Food Network Chef Aaron McCargo Jr., the first active national celebrity to grace the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival as he introduced the culinary arts Thursday night, offers a taste of his pork chop stuffing of spicy sausage and Granny Smith apples to Craig Morrow and Bryan Harrison. This morning he was to be back at DMS working with students. (The Daily News/John Eby)
Food Network Chef Aaron McCargo Jr., the first active national celebrity to grace the Dogwood Fine Arts Festival as he introduced the culinary arts Thursday night, offers a taste of his pork chop stuffing of spicy sausage and Granny Smith apples to Craig Morrow and Bryan Harrison. This morning he was to be back at DMS working with students. (The Daily News/John Eby)

Archived Story

Food Network chef brings culinary arts

Published 10:44pm Thursday, May 6, 2010

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

Cooking should be therapeutic, but it isn’t rocket science, said Food Network Chef Aaron “Big Daddy” McCargo Jr., who turned Dowagiac Middle School Performing Arts Center into his “House” Thursday evening.

Dowagiac turned the tables on him, too, presenting him with a specially-embroidered Dogwood apron, which he dons.

He said he had never worn an apron before.

The first attraction of the 2010 Dogwood Fine Arts Festival, which continues tonight with author Dennis Lehane, McCargo introduced culinary arts to Dowagiac while cracking jokes and making pork chops stuffed with Granny Smith apples and spicy sausage, cheesy garlic mashed but unpeeled potatoes and an appetizer with fresh asparagus wrapped in meat.

“The only secret is taste as you go,” he said.

And DON’T ever answer the door or clip your toenails while creating kitchen magic.
He makes his methodically, in carefully calibrated steps which make an hour slip away in what seems a matter of minutes.

The audience is so reverently rapt at his every move that McCargo notices the sudden quiet.  “It’s like church,” he grins.

With aromatic smoke curling up from his on-stage kitchen created from Hannapel Home Center cabinets and Sears appliances and Deputy Fire Chief Dale Hutchings and Lt. Bob Nelson the Fireman of the Year at the ready in the wings, McCargo seems nonchalantly unconcerned about his fingers while chopping furiously as he looks out at his audience.
“I know we’ve got a mortician,” he said of Dogwood Fine Arts Festival President Brad Yazel of Yazel-Clark Chapel. “Is there a doctor in the house?”

Yazel, who refers to Big Daddy as “my new friend,” said, “Aaron was blown away” by the PAC. He also assures the chef that his new offering with outrageous foods “beats ‘Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.’ ”

McCargo’s recipe for success started with God and the gift He gave him, his family’s support and believing in himself to win his show “Big Daddy’s House” in 2008 from 3,990 contestants. The married father of three graduated from Camden, N.J., High School – hometown of Campbell Soup – in 1989.

Ingredients also include in equal measure one-liners and cooking tips, such as buy fresh garlic, put the oily cheese in last and keep butter cold because if it melts too much at room temperature it can spread an “oil slick.”

He also takes his chops out 15 or 20 minutes to “take the chill off.”

McCargo bubbles merrily like a sauce pan until the lid pops off his natural ebullience and he can contain himself no longer.

“I get so excited about cooking,” he says. “It’s like therapy.”

His potatoes – “cook the crap out of them,” he advises – are a diet-dying concoction of heavy cream, butter, enough cheddar that when he samples his smasher like he’s licking a beater, cheese strands stick to his chin like from a pizza.

Lucky audience members who sample his handiwork moan with a Homer Simpson sound.

He seasons with salt and pepper and adds chives for color.

Mash the potatoes while they’re warm and moist to avoid lumpiness.
He kills the heat before adding the cheese.

While he used cheddar, he also suggested trying a smoky Gouda.

If his oversize spicy preferences and bold flavors are too much for your palate, don’t toss the recipe, he advises, dial it down and “make it your own.”

As four tables watch him make stuffing from onstage – Yazel and some friends, retired world champion cherry pit spitter and former city councilman Bob Ickes, Mayor Don Lyons and sculptor Tuck Langland and their wives and a school table anchored by Superintendent Peg Stowers – McCargo offers, “I’m sure you know all about the pig out here,” but they might not be ready for what he’s about to do to pork, including a glaze.
So fond of the asparagus soup and sauteed asparagus he ate at dinner at Timberline, McCargo threatened to move to Michigan from New Jersey. His show is taped in Philadelphia.

He mentions that despite his meat-laden menu he hasn’t forgotten vegetarians, who can substitute tofu.

Don Ludman chaired the new event.

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