Aaron McCargo Jr. was four years old when the lightbulb first went on, introducing him to the world of cooking.
That was the 100-watt lightbulb inside his sister’s Easy-Bake Oven. “That’s when I started baking cakes,” he says.
Fast forward to July of this year. McCargo, a 37-year-old father of three who grew up and still lives in Camden, conquered his nerves, regained his natural ebullience, and emerged victorious from the nine-week gauntlet of cooking challenges and weekly eliminations known as The Next Food Network Star. The prize for defeating nine other finalists: A six-week Food Network series of his own—Big Daddy’s House—which concludes September 7, perhaps with greater things to come.
Big Daddy was the nickname his fellow contestants gave him.“I have a big laugh, give big hugs, I snore big, it’s all big,” he says with a robust laugh. “I try not to wear too many faces but the one I have.” Big flavor and simple technique are the themes of his cooking, which crosses soul food with comfort food with barbecue with whatever enters his mind when he wakes up in the middle of the night with a new recipe idea.
He says his passion for full flavor comes from his mother, while his penchant for what he calls “crazy cooking” comes from his dad. Both parents made guest appearances on Big Daddy’s House. The menu on the September 7 show is devoted to family favorites such as filet mignon cheesesteak soup and fried fish sandwich with remoulade and his Mom’s carrot slaw.
Largely self-taught, McCargo volunteered in the kitchen of Cooper University hospital at age 13 and spent a brief time in culinary school. He later opened McCargo’s Restaurant across from the Camden County Courthouse before becoming executive chef for catering at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. He left the job several months ago to do promotion and tape Big Daddy’s House, all six episodes of which were in the can by the time the Next Food Network Star finale aired.
McCargo and his wife, Kimberly, and their children belong to Living Hope Christian Center in Pennsauken. He hopes some of his good fortune will rub off on his hometown. “All we ever hear in Camden is negativity, how many shootings, how many crimes,” he told the Food Network. “I’d like to motivate the young teenagers who are out there right now, and say, ‘You know what, guys? If I can make it, you can make it.’”
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