Adam Gertler

WTVC Exclusive: Food Network Star Winner Jeff Mauro

Food Network Star 7castSome ten weeks ago the nation watched footage of 15 wannabe TV chefs meeting on the steps of world famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood and each of us thought the same thing, which one is it?  Well, two and a half months later the mystery is solved, Jeff Mauro is the latest winner of Food Network Star.

Throughout the competition Jeff’s warm personality and quick wit were his calling card.  It was a gift that he rallied into a winning performance.  His POV, the Sandwich King is one that is long over due.  There are few things in life better than a well made sandwich.  This may be the perfect vehicle for Jeff’s particular skill set but will a show about sandwiches go over?

That’s exactly what Steve Cavendish of the Chicago Tribune asked Jeff just a few weeks ago.  His response?  “A lot of people’s sandwiches these days come from fast food chains,” Mauro said. “It’s bad meat. It’s bad bread. It’s questionable vegetables. Why not bring this stuff home and teach you the fundamentals? How to braise. How to roast. Fry. Grill. All while having a between-two-hands delicious meal.”

So just what do we know about Jeff Mauro?  This is what the Food Network site has to say, “After pursuing a career as a comedian in Los Angeles, Jeff switched gears to spend time doing what he loves most: cooking. His down-to-earth personality coupled with his comic relief make a great combo in the kitchen.”

Mauro’s stardom is no overnight success story.  He’s been working towards this goal for seven years.  That’s when he pulled up stakes and headed to LA to try and forge a new cooking show in his own image.  He attended the Hollywood Kitchen Academy (which is now Le Cordon Bleu) and even came dangerously close to achieving his TV show after meetings with Spike, MTV and Comedy Central.  But every time it looked like the door was opening it would close in his face.

“It was like, ‘it’s happening!’ And then L.A. was like, ‘Nope. It’s not happening. I’m Los Angeles, I win every time, you lose,'” he told Cavendish.  Frustrated Mauro headed back to the Windy City where he became the private chef at a Chicago corporate headquarters of a large mortgage company.  Three years later he sent an audition tape to Food Network Star.

“Jeff has the perfect mixture of strong culinary chops, a breakout personality, and boundless food passion – a true triple threat we value in our stars,” said Bob Tuschman, General Manager and Senior Vice President, Programming and Production, Food Network. “Jeff’s humor, warmth and smart ideas to make sandwiches into satisfying meals make him a perfect addition to join the Food Network family.”

After struggling in the beginning of the competition Jeff put it all together on episode five, the Fourth of July episode.  He says, ” I pretty much maxed out my abilities and personality and it went over well.  I felt like I can be big and huge but I don’t think I ever want to go bigger than this.”

Jeff credits Guy Fieri with pulling him aside and giving him great advice, “He was the only judge who was like I want to talk to you privately.”  Fieri just told him matter-of-factly how to handle different situations and gave, “very sincere advice.  Not only on camera.  Off camera he was kind of like a buddy.  That was helpful because there’s a separation between the the finalists and judges.  They are proven and we are proving.”

Since Star wrapped in early June Jeff says he’s been living dual lives.  One working his old job in Chicago and the other doing covert assignments as a celebrity chef.  “Going to the Atlantic City Food & Wine Festival out there.  Going to shoot my show which was obviously top secret.  Shooting the finale which was top secret.  Going and doing all of these things, in my mind, very large things then coming home and making a hundred point sandwiches.”

Jeff plans to stay in Chicago where he can spend time with his family, “My goal is to stay here always.  That’s the beauty of it; I can go shoot a show every three or four weeks and not have to uproot my entire existence to New York or LA.”  He then added, “And eventually shoot here when I’ve got a little clout, a little bargaining power.”

Jeff Mauro Food Network Star

How closely does Sandwich King resemble the show you conceived seven years ago during your time in LA?

Chef Jeff and Ali?  Very different; that was more of a party-based barbecue show where we would go to barbecues and record the hijinks, the people.  I wanted to provide a younger, I don’t know a more irreverent, party-based ride to cooking on TV

As fun as that was it doesn’t have any legs.  So it’s really different.  I’m still myself.  I might not be ripping from a bottle of Jack any more but it’s still me minus my other half, Ali and minus the party and all that.

Can you describe the elements of the perfect sandwich?

Well handled fresh bread.  Not just a loaf of French bread that you get at the bakery that’s pretty.  That’s taking that and taking it to the next level with buttering and griddling to temperature.  You want to start with that.  You want to make sure when you take your bites out from top to bottom there’s not a lot of resistance.  If there is resistance it’s good resistance like crunch or a great chew or crispness.  You know it’s all about paying attention to not only flavors but textures; I think that’s often overlooked in a sandwich.

 

My predictions – Susie gets a show on the Cooking Channel, Vic on Food Network. Whitney becomes a judge on Iron Chef/Chopped.  The Sandwich King premieres this Sunday at 11:30AM on the Food Network and the King’s reign will like be a long one.

Drop back by the site tomorrow and check it out as another new Food Network star, Roger Mooking (Everyday Exotic on the Cooking Channel, Heat Seekers on the Food Network) answers 7 Questions.

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WTVC Food Network Star Fan Poll Results

We know that Jeff Mauro won the only poll that counts but that doesn’t mean we still can’t have a little meaningless fun.  Here are the results of the Wannabe TV Chef Fan Polls.

The Debbie Lee – contestant you love to hate.
Penny With Jylls HusbandPenny Davidi 56.87%
Chris Nirschel 13.25%
No one else was close.

The Lisa Garza – most improved from day one.
Vic Moea 40.1%
Jeff Mauro 8.32%
No one else was close.

The Kelsey Nixon – should’ve won but got cheated.
Whitney Chen 38.78%
Orchid Paulmeier 25.03%
No one else was close.

The Nathan Lyon – didn’t win but will be a star regardless.
Whitney Chen 29.85%
Orchid Paulmeier 22.39%
Jyll Everman 11.94%
Vic “Vegas” Moea 11.94%

The Serena Palumbo – reminds you of a current star.
Whitney Chen 51.56%
Orchid Paulmeier 17.19%
Vic “Vegas” Moea 15.63%

Be sure to my interview with the newest Food Network Star, Jeff Mauro HERE.

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Jeff Wins! Food Network Star 7 – Season in Review

Well now that the dust has settled and we know that the newest winner of Food Network Star is Jeff Mauro it’s time to take a look back at the best and worst we saw.  Be forewarned – there wasn’t much “best” but there was a whole crap load of “worst.”

This was easily the most talented group that Food Network has put together.  This was also, by far, the worst season of Food Network Star ever.  I don’t know that Jeff stands much of a chance of being a genuine star – at least not in the Guy Fieri sense.  I would like nothing more than for my first meal prepared for me by Jeff to be my own words, or more accurately my own words between two buns.

You could make the argument that Jeff should have been eliminated in the first week or two but you can say the same for Vic and Susie.  Vic failed to plate any food in the first two challenges and three different times Susie had the worst performance of an episode but wasn’t sent home.  Jeff was only on the bottom once.  He won and I hope him a happy and successful career.  He may be the next Guy or the next Amy.  Who knows?

I do have to say that I love Jeff’s POV, the Sandwich King.  The sandwich is one of the great inventions of humanity – a complete meal that fits neatly between two slices of bread, no sides needed.  Hmm, that sounds like a great title for a cookbook.  And though it may be true that the best sandwiches are probably being conceived by high-end chefs you certainly don’t have to be a high-end chef to make a great sandwich.  Jeff can make this show interesting.

If I might make one suggestion however, the name of Jeff’s show should be the Earl of Sandwiches as a tribute to John Montague.  The English lord is credited with inventing the modern sandwich and it’s name comes from his title.  Lord Montague was the Fourth Earl of Sandwich.  BOOM! Food knowledge!

Now, Food Network, why would you ever think anyone would want to watch Chris or Penny?  The schtick with those two brought Star to the seediest levels of TV, like VH1 sleazy, The View sleazy, Operation Repo sleazy.  It was obvious that neither was ever going to get their own show but were there simply because you wanted people to tune in just to hate them.  That’s disgusting.

In the post-elimination e-mail that Chris sent out (he ditched the press conference) he said that we would see him again.  Judging from the multitude of negative reviews of his restaurant Cafe Naploi he could be right.  It looks like he is a prime candidate for Restaurant: Impossible.  Even though it has been revealed that Penny was actually an actress at least she could cook, albeit her range was quite limited.

Of all the contestants only Juba, Justin B. and Whitney were truly great chefs.  From a professional standpoint the others were all fair cooks with Susie and Vic being better than average.  From a cooking standpoint Justin B. was most likely the best but it would be close between him and Whitney with Juba right in the mix.  As far as personality goes Jyll was clearly the best.  She walked on set TV-ready and showed more professionalism than anyone.  Whitney and Orchid were the contestants who had the most genuine promise in both categories.  Whitney was a slam dunk.  Whitney should have won just as Kelsey Nixon should have won season four.

I get the feeling that Food Network has washed its hands of integrity in regards to Star.  In past seasons cast members were kept muzzled, unable to speak their minds or make deals for future jobs until the finale aired.  Not so this year.  I knew Howie wouldn’t win before the season ever started because he was already shooting another show.  I knew Whitney didn’t win because she had taken a position with Ruth Reichl’s new venture Gilt Taste.  Then there was Penny boldly announcing her newest acting gig during her exit interview.

Jeff Mauro Leaked PhotoWeeks ago the Wall Street Journal summized that Jeff had won saying, “… it’s starting to feel less like a competition and more like a showcase for Mauro to test some of his ideas before he hosts his own Food Network program.”  I’m guessing a press photo (right) released by the network’s parent company Scripps on June 17th was part of their deduction process.  In the picture Scripps’ Senior Vice President Tammy Franklin is being honored for an award and she is surrounded by her boss Scripps President John Lansing (left), lobbyist David Porter (far right) and the last two winners of Food Network Star.  It’s like Food Network doesn’t even care, like they are taking the viewer for granted.

This is also the second year in a row that the Rachael Ray footage was published online and uncut leaving little doubt that the judges were disingenuous in their assessments of the RaRay Challenge.  If you watch Jyll’s performance on the Rachael Ray Show you’ll see that she was great.  That coupled with winning the first challenge of that episode (which somehow escaped the final edit) made it clear that she, not Jeff, had the best performance that day, though it was pretty close.  It was also obvious that Susie had the worst performance that day.

There were other indicators of how things would pan out that made the ending to this season even less climactic than season four – the year the Food Network web site “accidentally” announced Aaron as the winner four days before the finale or last year when Aarti was added to the list of chefs on the web site a week early.  Just like in season four I think the winner of this season was determined before the first challenge and that is why rules kept changing and the judges critiques seemed so disconnected.  I get it, Jeff is a born entertainer.

There were some great moments this season like when Alicia was breaking down in episode one and Alton Brown turned her around and as a result she had a great performance.  Whitney nailing a croque en bouche in the dessert challenge was possibly the greatest accomplishment the series has ever produced.  I’m still wowed by that.  Jyll’s handling of Wolfgate was the very embodiment of grace under pressure.  Jeff’s impressions were a cold stone hoot.  Vic’s improvement from episode one through about episode eight was a fun ride.  However, after episode nine there really wasn’t much of a reason to watch the show as it was glaringly obvious that Jeff had been anointed the winner.

Food Network Star must undergo an overhaul to be considered “reality TV” since this season read more like a cheap work of fiction.  This show needs help to remain relevant.  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Only accept applicants who have cooked professionally.
  2. Rather than taking someone because they have personality and hoping they can cook try getting a bunch of cooks and find the best personality.
  3. Have challenges that are actually relevant to the job.  Making something savory out of cereal has never been a big part of a Food Network show other than Star.
  4. Psychological profiles!
  5. Never, ever accept someone who has applied for a non-food reality show.
  6. Stop the editing BS – show what actually happens.
  7. No more 2 hour episodes.  That’s just too much back-biting for one night.
  8. Stop revealing the winner.  Gosh.
  9. Please, please, please let this show be about finding a new star and not solely about ratings.
  10. Dare to be better.

Finally, if Food Network wants to renew viewers’ faith in the show then they’ll put me on next year’s season – not as a contestant, but as a judge.  Oh, and without a gag order.  I get to speak my mind without the seven figure penalty they strap contestants with.  Don’t do that and there really isn’t any reason to watch this show ever again.  I mean, I will; I just won’t have a reason to.

If you agree drop by the Food Network contact page and send them this message, “Make Stuart Reb Donald a judge on Food Network Star.

Be sure to check my exclusive interview with the newest Food Network star, Jeff Mauro HERE.  Now check out the season finale poll question.  Vote your conscience.

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The Sandwich King premieres this Sunday at 11:30AM on the Food Network.

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Food Network Star Exit Interview: Mary Beth Albright

Mary Beth Albright had quite a ride on Food Network Star.  Multiple times she stared into the gaping mouth of elimination but persevered to make the final four.  That’s impressive for the woman who says, “I’m not a reality show star, but I play one on TV.”

Mary Beth Albright Food Network StarThroughout the show she had to cope with a knowledge of food that sometimes exceeded her ability to execute it.  In other words she had terrific creativity but at times lacked the cooking chops to pull them of.  It would be easy to say that was her final undoing and certainly arguments could be made to that point.

However predictable Mary Beth’s ouster this week was it was stunning to see just what lengths the producers went to to insure it.  First she drew Vic as her challenger, the strongest cook of the remaining contestants and one with a lot of experience in cooking contests.  Then she drew Penny as her sous chef and true to form Penny did her best to make sure Mary Beth went home.

Penny was deliberately lethargic while doing prep for Mary Beth.  It was obvious enough that Bob Tuschman called Alton Brown over to have him quiz Penny about her apathetic movements.  When Alton called her on the clear vandalism she shrugged, smiled and shot the camera a knowing look.  I’m confident (the kind of confidence that comes from inside information) that was hardly the extent of Penny’s misdeeds but that’s all they chose to show.

I hope in the future that Food Network spares us this kind of barbarism.  This is not Rock of Love or any of those other seedy shows who’s sole purpose is to entertain the lowest element of American society.  Those people may watch a lot of TV but having no jobs they really can’t afford to buy anything the advertisers sell.  Hopefully retailers will realize that one day and the whole “people behaving badly” genre will disappear from our screens.

For her part Mary Beth handled everything with grace and professionalism  and earned a great deal of respect in the process.  Take her post-elimination blog post for instance.  There is no mention of the Penny/Food Network sabotage.  I even gave Mary Beth a chance to vent and she passed it up.  It’s clear that she only wants to focus on the positive aspects of her Food Network Star appearance.  So if you came here looking for more of the fireworks we saw from Alicia, both Justins and Penny, too bad.

In commenting about the remaining contestants she said, “Everybody has really strong strengths.  Jeff is an extraordinary performer.”  On his food “He made this Asian tofu wrap in episode four,” she reminisced, “His tofu wrap was so good that I ate two of them  and I can’t stand tofu.”  Of Susie she said she, “has just the soul of a Mexican chef,” adding, “She has such deep history with the food that it makes me want to make it.”  She ended with her thoughts on Vic, “I love Vic.  He’s so endearing in person,” summing up his cooking with, “He takes risks with food.”

So what happened with your lamb being overcooked?

I roasted the chops individually and I usually roast the entire rack of lamb as one big roast when I do rack of lamb.  I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to do the entire rack of lamb together.  Because honestly, you hear that you have an hour on Iron Chef and then you’re running around and you look up at the clock and fifteen minutes has gone by and you have no idea where it went.

So I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time to do the whole roast so I put in the oven individually.  I think that I probably took them out at the right time.  Then while you’re judging you have to keep your food warm and I think that it was probably in the oven for too long or I miscalculated in my own mind how long it would take them to warm.

I cook lamb.  I cook lamb a lot and I don’t overcook lamb but you see that one shot of Giada De Laurentiis trying to saw through her lamb chop and it’s like “Ah, God!”  But live and learn.

In your blog post you mentioned how having appeared on the show had earned you the respect of DC chefs – can you elaborate?

A restaurant in Washington just opened; it’s called Rouge 24 and RJ Cooper is the chef there.  I just went there for a media tasting last week and he’s been on Iron Chef (click HERE for more on Forgione vs. Cooper).  He and I ended up having this whole conversation about Iron Chef and it had nothing to do with food that I was sitting at the table eating.

I think that there really is a new appreciation.  I wouldn’t call it new respect I call it a new appreciation that I have for what chefs do and I think that they probably know that.  Not just the act of cooking food for a bunch of people but cooking for a bunch of people under time and pressure with limited resources which is what restaurant cooks do every single day.

I’ve already gotten phone calls from other chefs who’ve been on Iron Chef around town and I think it’s a really great experience for a food writer to have, to really understand what you have to go through.

What’s harder – facing the judges’ table on Star or facing a judge in a court room?

They don’t allow cameras in courtrooms anymore.  It’s tough not only being in front of the Food Network judges because of all of the cameras and everything tat is going on while you are being evaluated but you’re being evaluated on your dream.  That’s a tough thing to handle.  When you’ve left a really good profession and really good money to follow a passion it hurts a lot for somebody to be critical.  And of course they have to be critical; it’s a very important job to give someone their own cooking show and to trust them with the Food Network brand.  I get that

But it’s really hard to be judged on your dream.  Which a lot of people don’t do, a lot of people don’t follow a dream because it’s easier to keep it in a box somewhere.  I’d say Food Network judges I really would.  I know that sounds like a crazy answer.  It won’t be the craziest thing that’s happened in my life in the past year.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up

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