Photos by Zach Teris for David Michael Howarth Photography
Shot on location at Cathedral Kitchen
It takes a lot to become a celebrity chef who masters food challenges on reality TV and then goes on to find great success in the culinary world. That’s why it’s so remarkable that five buddies from South Jersey – who learned from each other and leaned on each other – made their mark on television before launching incredible careers as top-rated chefs.
Before they made a name for themselves on The Food Network and Bravo, five South Jersey chefs – Aaron McCargo Jr., Jonathan Jernigan, Darius Peacock, Tim Witcher and Kevin Sbraga – were just a group of good friends. But together, they share an incredible tale of celebrity and success that has strengthened their life-long friendships. Of course it all begins (and ends) with one common love: cooking.
Aaron McCargo Jr.
Aaron McCargo has come a long way from his Camden neighborhood. After winning the fourth season of “The Next Food Network Star,” he launched his own show, “Big Daddy’s House,” which ran for six seasons on the network. But when he was just a kid from a tough neighborhood, McCargo spent most of his time messing around with his sister’s Easy-Bake Oven.
“I had six siblings,” the 45-year-old says. “There were eight of us in a two-bedroom house in downtown Camden. My mother was a from-scratch cook, and when we ate we always appreciated what was in front of us.”
With so many mouths to feed, McCargo says there was never enough food to go around. That’s what drove him to begin cooking.
“I saved up my allowance,” he says. “We’d go to the grocery store every two weeks, and I’d get the ingredients I wanted. I was in there with my change, feeling like the pimp daddy of Pathmark.”
McCargo honed his skills at the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College in Mays Landing before hitting it big on TV. In the years since “Big Daddy’s House” ended in 2011, McCargo has been busy. He makes frequent appearances on Spike’s “Bar Rescue.” His cookbook, “Simply Done Well Done,” was a success, and he launched a product line of spices called McCargo’s Flavor of Bold and barbeque sauces, aptly titled Jersey BBQ.
McCargo’s favorite commitment, though, is “Play To Win,” the nonprofit mentorship program he started four years ago in his hometown.
“My father always supported me,” McCargo says. “He told me, ‘You gotta play to win in this world. You’re going to have obstacles. People are going to laugh at you, but they’re not going to be laughing forever.’”
“In the city of Camden there are a lot of kids who don’t have their fathers around,” McCargo continues. “As a young black man in Camden you need someone who’s going to be that voice. My own son grew up in a great household and still got caught up in drugs and gangs. I felt like God was saying, ‘Start this program, help these young men.’ This year we have our first graduating class of young men we’ve mentored. Eight out of 10 have been accepted to college, five of them with scholarships – from the city of freaking Camden.”
McCargo also credits his success to another mentor: Chef Jonathan Jernigan, who gave McCargo his first job at the former Harbor League Club in Camden.
“It was so upscale and foreign to me,” McCargo says. “But here’s this chef who’s crazy, loud, talented, a radical. He was from the school of hard knocks. He told me, ‘You want to do this for the rest of your life, you’ve got to be committed.’ He taught me the nuts and bolts better than any culinary school could’ve. We became the best of friends, and I still look to him as an example of somebody who knows how to make his own success.”
Every day, Jonathan Jernigan conceives, prepares and plates meals for more than 400 diners. The menu changes daily, and the people in his dining room are treated to tender cuts of meat, fresh produce and Jernigan’s inventive sauces and flavors.
What makes this meal different is there’s no bill coming at the end. Jernigan is the executive chef at Camden’s Cathedral Kitchen, a nonprofit providing meals to the homeless or those who just need a warm dinner.
Jernigan knows about hard times. He grew up in a single-parent home, working at McDonald’s to help support himself and his mother.
“I was flipping burgers and then coming home and watching my mother in the kitchen, making something out of nothing,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is something I like, and I could be good at it.’ After I graduated high school, my mother took out her VA loan and helped me sign up for The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College.”
In 2009, Aaron McCargo called Jernigan to tell him about the executive chef position at Cathedral Kitchen. Jernigan was quick to take the job and hasn’t looked back.
“When I was in fine restaurants and hotels, you’re putting out $250 plates, but you don’t know the person you’re serving,” says Jernigan, now 51. “I treat this just like a five-star restaurant, because the city deserves that.”
Jernigan also runs Cathedral Kitchen’s Culinary Arts Training program, teaching kitchen basics to people working to get their lives on track.
“The people everybody says no to, I want to say yes to,” Jernigan says. “I try to find positive things in every person and every situation. That’s the way I live my life. I believe in second chances. I believe in third, fourth and fifth chances too.”
What Jernigan loves most about his job is its unpredictability. Many of his ingredients come from local restaurants or charitable organizations, and he’s never sure what he’ll get.
“I never know what’s going to show up,” he says. “I get donations from every organization and corporation you can think of. It’s awesome to go to work and be able to say, ‘OK, we got a thousand cases of Brussels sprouts – what are we making?’ It’s a mystery box every day.”
Jernigan’s no stranger to mystery boxes. On the first season of The Food Network’s “Chopped,” he was challenged to create a dish using soba noodles, chicken wings, celery and string cheese. Though he was “chopped” from the episode, Jernigan had fun. Plus, if he had to lose, at least it was to another South Jersey chef: Darius Peacock.
Darius Peacock holds dual degrees in business and restaurant management, but for him it’s all about the food, the flavors and the feelings.
The 46-year-old is known for the intriguing flavors he brings to the table, influenced by the kitchens he’s worked in, from the high-pressure restaurants of New York City to the Cherry Hill Hilton, where he was executive chef.
“Everything is a learning experience,” he says. “At one French bistro, the entire staff except myself was Malaysian. We’d cook French food all day, but at the end of the night the employee meal was just crazy, all these new, totally different profiles. That’s what started me doing fusion.”
The most important thing about a great dish, Peacock believes, is that it evokes a happy memory – or thoughts of home.
“I look at food as being nostalgic,” he says. “Somebody should remember something when they taste it.”
Peacock sees food as a metaphor for society. Making different flavors work together, he says, is the same as creating understanding between cultures.
“It’s all about enhancing things by making them work with something very different,” he says. “The more we do it with food, the easier it will be for people to come to the table and talk about their differences, and we’ll find out how much we have in common.”
Peacock’s culinary creativity helped him win on the first season of Chopped. He returned to compete against other Chopped champions, where he again dominated, creating unusual – but delicious – pairings like lobster and bananas.
To prepare for the television competition, Peacock called a friend who’d been the executive chef at his Trenton restaurant Exceptional Taste. Soon, Peacock was in Sicklerville, practicing in front of a live audience: the culinary arts students of Tim Witcher.
Cooking is in Tim Witcher’s blood.
“My grandfather passed away before I was born,” the Pine Hill resident says, “but he was a chef, and my mother used to tell me stories about him. Saturday mornings I’d run to the TV before my brother. He’d put on cartoons, but I wanted to watch my cooking shows. There’s nothing else I ever wanted to be.”
After attending Burlington County Institute of Technology’s (BCIT) arts program, Witcher, now 36, became the executive chef at the Wells Fargo Center (then the Wachovia Center) in Philadelphia.
“We were catering the suites, serving fancy meals,” Witcher says. “One day I got a message from my former principal, asking me to come out and do some culinary events. Well, I’d do anything for him.”
Before long, Witcher left a job in the corporate world to work full time at his former school. He moved to Camden County Technical School in 2015.
After Peacock’s performance on Chopped, Witcher had his eye on the prize when he was invited to appear on the show himself. He took second place, but after he competed and won on “Rewrapped,” another Food Network show, he was invited back to again compete in the Chopped kitchen. This time, he was ready.
In his second Chopped appearance, Witcher says he felt unstoppable. He wasn’t surprised when he went home with the $10,000 prize.
“When I came in second, it was devastating,” Witcher says. “Cooking on TV had been my dream since before I could talk. It was the fava beans that got me. I blanched them and didn’t peel the outside shell. I was like 10 beans short of $10,000. When I came back for the redemption episode, the first thing they said was ‘fava beans.’ I had pig snouts, fava beans, strawberry margarita jam and teething biscuits. But I was ready for it.”
Witcher says his time in the classroom helped prepare him for the strange ingredients.
“In a restaurant you’re making the same things over and over again, but I have to do new things all the time,” he says, “The year before I’d had a whole pig come in, and we cooked everything from the tail to the snout.”
And there was another person who helped Witcher prepare for victory; his longtime friend, former roommate and a TV star in his own right: Kevin Sbraga.
Sbraga attended BCIT’s culinary arts program alongside Witcher, where he expanded on the skills he learned as a child in his family’s Willingboro bakery.
“I was lucky,” Sbraga says. “My family was supportive, my friends were supportive. The plan was always to own a restaurant, but I never planned to own five.”
Sbraga began his career under celebrated SJ chefs. He was executive chef in Stephen Starr’s Rat’s Restaurant at Grounds For Sculpture when the call came from Bravo: They wanted him on season 7 of the popular cooking competition “Top Chef.”
Sbraga won with ease, and the victory catapulted him to celebrity chef status. He launched his self-named Philadelphia eatery in 2011, quickly followed by the Southern-inspired The Fat Ham. In 2015, he opened Sbraga & Company in Jacksonville, Fla. A second Fat Ham location opened at King of Prussia Mall this summer, and a Little Fat Ham booth opened earlier this year at Spruce Street Harbor Park in Philadelphia.
Sbraga says his SJ friends and the generation of chefs they’re now mentoring represent a bright future for the region’s culinary scene.
“Everything going on right now in South Jersey is great,” he says. “My chef at The Fat Ham in Philadelphia is from South Jersey – he worked under Tim Witcher, and he’s amazing. It’s a small world, and there’s a lot of talent in it.”