or Saturday. And then they choose a house that thing gets filled up. That's what they got for the entire competition. So people were shocked.

Jeff Mauro on what Kitchen Crash has taught him about cooking

Does anything else happen on ["Kitchen Crash"] that we don't see that you think we should know about?

I think there's a lot of scenes that are cut out of me just kind of interacting with the neighborhood. So I'm looking forward to doing this again post-COVID, and a little more safe, because the pilot we shot and all that, that was pre-COVID. I mean, it's been a long time in the making. Me racing the kids, playing, driving their go-carts around. All this stuff. It was a block party environment. So, I'd love for you guys to see some of those outtakes or wait for the next season ... It was wonderful seeing all the different — not only the diversity of this country through each block — but also the homegrown, the homemade ingredients that the chefs would use. You know, the peppers from Jamaica that were grounded perfect, their homemade tomato sauce that they jarred last winter. All this stuff from these different families ... The hot sauce that the guy made, the barbecue rub that he's been making for 10 years, that just happens to be in their pantry. It's those moments that make it truly relatable and fantastic.

How are you choosing the neighborhoods that you showcase?

You know [it's] just a great little snapshot of the country ... you find them on each block. I know my block is different from the block directly north of me. They both have the same vibe, but they're so different ... You know, you might think they might be able to cook, but then, you know... You just look for blocks with a lot of families, a lot of great people.

What did you take from all the competitions you've been on and incorporate it into "Kitchen Crash" ... what did you want to do differently? 

It taught me that sometimes what you've got in your pantry or in your fridge is more than enough. You know, it doesn't take a giant delivery order or an hour trip to the grocery store. What you have and what we stock up on is enough. And especially at the beginning of the pandemic, combined with "Kitchen Crash," really, it was like, you know, we've got enough here. Let's use our creativity and our skills. And the more you do it, and the more you kind of pull from your pantry what you got, the more you're able to do it successfully. Use that stuff in the freezer, use what you got before you keep adding on and [throwing away]. 

Jeff Mauro shares his favorite Chicago dining spots

You're a Chicago man. You're also tight with Ali KhanYou had one of your first shows together. Khan went to Chicago for "Cheap Eats" in 2016. And he ate fried chicken, biscuits, egg, and bacon for breakfast. He had an Italian beef sandwich for lunch, an almond croissant as a snack, and then mac and cheese for dinner. Where would you take him now?

Oh man. I mean, that was five, six years ago. I would take him to a place in my neighborhood that does giant subs called Nottoli, for not giant money. And two people can eat one sub. They're that big. Or there's this place called Gaetano's right down the street from me that does house-made mortadella. And for 14 bucks, it's like the sandwich is on a ... I mean, two people can't even eat it. People are like, "Fourteen bucks for a sub?" I go, "You can't even get this thing in the door." ... Three people could split that. That's what I would take them. And it's house-made mortadella, which you don't find.

Is there anything Khan did wrong, that he didn't show about Chicago, that you would want to have shown?

No, of course, I'm not going to tell him he's done anything wrong.

What's one Chicago food that you wish had more recognition on a national level? We all talk about deep-dish all the time. There's got to be an under-appreciated Chicago food that you wish people were talking about more.

I wish people talked more about giardiniera. I have several pages dedicated to it. I think it's our greatest gift. Even beyond the hot dogs, and the deep dish, and the tavern-style, thin-crust, great sausage culture, and all this stuff. I think once people try it for the first time, outside whatever they're used to, whether it's the brined pickled method you can get kind of nationwide. But if you get the true fermented, pickled, oil-packed Chicago-style giardiniera, it's the greatest thing. You'll never not eat it every day. I mean, we eat it every day. I developed my own brand, Mauro Provisions Craft Giardiniera with five different kinds of peppers. It's the greatest stuff on the planet, I think. I mean, if you look at my fridge now there's like three jars with scant amounts in it. I just started eating our wholesale packages of it.

Jeff Mauro reveals his favorite foods

When making your Chicago cheesesteak you seasoned your bread with something that you said tasted like barbecue chip dust.

That's our Mauro Provisions barbecue chip dust, which it tastes exactly like shaking the end of a bag of barbecue kettle chips right into your mouth from the bag. You know when you look in there, you don't have the dexterity to grab any more of those crumbs. You don't want to get them all over your shirt, so you turn the bag and you dump it right in your mouth. That's one of my favorite bites on the planet. So I put it in a bottle.

 I have to ask you ... where do you stand on licking dust off chips?

Oh, licking it off the chip and then eating the chip? Hey man, whatever floats your boat. But if that's your thing, I'm not going to judge you, A. B, I think I would direct you to to get your own barbecue chip dust bottle. Isn't that something you probably want to do on your own? Like alone in a home, in a closet without any lights on, or anybody else looking at you?

What fast-food burger are you eating when you can't make your own?

We've got plenty of great greasy joints in the Chicagoland area. You know, there's a place down the street called Mickey's. That's a Big Mickey, which is grilled onions, pickles, and mustard, double cheese, double patty. They wrap it up and by the time you unfurl it the cheese sticks to the wrapper and you've got this massive burger and cheese and bun, and it's like, you could take down two of them. They were 99 cents growing up. Now they've raised the price, thank God. But I remember taking two of those down with a side of cheese fries.

Jeff Mauro on family and food

What's your son [Lorenzo's] favorite recipe in your cookbook, "Come On Over," that you've dedicated to him?

His GYOB cheeseburger. Grind your own beef cheeseburger. Really easy to grind your own beef at home, using a food processor, and he loves it. Little smash on there. Plenty of American cheese, buttered, griddled brioche bun. Every day he would if he could.

Is he a chicken sandwich person? You entered the chicken sandwich wars with your cookbook, you've got a formidable entry with your fried chicken sandwich.

Yeah. Oh, he loves it. I mean, he loves the fried chicken sandwiches. I mean, who doesn't? Doesn't need much, either, right? Fried chicken, soft bun, you're good to go.

You just celebrated the 4th of July and your whole cookbook is around family traditions. Can you share a family tradition you have with the 4th of July and cooking?

My favorite holiday. I liked it more than Christmas, than Halloween. It was to me, right in the tastiest bits of summer when you're in your groove as a kid and you're out of school for a month or so, and then you know you still got like two months left, so you have that energy about you. When we had our house in the city, we had an above-ground pool. And I remember my mom, my dad's out there grilling sausage, making peppers, big loaves of bread, and we'd sit there and we would swim, we'd eat, we'd swim, we'd eat. But I just remember that above-ground pool, we would do... Every 4th of July, all my uncles, my cousins would come over for this big feast. And we would do a whirlpool in the above-ground pool, to the point where you couldn't. You're just getting whipped around as a kid. And then we'd wait for nighttime. We'd start the fireworks and everything. I loved it. I mean, to me, it's a great way to spend time with the family.

Best 4th of July food?

Sausage and peppers. It's easy to do ... To me, it's something you could pick at, too, the rest of the night. Right? As the night winds down, you sit there, you go back and you make another sandwich. You put the giardiniera on it, and the oil, the peppers, everything.

Jeff Mauro on his new pup-up dining partnership

Tell me all about the Cesar Wholesome Bowls. What inspired them? Are you competing with Bobby Flay and his cat food brand?

Who? Who? ... I partnered with Caesar brands because it was so natural for me, because it's combining two of my favorite things. And I don't tell my 12-year-old son this, but my two dogs, Jo-Jo and Pinot, and the love for great, beautiful food and cooking. And what I love about this Bestie Bowls program is that you can get bold. We sit down and when we eat dinner as a family, our dogs have to eat dinner as well. Right? Because if they're seeing us, watching us eat, they know that something's missing and they don't get their bowl of food. So they're trained and conditioned to do that. So this is a great way to kind of incorporate all of the family, not just my son and my wife and I. Where a home-cooked, wholesome dinner, like one of these bowls, but also incorporate your dogs to give them a wholesome bowl as well. And just have those shared mealtime moments. You know, they're very spoiled. What can I say?

Can you give me a peek inside your bowl? 

This one has [chicken] ... some crispy chickpeas, which are easy to make right out of the can. I've got a great recipe in my cookbook. Covered in Middle Eastern spices. I love cooking with color too. So red cabbage, give you some crunch, health benefits, but also a blast of that purple color, because there's not enough purple food, am I right? Never. And then sweet potatoes roasted with honey, spices, all on a bit of arugula. Which, you can order this July 13th.

Is that the human version? Or the dog version?

That is the human version. And I got your best friend's version here, if you will. The Cesar Wholesome bowls with beef, chicken, carrots ... So there's only a limited number through Postmates, and they'll deliver my chicken lemon thyme, honey roasted sweet potato bowl over that bed of arugula with your Bestie Bowls or your Wholesome Bowls for your pup or pups. And you can dine together.

Has your son taste-tested the bowl? And does he approve?

Listen, he's a 12-year-old boy. You think he wants all these vegetables? He likes the chicken. He likes the potatoes. He's a 12-year-old boy. You know, if there was a cheeseburger, now ... But my dogs definitely approve of these. They are obsessed with these Cesar bowls. They've been enjoying this partnership I've had with Cesar. Trust me, the minute they hear the noise of me unfurling it, taking it out of the wrapper and everything, they're out of their minds, and they eat them quickly. So they've been enjoying this partnership more than me. They love it.

Starting July 13, pet parents in NYC and LA can order Bestie Bowls with Postmates for free, while supplies last. With each delivery, the meal duo on demand will offer dogs delicious CESAR WHOLESOME BOWLS, and humans will receive a tasty bowl crafted by Food Network host, chef and dog-loving author Jeff Mauro.

Catch Jeff in new episodes of "Kitchen Crash," Wednesdays on Food Network.