Aaron McCargo Jr. Talks Big Daddy's House And His Best Cooking Tips - Exclusive Interview

When it comes to cooking, there are some rules that are meant to be followed. That is, unless you're Aaron McCargo Jr. The Camden, New Jersey-raised chef and Food Network personality says he makes his own rules in the kitchen, and has built a career based on his reputation for bold flavors and big ideas, with some truly mouth-watering results. From winning Season 4 of "Food Network Star," to hosting his own show, "Big Daddy's House," to his newest gig promoting Cook's Essentials on QVC, and everything in between, McCargo Jr. is keeping it real, and always thinking outside the box.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, McCargo Jr. opened up about his wide-ranging career in the kitchen and in front of the camera, his approach to food, and his love for kitchen gadgets. He also shared some of his most tried and true cooking tips, whether you're just starting out, or seasoned in the kitchen.

Aaron McCargo Jr. on his partnership with shopping network QVC

How and why did you get involved with QVC?

I have to thank my management for that. They gave me a call and asked me, was I familiar with QVC? I'm like, "Yeah, I'm familiar, but I actually never shopped from it." And then [they asked], "Well, what do you know about Cook's Essentials?" And I'm like, "Not much. I haven't heard much about it."

And then when I got the okay to come in for an interview and got to see what it was about, I was excited because as a chef, it's more so about the big picture of food, not just the food itself. So to have an opportunity to really get to work with a partnership that's behind the cookware, and the electrics, and the gadgets, and kitchens, that was exciting for me to know that I would be possibly the guy to spearhead that brand. So it was pretty cool.

So what is your part in this partnership? What does that entail for you?

It's about me really showcasing new products that we bring from our vendors that really can help make the lifestyle in the kitchen a little bit easier and make it fun in the kitchen. And so we go from bakeware to stovetop cookware, to electrics, to gadgets ... battery operated hand-free can opener and jar openers, to like little chopper food processors and things of that nature, to ice cream makers. So really we're trying to be in that middle mark for that middle brand shopper that's not looking for upscale or to break the bank, but also looking for something that's not mediocre. It's going to give you quality, give you longevity. And that's going to be the same quality that you would get if you were to go out and drop hundreds of dollars on any of those items.

Aaron McCargo Jr. on why he loves promoting Cook's Essentials

Now that you're the resident expert in all things Cook's Essentials, what is so great about this collection for a consumer?

Price and quality. I've come from Family Dollar shopping as a young cook, moving into my first apartment, and [the cookware pieces] just don't last. You get a pot and it melts, or you get marks in the pan because the metal cuts into it. You get the handle falling off or you buy a blender that doesn't work long. Being with Cook's Essentials [means] now I don't have to go to Le Creuset. I can go right in that middle and get me some really good quality stuff that is going to really affect the way I cook in the kitchen.

We're dealing with a lot of nonstick. We're dealing with a lot of hard-anodized or forged aluminum products, which are really good, durable non-stick items, but we're also giving you things like a silicone mat or silicone baking board. Then when we get to our air fryers, we're giving you quality air fryers. And you know, the air fry market took off real big in the last 10 years, but we're here to give you a really good quality air fryer, whether it's an air fryer grill, or an air fryer that you can also do pressure cooking in. We've got a variety of things out there all under one umbrella. So you don't have to keep going out and shopping for multiple brands. We have a one-stop-shop with Cook's Essentials.

You go to Bed Bath & Beyond, and there's like 12 different brands to choose from. And who knows the difference. So you just end up picking what's the cheapest.

Yes. And you named one of my favorite stores. So I'm a junkie at Bed Bath & Beyond. I have my cards ... I collect them every month and I go there.

But like you said, when you go there looking for something, there's all these brands under that umbrella and you just don't know unless you go do the research. Here, I'm the guy that really gets to do [research and development]. I get to test the product out before we stamp it. I get to work and talk to the vendors. I get the opportunity to give them feedback and let them know like, "Hey guys, can we tweak this? Can we make it a little bigger? Can we make sure that this doesn't do this or that," [with products] that I'm having problems with or issues with. And then they go and they fix it and we come back and we test it again until we get it right. And I love that.

Aaron McCargo Jr. discusses his favorite tools in the kitchen

As a seasoned chef, what are your go-to cooking tools or gadgets in the kitchen that you're always reaching for?

How much time do you have?

Well, give us the short version.

Well, I'll tell you what. It's all about the saute pans. So I'm a big saute pan guy. I've never been into nonstick because as chefs, we're always using stainless steel. We're using aluminum, things of that nature. But once I [discovered] the nonstick cookware, I've become a big advocate for it. And also the cast iron game has changed. So now we have a lot of cast iron that's nonstick. It can go into your dishwasher. You can use a lot of different utensils on it.

And I'll say the air fryer. I never thought I would be saying this, but I am an air fry junkie. And it's all because Cook's Essentials has really shown me that if you get a good high-quality air fryer, done deal. You're cooking and you're eating in no time at all.

When it comes to the gadgets, I can't get enough of the battery-operated jar and can openers. They really work. It's like I got to hide that so no one steals it when they come to my crib. Because they be looking like, "Yo, that's dope." I'm like, "Yeah, you said 'dope' too many times." I'm a junkie. No more twisting and breaking the wrist. You know, it works. And also we've got these gravity salt and pepper mills. Because I'm not a chef that likes to put my hands on the pepper. Never been for it. I know it's trendy, but when you can go ahead and USB this, plug it in, hit a button on the top and you're getting your pepper and salt, whatever you want, to grind out of it in no time.

You might have the same answer for this next question, but if we're now talking about beginner chefs and beginner home cooks, what are the cooking tools that they should first invest in to get started?

I always say a good set of knives, which, at Cook's Essentials, we're working on a great set of knives now that should be coming out in the new year. Definitely good saute pans. I'll always say, go with the hard-anodized or forged aluminum. Very affordable, very durable, slight difference in the two, but you'll understand it once you have them. And also good mixing bowls. We have these silicone bottoms on our Cook's Essentials bowls so that you can really get a good grip. Because I want to not only target a female audience, but I want the younger audience to come in. I want the novice cook to come in. I want the professionals to come in. So I will say knives, saute pans and pots, and your bowls, and everything else will fall into place.

Aaron McCargo Jr. looks back on Food Network Star and shares behind-the-scenes details

Let's talk about "Food Network Star." Obviously, that was in 2008 ... A lot has happened since then, but can you share some of the most memorable moments that still stick in your mind from that experience?

That will always live in my mind. 2008 was a memorable year for me. Obama was the president, the Celtics won the championship — and I'm a Sixers fan — and I won "The Next Food Network Star." So it's a wrap.

That was your year.

But you know what? I have to say the 10 contestants that I competed with, they were a lot of unique personalities. I'd never been outside of my hometown of Camden, New Jersey. To go to New York City and really compete with chefs from all over the country — from Utah, from Texas, from California — it was just amazing to see everyone's approach. We didn't have any type of outdoor connection. So we didn't use cell phones or we didn't have TVs to watch or books to read. So it was really about knowing each other's cooking style, culinary point of view, and what food meant to everyone in their own minds. And I got to learn a lot of things from everybody in the house.

I got to challenge [myself] and see what is good food to the judges. What I thought was amazing, they obviously sometimes didn't, but it was still enough to fuel me to go to the next level. You know, I always credit my faith for being able to push me through, because I know I couldn't have done that. You know, walking into something totally new to you, never done TV, never had been a guy to be around a lot of people or people at all. I'm an introvert, and then to be able to prove to you that I'm making something that's great that I think you should agree with. That was hard to wrap my head around. I was so used to making things and people liking it. And now I have someone that's going to say, "Your next door can be opened or closed by what you put in front of me. And if we three like it, you have a chance to go to the next level." And that was something I couldn't adjust to.

But Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri, and a lot of folks came to me, the Neelys, they came over and encouraged me like, "Hey man, you got this. You've got the cooking chops. You can do this." And then when it came down to the final three and I was in Vegas, I remember looking out of my window and Toni Braxton was across the wall. And I said, where do I go from here, God? And it was like, just keep cooking.

And that day that they announced me as the winner of "Next Food Network Star," Season 4, all things went bananas in my head and my body and my soul. I didn't know what the future would hold for me. I knew nothing about TV. I was just totally scared, like just being numb. And then when I was called to come on set and Gordon Elliot was my producer, it just blew my mind. And just to know that I have people around me trying to help me make life good for everyone else that's going to watch me, and all I had to do was show up, smile, and cook. You can't give me a better job.

Aaron McCargo Jr. says he's ready to Beat Bobby Flay

What was it like competing, like cooking for Bobby Flay?

You know what, to be honest with you, I've never looked at anybody as anyone other than my family. So when I cook for my family, I'm cooking for you. If the president of the United States called me in to cook, I'm going to do what I normally do. What do you have a taste for? What don't you eat? Are you allergic to anything? And do you like spicy and bold flavors? And if he says whatever he says, I go right into it. So I never look at anyone as a celebrity. I look at everyone as just like a client or customer. They didn't pay for it. But they were going to pay for it one way or the other with a compliment or something. That's how I look at everybody still to this day.

We'd like to see you compete on "Beat Bobby Flay." Do you think that's going to happen?

Has he called me yet? No. Why? I'm not saying. It's his call. You know I'm game.

What would you make?

I would go with New York steak au poivre with au gratin potatoes and grilled roasted asparagus with a funked-out twist. You got to do something different with it.

Oh, that sounds amazing. You all heard it here first. Gauntlet thrown.

Let's do the damn thing, yes!

Aaron McCargo Jr. looks back on Big Daddy's House

After "Food Network Star" led to "Big Daddy's House," which ran for six seasons. What was the inspiration behind the name and the recipes for that show?

It was all a 50/50. Gordon Elliot was the inspiration behind the name. He's like, "You're a father. You're a big guy. You have a big voice. You have a big energy about you." And when he tasted my food he said, "Your flavors are ridiculous." And I heard that a lot during the competition. Like I [almost] never lost a battle. I only lost two, I think, but it was never about the flavor. It was always about something else.

And when it [came to] creating the recipes, I had a great culinary team put together for me that they wrapped their head around my concept and my thought process with food. It was always about keeping it simple. It was always about making sure that the ingredients are reachable and you can get them from anywhere. You don't have to have these specialty ingredients.

And also, get in the kitchen and get out. I'm not that dude that's like, "Oh man, let's hang around the kitchen and just waste hours here." Nah, let's cook, sit down, and waste hours at the table, grubbing and drinking. That's my vibe and my jive. So I was able to just do the things I've cooked for my family all these years. I come from a large family. I've always cooked all my life with them. So I was able to just bring those recipes and those ideas and make them into recipes and do it for the masses. And it was great. There was no pressure, no persuasion to cook this way or cook that way. They just wanted my vibe, my energy, and my food.

What were some of the standout, favorite recipes that came out of that show for you?

My first week, best week ever. I did my mama's fried chicken and macaroni salad, and I did a Long Island Iced Tea, I think, in that episode. And I did a crusted prime rib. And I think I did those au gratin potatoes that I'm talking about, that I'm going to beat Bobby Flay with? I did those. So, Bobby? Is he around? Can somebody call him, like, "Let's do this."

I think that whole first week of shooting was the best, but those were the ones that stuck out the most. And then as I started to bring my kids into some of the episodes, that really was exciting. Like we did a stuffed meatball with bucatini mozzarella. That was a nice treat for the kids. We did the Super Bowl tailgating dishes, like the sweet potato loaded nachos. I mean, it's fire after fire, flame after flame.

Aaron McCargo Jr. on his cooking style and making his own rules in the kitchen

Your range of recipes and dishes covers the map. You do all kinds of crazy stuff with bold flavors. So how do you describe your cooking style?

I would say simple with an attitude. I'm from Camden, so we got a little bit of bite in everything. We got a little bit of fight in us. So everything I'm making is going to really ... I want it to hit you in the mouth and you walk away, come back and be like, "What was that that you did to that?" I don't care if it's as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich, I really want to make sure you have the best grilled cheese. And even if I put caramelized garlic and whatever in it, and then grill your grilled cheese in that, I just want it to be flavorful. I want it to be known to be something different.

I like deconstructing traditional dishes and breaking all the rules of cooking because [the culinary world has] been known to have structured things. And now that I've been seasoned, been in this game over 30 years, [I think] a lot of rules don't have to be those rules. Like when they say salt your water before cooking pasta, I don't agree with that. Don't mix cheese with fish. I don't agree with that. You know, a lot of things, I think we hear it and we stick with it and no one's had the balls to say like, nah, we don't have to do it that way. You could still get great pasta without seasoning with salt.

You don't salt your pasta water? I've never heard that before.

Never. No. I believe in two things: I never rinse my pasta, no matter what, unless I make it a cold pasta salad, because I don't want it starchy. And I don't season my pasta ... because the sauce, whatever I'm going to do with it, I want that to be the flavor. Because sometimes you can oversalt it. When I hear them say, "season it like seawater," I'm like, "I don't want everything to taste like seawater". Seawater's salty. I don't need that. If I make you a scampi or if I make you a pomodoro, if I make you whatever, I want you to taste that flavor on that noodle. And that's why I don't rinse it, because I want the starch to cling to the sauce and really all come together. When you salt it, you do something to it. You know, for me personally. And I don't knock anyone. I don't want to bash anyone, but it's just the AMJ way of doing things.

What every beginner cook should master first, according to Aaron McCargo Jr.

What are some of the first recipes or dishes that you would recommend a beginner cook to try to master? What should they start with?

I would say soups. I'm going to tell you why. First, I love making soups. Second, it gives you an opportunity to be creative because soups give you that ... free canvas, that blank canvas. You can take whatever you have laying around. If you know the basics of a soup, whether you want a broth soup, a cream soup, or chili — those are the three ways I look at soups — and then you can go ahead and build from there.

So if I can teach you how to make a roux, I can teach you how to make a cream soup of any kind. If I can teach you how to flavor your broth with some of these root vegetables or whatever you have — if you're going to go Asian style, like maybe we're going to bring in some nori or we'll bring in some miso, things of that nature — I can show you how. Or just some bouillon cubes to make a broth soup. And then if I can teach you how to make a chili, you'll know how to go later and make a stew. You can make yourself a white bean chili. You can make a vegetarian chili. I can teach you those three and pulling from what you have spice-wise, ingredient-wise from your own pantry or fridge, I think that that'll get you more comfortable with knowing like ...  if you ever have leftovers or you make a mistake, you can always divert and make a soup. And that's the first thing I like to teach people.

Aaron McCargo Jr. shares his ultimate hack for spicing up a recipe

You're no stranger to spices and even have your own line of spices. So what are your top tips for home cooks when it comes to adding seasoning and spicing up your dishes? Because you definitely can take it too far.

Oh my God. That's dope. That's my t-shirt. "Don't take it too far with the spice." This is my golden rule and it ends and starts with this. Mix your blend in a bowl together first before you put it on anything. I cringe when I see chefs doing layers of spices individually. When I see home cooks do it, I'm like, no, get out your palette of paint and then add them to your little bowl or dish, and mix it and taste and see what you're looking for.

Salt is the last thing to go in. That's going to really make everything pop. But if you've got your smoked paprika, you've got your chili powder, your cumin, whatever you want to use, mix that until you get that flavor you're looking for, depending on what you're going to use it on. Whether it's a protein, chicken, beef, veal, fish, seafood, whatever, pork, or if it's going to be a veggie, make sure that you get that right in the blend. Because now you've got an evenly seasoned piece of whatever. And it's not too [spicy] here, too smoky here, too much chili powder, too much garlic here. Build up your blend first and then go ahead and [season] your food.

And do you use that method as well when you're seasoning pasta sauces and soups and stews and all of that too?

Yes I do. So I'll know ... Like I just made ziti today ... I used my spice [mix] and my sauce for the ziti, but I know that traditionally I would get my garlic, onion, oregano, salt, and pepper and mix it together. And now if I'm going to use canned tomatoes and crush them myself to make a homemade [sauce], I'll put the garlic in there, but then I'll add that blend as I go. And the last thing I'll do is add the salt because I want to see if the balance was right with the oregano and the garlic. But it will all be in the dish. I can always keep adding more of that blend. And then I can add the salt at the end.

Aaron McCargo Jr. talks chicken wings and how to do them right

You've made this clear in interviews and on social media, that you love chicken wings. So are you a drum or a flat kind of guy?

Flats. It's funny. I started as a drummie guy and then something about ... some wings are too big for me. And it was just too juicy in my mouth. And I don't like to have wet meat in my mouth. So I went to the flats because they've got a nice balance and dry moisture to it. And it's funny because I started flats in my house and no one would eat flats. Everyone went to the drummies. Now everyone wants flats and no one wants drummies. So I got a bucket of drummies in the fricking garage if you want them.

So what are your top tips for making wings? How do you get it right every time?

I will always say, start off with room temperature meat, and then always layer your seasoning. I'm not too much into brining wings. Some people do, and it actually does make them juicier, but you can taste that sweet and saltiness in it. But then for me, like I said, it takes away from the sauce of the wing.

But I do believe in seasoning my wings and I do like to fry them. So if I'm going to use my air fryer, I'll put my spice on them and then [put them] in the air fry with nothing. That's my naked wing. If I'm going to bread them, I like to do rice flour, corn starch, and flour. So I like to season them, dip them in that mixture, leave them really wet, coat them really good, let them sit till they look almost sticky, and then fry them. And now you've got that really crunchy Korean-style chicken.

So that's my seasoning tip to really having good wings because I want to be able to eat the wing with or without sauce. So if you season the chicken before you don't have to worry about just having a plain piece of chicken, or if you want to dip on the side. Like, I like my sauce, but some people like it on the side. Now you can eat this wing and appreciate it having flavor. Or you can have it in the sauce and eat it then.

And not wear it on your face.

And you don't have to wear it on your face. Exactly.

Aaron McCargo Jr. on working with other Food Network chefs

Over the years since "Food Network Star," you've appeared on a range of other shows. You've been on "Guy's Grocery Games", "Bar Rescue", and more. Who are some of your favorite fellow chefs and food experts that you've gotten to work with?

It's funny because we never get to cook next to each other. You know what I'm saying? It's always a passing and go. And at "Guy's Grocery Games", Guy's a cool dude. But me and him never vibe in the kitchen, like cook together. Robert Irvine, me and him did some things together. Really solid dude. We never cooked together. Pat Neely. We never cooked together. Bobby Flay. We never ... like I met all these guys, and Michael Symon, and Duff was a cool guy. "Ace of Cakes," real solid dude. Me and him vibed doing a real cool chip tip. But I never got to really cook with anybody to see what's going on in the kitchen with us. I think all of them are talented. I don't have anything negative to say. Mario Batali is an amazing chef. He could cook his behind off. Michael Simon, amazing chef. He could really burn. When I eat his food, it just rings.

Oh, Guy Fieri ... I was at his crib and he made us an alfredo with grilled ribeye steak. It was really banging. I was like, "Dude, you know you got some chops. You can burn." Female chefs. Carla Hall. Amazing, great chef. I haven't had any interactions with Rachael Ray too much. We've done things, but I haven't had her food. Alex Guarnaschelli ... Anne Burrell. She can burn. Alex can burn. Like I've tasted their foods and I really enjoy them. So I haven't had a chef that I wouldn't eat from. There might be two people in the area I don't like at all, but that's just personal and I'll just leave it at that.

Aaron McCargo Jr. on what Jon Taffer is really like behind the scenes of Bar Rescue

Is Jon Taffer as terrifying in person as he appears on "Bar Rescue"?

For me, no one terrifies me but God. So I don't have no fear of no man. But for the normal person, they'll be scared of him. He's a different type of character.

It's a real show. I'll tell you that much. Like he's not coming here like, "Let me get myself together and scream at you." That's one of the realest reality shows I've ever done. It's real from the moment I get off the plane till we get on set. And he's very intense. He's very serious about the business that he's in as far as revamping and getting your stuff together. He's very serious about what we do as the talent there. Like he really leans towards us and takes our opinion. Like, he'll come out and say, "Hey, we're in Boston, Massachusetts. This is the dive bar. We want to change it. Chef, this is what I had in mind. What do you see? How do you see it? Or what do you think when you look at the menu?" He's always taken the lead of the experts that he's brought on there to really drive it and then he'll tweak or add some things to it. But he really knows to trust the people that he brings besides him to be the expert. So he leaves it to us to do our job, but he's very intense about the show.

It's a quick five days. It's a hard, long five days, but he's balls to the wall. Let's get it done. And I respect him for what he's done and where he's at, because he's earned it because he's good at what he does.

Aaron McCargo Jr. shares his big plans for the future

You've said in the past that having your own cooking show was your dream job and "Big Daddy's House" was a big success. It ran for six seasons. What is the next big dream that you're going after?

It's a three-way split. I really enjoy Cook's Essentials. I look forward to one day having my own brand of cookware. Simple stuff, nothing deep.

I also look forward to having ... I've got 10 restaurant concepts that I want to do. Not big restaurants. I'm talking about a thousand square feet, walk up, really get your one thing that I do well and keep it moving and let that be what people make their destination [at] any of McCargo's spots.

And I have a lot of inventions of my own. So I really want to [bring] out some of my kitchen inventions and show some things off that I think will make lifestyles in the kitchen different.

And I got to say outside of food, I want to continue to build my non-profit, Play to Win because that's dear to my heart. Mentoring young men in the city of Camden, hopefully across the world, just to really give these young men a chance to really be them. I went through a lot to become a chef ... in the '80s, I took a lot of abuse. I was always bullied. No one really respected the food game. And it was tough on me coming out and saying I didn't want to rap, I didn't want to play sports, I didn't want to sing, I just wanted to cook. And it wasn't accepted. So I know that there's a lot of inner-city guys and there's people probably in the suburbs too, but they don't get that chance to voice who they really want to be, what they really like.

If you want to be a poet, you want to be a writer, you want to run for the president of the United States, you don't get a lot of support for young men coming up. And I want to be able to let people know, if you trust God and you trust what you like to do and you do it every day, it's going to pay off. And I just want to be there to support them all the way and egg them on. My dad did that for me. But a lot of guys don't have dads and those that do have dads, they still don't have enough support. And that's what is dear to my heart. You got to be in this game of life and if you keep playing it, you will win it.

You can keep up with all things Aaron McCargo Jr. on his website, and see what he's cooking in his kitchen by following him on Instagram