Chef Joel Gamoran Talks About Cooking For The Today Show And Sesame Street - Exclusive Interview

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A regular guest chef on "The Today Show," Joel Gamoran is used to sharing the camera with celebrities, as he demonstrates clever cooking techniques before an audience of millions with the help of the co-hosts. It's time to move over, Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee, because Gamoran's newest sous chefs are Cookie Monster and Elmo. As part of a partnership with Yummly and LACTAID®, the dad of two will be adding these popular "Sesame Street" puppets to his rotation of cooking side-kicks. He and his furry helpers are teaching children how to make simple, healthy meals through videos that can be viewed on the Yummly app.

In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Gamoran dished on what it's like to cook for kids and with Muppets, and shared some of his favorite moments from his "The Today Show" appearances. He also offered tips for making cooking an important part of childhood — even before the age of walking and talking!

How Joel Gamoran got involved with Cookie Monster and Elmo

What is it like to cook with Cookie Monster and Elmo?

Oh, my God — when Yummly reached out about this opportunity, it was a dream come true! You know, I haven't ... I grew up on "Sesame Street," but in your twenties and early thirties, you're not watching "Sesame Street." But, I'm a new dad. So I have a 2-and-a-half-year-old son and I have a 9-month-old son, and ... I mean, Elmo is God to them. They sleep with Elmo. Elmo goes to the bath with them. Elmo goes to the park. So when I told them that I was cooking with Elmo and Cookie Monster, it was basically like I'm meeting the Pope. And it was a transcending thing! My "dad stock" went up huge, but just being on set with them, it was more about these... You start to understand the craft of what they do.

Now I don't want to reveal too much of how they get it done, because I'm sure a lot of it's proprietary, but as a guest, just to be in the presence of that much talent... That's the same Cookie Monster. He's been doing it for 35 years. And the Elmo, he's a young kid who sent in YouTube video, after YouTube video, after YouTube video of him doing Elmo since he was three, and now he's Elmo. So these guys are just incredible talents and it was really special to be alongside them for them.

Was it ad lib or scripted?

Yeah, it came a little bit scripted. And then we all decided as we were getting close to production, that it was going to be just totally ad lib. So it's completely off the cuff. There's some points that we want to hit here and there, but for the most part we were just riffing.

Joel Gamoran's tips for cooking with children

What makes a recipe kid-friendly?

Oh, that's such a good question. First and foremost, it has to be playful. I've learned that with my kids, they're not interested in just dumping things into a bowl. They want to whisk it, they want to shake it, they want to smush it, they want to throw it, anything like that. Doughs, [things] that you can shake up in a jar — those are what makes kid food, kid food. And then at the end, what you realize is there's picky eaters and there's kids that maybe don't love things. When they make the food, they're so much more open to trying it. So I think as long as it's interactive, to me, it's a kid friendly recipe.

When do you think kids are old enough to start learning how to cook?

Oh, I think when you're ... I'm going to say one and a half, now that I'm a dad. One and a half. I get him up on a stool. I have a video from last summer ... Maybe even one, where he's sitting next to me and he's doing things like just chewing on an orange, while I'm asking him if I can zest it. So just getting them comfortable in the smells, letting them hold something with different textures, has been really, really beneficial.

Are there any recipes that you think parents should try with their kids–or foods that adults would be surprised to learn that children like?

Yeah. That's such a good question. I think that the recipe has to end in something interactive. No one really talks about this, but as long as there's something for the kid to dip into, or to make the food a little bit more playful, I would say, go for it. That's why you see all these chicken nuggets shaped like dinosaurs and they can... It works. It really does work. A recipe I would try with kids are things like banana bread cooked in funny shapes, and interesting ways. I do pancakes every single Saturday with my kid and we do different shapes in the pan, and then he dips it. As long as it's interactive and you can play with it, then it's absolutely great and versatile.

Your kids are really young! Has it been tough to balance your career as a cooking celebrity with having really young kids?

Yeah. It's been really tough, just like anyone else in their jobs, I think. It's just, you have to prioritize. I'm really big on ... at 5:00 to 7:30, it's dead zone for me. Cause I'm with my kids doing Legos or building tents, or doing a bath time or something like that.

So you have to build in those priorities, and then also just saying "no" a lot more to things, unfortunately. Usually, I was a big "yes" guy: "Oh, do you want to fly and do something here? Or do you want to be a part of this festival?" And now, unfortunately, I have to say no to a lot of those. So it's just picking and choosing, and obviously something like participating with Yummly. which is a company I've been a part of and collaborating with for years, and then working with Sesame and LACTAID, that's something you're not going to ever say no to! That's happening. So this is an easy "yes."

Why was this partnership such a great opportunity for you?

I think that first of all, Sesame is such a legacy brand and to even be a smidgen, a part of that, is really special. I would say it was one of, if not the highlights of my career, and I've cooked for some amazing people in some amazing places. But just being in a very typical kitchen with those two, Cookie Monster and Elmo, and the whole Sesame team was really, really special.

But I think that the whole notion that ... Listen, Lactaid, Yummly, we are trying to get kids excited about cooking and you see it working. You see these shows like "Chopped Junior" or "Junior Top Chef" ... Kids are more interested in cooking now than ever before. And a big part of that is because of efforts like these companies, who are really driving that. And I think it's really important for our health and wellbeing.

There's no way we could be empowering kids without our key sponsor and partner in this, which was Lactaid. I don't do a ton of dairy, neither does my family. So to be able to have a milk that doesn't have lactose but it's just milk, has been huge for us. I just want to make sure that we get them in there because they were so integral about this whole Sesame-Yummly partnership and we love Lactaid. It lives in my fridge. Absolutely. Lactose hurts my tummy ... hurts my little one's tummy, so we go after Lactaid for sure.

Why Joel Gamoran is so passionate about cooking

How is cooking good for our wellbeing?

I personally think that when you go to the grocery store and you buy a box of cereal or something that's pre-made ... You look on the back of the box and it's not just five or six ingredients. It's a lot of other ingredients, things that make it so it's able to stay in the box, so it doesn't spoil, so it tastes good, so it emulsifies all these chemicals that we're pumping into our bodies.

So I think if you get kids cooking at an early age, they start to realize that you only need four or five, six really simple ingredients, to make something from scratch and homemade. That to me leads to a more healthy and fulfilling life.

Cooking: I dealt with anxiety as a kid. I'm still dealing with weight issues and things like that, and cooking has been my savior. It has been a complete, complete, almost therapeutic way of life for me, not as just a chef, but as just a human. My wife says the same thing. Cooking really mellows her out. It really drives her to living a more balanced life. I think the more people we get cooking at a young age, the better for their lives and wellbeing.

You've taught many cooking classes. Why do you enjoy teaching cooking?

As a young chef, [cooking] was all about who can I impress? When you go to a restaurant, how do I knock you off your socks? How do I make you something that's incredible? Then I realized that when I was working in restaurants, I was really missing something. I didn't really know what it was, but I was a little bit down.

Then, I was working at a farmer's market. I took a job and I realized that this people interaction, this being able to empower other people to cook for themselves was really my true calling. And so I love, absolutely get jazzed, it's why I wake up in the morning, inspiring and empowering people to cook for themselves. Whether you're one years old or you're 80 years old, it doesn't matter to me. I just want to get you excited and jazzed about cooking for yourself because I so believe it can transform your life ... I want to inspire the world to cook!

Joel Gamoran dishes on being a regular on "The Today Show"

What's it like being a regular on "The Today Show"?

Oh my gosh. I've had some disasters. I've had some big wins. When Kathie Lee and Hoda were hosting ten years ago, I've been doing it for ten years now...they were really drinking at 9:00 in the morning and I'm like, "Oh my gosh, we're handling knives. What's happening?" So "The Today Show" is a total blur. You get about three, four minutes to teach something. So it's really, really, really, really fast. And you're in front of three to four million people. It's extremely, extremely scary in the beginning, and even in the middle and in the end.

But right when those cameras say, "Roll," you just click in and you follow the lead of the amazing talent. Hoda couldn't be nicer. Kathie Lee, and now Jenna [Bush Hager], couldn't be nicer. I've cooked with everyone from Al [Roker] to Savannah [Guthrie], and I've become really good friends with Katie Couric. They love it. They love the food. You've got three, four minutes to inspire the world to cook, so I'm all about it.

Joel Gamoran talks about food waste, why he loves Chipotle, and his favorite cook

You have a show, "Scraps," and you have your book, "Cooking Scrappy," both of which focus on eliminating food waste. Why is that important to you?

Almost 40% of the food in America gets thrown away. When you go to the grocery store and you have two bags of groceries, imagine just taking one and throwing it in the garbage. That's what we're doing in America. So I started to notice, as I was teaching more people how to cook, how much they were throwing away. When I was in restaurants, we don't throw anything away because that's all profit. That can be the tomorrow special, that can be in a soup. That cucumber peel, even that banana peel or that chicken bone, all those things can be put to use.

What I realized is that home cooks didn't know that. Professional cooks knew that, but home cooks didn't. That's where the show was really born. That's where the cookbook was really born. Now it's a huge movement of waste-free cooking, which I'm so excited about... Not saying I started it at all –but I was definitely an earlier part of it and I'm so glad.

Documentaries are out on it. There's litigation on it. So it's become a really big topic and it should be. It's a fabulous topic, and I'm really glad that the world is starting to get their hands wrapped around these scraps that we're throwing away.

What is your favorite fast food restaurant?

I'm going to go with Chipotle.

What do you get there?

I'm a bowl guy. I get the brown rice. I get the black beans. I'm a double chicken guy. Yes, add the avocado. I'll pay the extra money. I think Chipotle cooks clean, I really do. I've never worked with them or anything like that. But I think when I'm in a pinch and I'm somewhere where I need a quick meal, Chipotle cooks the way I like to eat.

If you could have anyone cook you dinner, who would it be and why?

Cookie Monster and Elmo are up there, I'm not going to lie. That was pretty cool. I'm going to go with... Oh my gosh, that's such a good question. I'm going to go with maybe my wife? I get dinner from her all the time, but no one ever cooks for me. Cause I'm a chef and people are intimidated, so it's nice to have, I don't know, a home-cooked meal that I didn't have to cook. So I appreciate my wife's cooking a lot.

Does she cook for you normally, or are you always the family cook?

She used to when we were dating, and then when we got married she just stopped. Now that we have kids and I'm coming home [late] she has to get it on the table, and I'm so appreciative of that. So if she puts her mind to it, and Michael knows this, he's eating that our house a lot, she can really, really whip up a phenomenal meal. In our house, we all have different things, and it's why we love Yummly so much and why I partnered with Yummly, you can put in your personalization. So you could say, "Okay, I don't do dairy. I don't do gluten." So she uses Yummly as a huge tool for us to get dinner on the table fast.

What's one ingredient you couldn't live without?

I'm obsessed with lemons -– obsessed. I'll eat them whole. I love the zest. I love the juice. They brighten everything up. So lemons all the way.

You put them in kid friendly recipes too?

Heck yeah. And if you're avoiding salt, you can just do a squeeze of lemon instead of salt. I just think they're magical. I think that they can take the mundane and make it really, really bright and beautiful without trying too hard.

Is there one kitchen tool you can't live without?

Well, you can't live without a great knife. So I'll just say that. A chef's knife ... I use Global. To me it just feels right in the hand, but if there was a tool that was a little obscure, I love a microplane. I use it for chocolate. I use it for cheese ... I actually grade nuts over things and it has this nut dust that goes over it, which is really, really beautiful. So microplane: it's 15 bucks. It's worth every penny.

Download the Yummly app to watch Chef Joel Gameron demonstrate recipes with Cookie Monster and Elmo.