Al Roker Dishes On His Thanksgiving Podcast And What Makes The Holiday So Special For Every American - Exclusive Interview

When it comes to celebrating the holidays, you can take a nod or two from Al Roker. According to Today, this television personality recently started a short podcast dedicated to Thanksgiving, its iconic meals, and top chefs who have elevated traditional turkey and stuffing to new heights. Roker joins chefs like Ina Garten, Sohla El-Waylly, and Marcus Samuelsson as each episode focuses on a dish whipped up by the guests. If you think these recipes stop at simple twists on classic Thanksgiving menu items, think again.

Roker aims to perfect the traditional spread by showing off sweet potato pie with some extra depth thanks to fried plantains, or a cranberry wojape that can easily replace any form of canned cranberry sauce. Al Roker recently took the time to sit down with Mashed and dish out his thoughts on what Thanksgiving means to him, his favorite food memories, and the importance of the McRib. When it comes to food and Thanksgiving celebrations, you couldn't ask for a better guide than Roker and his insights into the kitchen.

Al Roker's festive new Thanksgiving podcast

I wanted to go and ask you about your podcast, "Cooking Up a Storm." How did that start?

Well, somebody from our NBC news digital team came up to me and said, "Hey, we're thinking about doing a podcast about Thanksgiving dinner, and would you be interested?" And I thought, "I guess, but are people going to listen to somebody cook?" But I guess they will. So, I said, "Sure." And they said, "Well, we'd like to have some of your chef friends come. Who would you like?" And so there you have it. We ended up having six great chefs from all over the country and boom, we made a podcast.

I noticed that each episode is also revolving around a specific kind of dish. Right?

Right. We left it up to the individual chefs. We gave them the categories. And they came up with what they wanted to do. And it was, I think they're interesting takes on everybody's favorite type of side dish. I mean, to be honest, I'm not a big fan of mashed potatoes, but Ina Garten made smashed Parmesan potatoes. I love stuffing or dressing, depending on where you live, you call it something different.

And Alexander Smalls made this fantastic Low Country cornbread bacon oyster dressing that would be just as flavorful cooked in the bird, as opposed to on its own. Maya-Camille Broussard made a fantastic sweet potato and plantain pie, which gives it a lightness that one would never think of. Marcus Samuelsson made some incredible greens and Brussels sprouts that were amazing. And we had a wonderful indigenous chef, Chef Sean from Minneapolis who made a cranberry type dish that's all indigenous.

Why Al Roker decided to start the podcast

What was the draw to hosting a Thanksgiving podcast?

Well, look, I think it's special to most everybody here. And I think Thanksgiving holds a special place. I think the more you talk to people, Thanksgiving probably is their favorite holiday because there's nothing else around it but food, family, friends. And so, and traditions. But everybody is free to create their own new traditions.As you grow older, or you grow up or you form families or have new friends. 

But everybody, Sohla El-Waylly again, she happens to be Muslim and she was new to the country when she was very young. And Thanksgiving allowed her, she said, to be part of America, that it was something everybody was doing, as opposed to later in the holiday season, you've got people with different religions who may be celebrating at different times or different ways. Everybody pretty much celebrates Thanksgiving.

I wanted to also ask you about your relationship to food. What was the draw there? Do you have a favorite food memory in general?

Oh gosh, look, I think food is one of those, your mom or dad, whoever cooked in your house, that was the way they, in a sense, showed love and nurturing. So anything my mom made was special to me. My dad was a great breakfast short-order cook. And I always remember him either doing pancakes or baking bread or making grits and eggs. So ... my best memories as a kid, and I think for a lot of us revolve around family meals, whether it was breakfast, whether it was dinner or Sunday dinner or a picnic lunch that your parents put together for you to go for a day at the beach. I think those always evoke great memories.

Al Roker looks back on family Thanksgivings throughout the years

Thinking about that in relation to Thanksgiving, do you have a particular Thanksgiving throughout your life that has stood out?

No, I don't think so. I think they're all each one, I think each one is different and you're in a different place. Ten years ago, my kids were smaller and they were all around, they were all here at home. Now, I've got a married daughter and another daughter who lives in Paris. And so they're going to be off on their own. My son is getting ready for college. He'll be home. But it's just really the three of us. And so, my parents have since left us. So, it used to be a much bigger affair. We'd have 18, 20, sometimes two dozen people between my brother and his wife and my folks and some families that my daughter grew up with.

Back in the day, who was in charge of cooking when you had those really big Thanksgivings?

I would prep most everything the night before. And then of course, then on Thanksgiving morning, I have to go do the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC. And I had to do "The Today Show” before that. So I'm on the air for five hours. So my wife, Deborah Roberts, who's an ABC news correspondent and anchor, had a schedule when to put everything in. And then I'd get home, and we'd whip up some other stuff and then get the table all ready and people would come over and then it was time to clean up. And boy, by the end of the day, you were pretty whipped. Now I will admit, we go out to dinner. It's a lot easier, but just as meaningful.

If you could have one famous chef cook for you, do you have a particular personality that you would like to go and enjoy their meal?

Well, it's like what's your favorite movie? And you have to, what genre are we talking about? So that, you can't necessarily compare, say, Daniel Boulud in French cuisine to say Rodney Scott in North Carolina, or South Carolina and barbecue. So I think it just depends pretty much, I think would depend on the day to be perfectly honest there.

What about Thanksgiving? If you could have anybody come in and just make your Thanksgiving?

If you're in your home, you're used to what you are used to. Somebody else's mac and cheese is probably maybe different than the mac and cheese that I grew up on and I would prepare. And then they'd make it, and you're like, "Oh, this is lovely." And you're like, "Oh, it's the not the mac and cheese I was looking for." It's the mac and cheese I got. And of course, as we used to tell our kids, you get what you get and you don't get upset. But it is Thanksgiving, so I don't know. But that said, I don't know. I would, well, one of the chefs that we had on the program, let me put it this way. I would invite each one of those chefs on "Cooking Up a Storm" to come over and bring a dish. Because they're all people I really admire and like, and would love to have over for dinner.

Why Al Roker is fan of the McRib

On the flip side from all of that, do you have a go-to fast food order?

Oh, wow. Go-to fast food order. I think most people would cringe at this, but right now it happens to be McRib season. And although I will say my son and I were on a college road trip and we stopped at a McDonald's and he had never had the McRib. And we had the McRib and it was good. I mean, it's the McRib, but it's much smaller. The McRib, they have downsized the McRib.

Somebody needs to fix that. Seems like that shouldn't be happening.

No, I know. It's, well, maybe they could have a mega-size, a super-size McRib. Those super-size fries, maybe get that super size ... And this isn't even a half rack. For example, they've just come out, I don't know if you've seen, but ... I always wanted somebody to do this and it's like the people at Reese's heard me. They have invented the 9-inch, I think it's a 5-pound Reese's peanut butter cup.

And I don't know if it would taste the same because the thing about the original size Reese's peanut butter cup, as opposed to the miniature and all the other, the one that you get is the right thickness of chocolate on the top, side, and bottom with peanut butter. Now when you make something that huge, do you have to make the chocolate thicker to hold the structure of the peanut butter cup? And while you ponder that, I think you're probably thinking at the same time, this guy's got too much time on his hands. I want to try it, but I'm afraid I'm going to be disappointed.

That's a lot to live up to.

It is. Do you risk having your soul crushed by the fact that the big peanut butter cup isn't what you were hoping it would be? I don't know.

Al Roker's favorite candy of all time

Would you say Reese's is your favorite candy?

No, I have to go with the York Peppermint Patty. It's the dark chocolate, the fondant. See, I'm not a fan of the Junior Mint, too creamy, too liquidy. And the York peppermint patty mini, again, they have the right consistency, the thickness of the chocolate to the fondant.

You have a lot of interest in, it sounds like high cuisine, but also a lot of comfort food staples that for you personally, in a meal like Thanksgiving or another just regular meal, how do you go about putting those together for yourself?

No, it's a general rule of thumb, it's a protein, it's a vegetable, and it's a carb with a salad. That's pretty much our meal. If you look at my Instagram, that's pretty much, and nothing really fancy. It's a pork chop. It's a piece of salmon. It's a piece of sea bass. It's a steak, it's chicken thighs. To me, I guess the rule of thumb is it's got to have some flavor to it. Chicken breast, why? It's no reason for it. It's like, yeah, if I have to have a protein that really has no flavor and cannot be offensive at all, then by all means, have a chicken breast.

Forget about calories or whatever, fat content, whatever. I mean, and how much is there in chicken though? But, if you're honest with yourself, which would you really rather have? A flavorful juicy, crispy-skinned chicken thigh, or a dry, flavorless, bland chicken breast?

The most important ingredients in Al Roker's kitchen

Is there one ingredient you couldn't live without and why?

I guess olive oil, a good quality olive oil. Yeah. I don't want to tick anybody off, but I like Spanish olive oil. My friend, José Andrés introduced it to me 20 years ago and [I] never looked back because it is useful in almost anything you cook. You can whip up a quick salad dressing with just a little olive oil and lemon juice. Use it to coat your potatoes. I always have it by the side of the oven. I've got a sprayer bottle with Spanish olive oil, mist that bad boy, those potatoes up, a little salt, little pepper, you're done. So yeah, I would say a good quality olive oil.

That, or second to that would be good Kosher salt and/or a sea salt. I mean, you use the sea salt more for finishing, but the kosher salt for ... I mean, salt adds flavor as does fat.

Make sure to check out Roker's podcast, "Cooking Up A Storm" if you need some inspiration for your own Thanksgiving spread. For more culinary insights from this esteemed television personality, watch his Thanksgiving Marathon on TODAY All Day.