Cooking Up Opportunities
SJ Chef Aaron McCargo, Jr. shares his recipe for success with young men in Camden
By Heather Morse

He might be checking out produce at the grocery store or waiting in line at the movie theater when Aaron McCargo, Jr. will hear somebody enthusiastically call out to him, “Hey, Big Daddy!”

It’s a frequent occurrence for McCargo, a chef who became a nationwide celebrity after winning the reality-TV competition “The Next Food Network Star” in 2008. Since then, the SJ native has been hosting his own show on the channel, “Big Daddy’s House.”

Chef Aaron McCargo

Chef Aaron McCargo

Time and time again, 39-year-old McCargo listens as people tell him how much they love his show and congratulate him on his success. As often as he hears them, these compliments still catch McCargo off guard, mainly because they’re such a far cry from the cruel taunts he heard while growing up in Camden and struggling to realize his dream of becoming a chef.

The bullying started in middle school, after McCargo was the only boy to enroll in a home economics class. He saw the class as a way to improve his cooking skills on his quest to become a chef. Others didn’t share his vision.

“People told me, ‘No guys are chefs. You’re gay, you’re weird, you’re not gonna make it.’ I heard everything you could possibly hear. I was beaten up. You name it, it was done to me,” McCargo says. “It was a terrible feeling growing up, knowing that people were so negative about my passion.”

Though it wasn’t easy to stay focused on his goals, McCargo decided the torment from his classmates was better than the alternatives surrounding him.

“Growing up in Camden, I had to beat the odds. Jail, drugs, homelessness – it was all right there,” he says. “I was like so many of the young men there who desperately needed someone to encourage us and teach us that life is a challenge. Thankfully, my father was that person for me. Most kids didn’t have anyone encouraging them to follow their dreams and they ended up on the wrong path.”

For McCargo, those dreams started at a very young age. When he was just 4 years old, he discovered his sister’s Easy-Bake Oven and began “baking” his first cakes. By the age of 7 he was cooking entire dinners for his parents and five siblings. His family encouraged his obvious talent, and as he got older, McCargo enjoyed spending lots of time in the kitchen.

Despite the taunts he heard at school and on the streets, McCargo stuck with that middle school home economics class, which helped him earn a position as a junior volunteer in the kitchen at Cooper University Hospital when he was just 13 years old.

After graduating from Camden High School, McCargo was accepted into the Academy of Culinary Arts at Atlantic Cape Community College. He went on to earn positions at several prestigious SJ restaurants, learning and working his way up through the ranks. Along the way, McCargo moved away from Camden, got married and had three kids.

He was working as an executive chef at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, juggling up to 40 catering jobs per day, when his wife urged him to try out for the fourth season of the Food Network’s reality show.

Nearly 4,000 other people also entered the competition, but McCargo’s talent and bold personality landed him a spot as one of the ten finalists. “The whole process from start to finish was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and I say that with all honesty,” says McCargo. “To leave my family and my job at the hospital, and go to New York without knowing how long I’d be there or any other of the other people there, it was tough.”

Week by week, McCargo sweated it out in the kitchen. “Every day, my heart would pound and pound for hours. The tension of wanting to win and the anxiety continued to grow. It just got worse as the others were sent home one by one,” he says.  Despite his inner angst, McCargo’s food continued to impress the judges. “My big thing is spices. I’m big on flavor. I believe in having that bold flavor,” he says of his approach to cooking. “My sandwiches are huge, my salads are huge, and my spices are huge. You name it – it’s coming at you big.”

His “big” delivery earned him the title of “The Next Food Network Star” and a deal for six episodes of his own show. When it premiered just a few weeks after he won, “Big Daddy’s House” ranked as the number-one in-the-kitchen weekend program.

McCargo’s show is now in its fourth season, so he’s seen the realization of his dream, but he still remembers what it was like to struggle against the odds in Camden. Inspired by those challenges, McCargo has established Play To Win, a nonprofit organization that motivates and prepares young men in the city to lead productive, fulfilling lives beyond high school.

“I know what it’s like for the kids growing up there, but I also know what it’s like to succeed,” says McCargo. “I want to help these young men go after their passions and not let anyone deter them or tell them it’s not real. I want to show them I’m passionate about their passion and help them develop the tools to go after it and make it a reality.”

McCargo and his Play To Win board members have already selected ten young men to be the first participants in the program. They were selected, says McCargo, based on their behavior, home life and recommendations from school guidance counselors. “We chose young men who have some potential but need some extra guidance,” he explains.

McCargo says he and his staff will start by teaching the teens “basic 21st century skills like setting up a checking account and paying bills. We can’t be these kids’ dad, but we will tell them what it is to be a man and how to grow up and be responsible. That seems simple enough, but a lot of kids aren’t hearing that.”

Beyond teaching life skills, Play To Win also helps each young man identify and nurture his talents through one-on-one mentoring and participation in internships, service learning projects and leadership development activities. “I’ve realized it’s very difficult for inner-city children who must work and go to school at the same time,” says McCargo. “We’re going to set them up with some future goals and give them the tools they need to achieve them.”

McCargo hopes each teen in his program graduates high school with a positive ten-year life plan. “We’re going to follow them for those ten years and provide them with the support they need. As they grow, we want to grow along with them,” he says. “We’re going to show them that life is a positive and worthwhile journey.”

April 2011
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