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Jeff Mauro: ...how important family gatherings are

Laura: Welcome to Nobody Told Me! I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: And I'm Jan Black. Nobody told me just how much we would miss getting together with friends and relatives, cooking and enjoying food, sharing good times and great memories. We all learned that the hard way with the pandemic and its necessary restrictions on gathering with those outside of our immediate household. Now that a lot more people are vaccinated and restrictions are easing, a lot of us are looking forward to gathering once again with those we'd love to share a meal and some laughter with as well.

Laura: To help get us in the mood for that, we welcome our guest on this episode, Jeff Mauro, the winner of Season 7 of Food Network Star, the host of Sandwich King, the co-host of the Emmy-nominated show, The Kitchen, and the author of the new book, Come On Over: 111 Fantastic Recipes for the Family That Cooks, Eats and Laughs Together. Jeff, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jeff: Thank you for having me on, it's a pleasure.

Laura: Oh, my goodness, you are so tremendously accomplished with that intro, oh my gosh.

Jeff: You know you missed a couple things too, I'm not going to lie. I'm kidding, no, you did though. But seriously, when you group it all together, it does seem like an exhausting life, but heck if it's not a fulfilling one. I'm very blessed and happy.

Laura: Oh, yeah. Tell us about the book that you just wrote, Come On Over, which we need now more than ever, or hopefully we'll need very soon.

Jan: Yeah, exactly.

Jeff: You know what? I feel it. Do you guys feel it in the air? I think it's really the perfect time, not only to start making that call, it's getting nice out in most of the country. Chicago here, it's touch and go, we had snow like four days ago, you never know what weather is going to bring us. But now, we can finally have that barbecue, people are feeling more comfortable, and we know more from a scientific and medical perspective.

It's palpable in the air that it's now time to finally say the words into the phone, those words I grew up hearing my mom utter into that landline phone with the 50-foot curly cord that got tangled up in all the kids. She'd uttered those words, "Come on over." It always meant a couple things; family was coming over, friends, whoever, and always surrounded by good food. It just feels like this Golden Age is upon us in this renaissance if you will, or this metamorphosis out of this really, really tough year and a half for many, many people. It's now time, come on over.

Jan: If people are coming over, what are some of the things you would suggest they can put together easily, just to have a fun time with people who really want to get together after so long?

Jeff: You want to keep it simple. We're just re-acclimating, I guess, to hosting. I have a lot of great recipes that are larger format, say like a beef tenderloin everybody does for special holidays. You can feed eight people really good beef that's really, really simple to prepare in a matter of hours with very minimal hands-on technique necessary that people often overlook. You slice it into medallions, you take it, you don't even have to tie it, and you do a reverse sear method. You put out a beautiful sandwich spread with a horseradish sauce, a mushroom sauce, and a mustard. You get little slider buns, and you thinly slice the tenderloin, it doesn't even need to be hot, you can serve it at room temperature. It's wonderful, just little techniques like this. I show people that you don't overthink it, keep it as simple as possible, and cook what you know. You shouldn't have to know that much. You just have a couple things in your bag of tricks to choose from.

I have a whole page on ice. You know how important is ice and how often overlooked when you have company. You'll mix them this beautiful cocktail or a nice glass of spritzer, or wine, or something, and you're serving cloudy ice in that cocktail, it's very sad. It makes me almost cry, one little tear. Don't pour me $100 bottle of bourbon over a cloudy, questionable, freezer-burned ice cube that's right next to ice cream and meat.

Laura: Do you think we should try and stay away from finger foods? I was just thinking when you mentioned cloudy ice, I think now more than ever, people would be really uncomfortable with that.

Jeff: I barely have one dip. I'm not a dip guy, I was not a dip guy pre-pandemic. You want to mitigate some of that touchy stuff by not having a big bowl of hummus that people are compelled to swipe into several times if they're not following the rules, and maybe drag a knuckle through that, no bueno.

Which brings me to my theory on appetizers, I talk about this in the book ad nauseum, is zero to one appetizer, especially if the main course is what you put your energy, heart, and soul into. You don't want people front loading on apps and not being as ravenously hungry as they should be for that main course; that beef tenderloin, that beautiful sandwich spread you've done, wonderfully smoked meats, big robust salads, you want people to really dig into that. When you come over to my house, you know you might get a little sausage bread, maybe a little crudité, but man, you're going to wait for the main event. I want you almost zombie-like chasing after the main course like it's a human brain. That's an endorsement if I've ever heard one.

Jan: Yeah, really. Really. I agree with you on the serving of appetizers, I totally share your philosophy on that. I also think you have an interesting philosophy on not being afraid to use disposables if you're entertaining at home; not feeling like you got to pull out the fine china, maybe you don't have fine china, that you can just go a lot easier in terms of the things you serve the food on.

Jeff: Jan, I don't know what your family's like over there, but, I'm good for anytime I have a get together for 4 to 14 people. There's a good 20% breakage factor. Things are going over the table, whether it's intentional or not, things will be broken. But it's also you get done finally after cooking, serving, prepping, all the build-up, and you finally sit down to eat, it's like, "Oh, my God, now I'm just staring at all these plates." They make beautiful disposables. You can go the plastic route, or you can go the robust paper route, you can make it themed.

That's the beauty of Come On Over. You know you're going to be guided with great recipes, you know the food's going to be delicious, who cares if it's not on grandma's china, or on a beautiful artisanal plate you got at the market, or the handblown glass that you're drinking out of. The food will speak for itself and if people take a bite, they won't even realize what they're eating on, that's the goal. You throw it all away, and it's more time to spend with your guests.

Jan: Yeah.

Laura: In your opinion, what do you think is the best part of being a host? Is it doing that cooking and getting compliments? Or is it like you said, getting to get together with your friends and catch up with them? Or is a lot of it the preparation? I think the buildup is really good.

Jeff: I love the buildup. For me, I have different quadrants, if you will, of hosting, of that timeline. I have two favorite parts. Number one, that buzzy feeling when you know people are about to ring the doorbell, or come around the back and they're going to have the bag of ice and they're going to have the tray of things, their coats, 'where do I put the dog?', 'my kid needs milk'. All that stuff starts with those moments, stress-free moments when you can pour yourself a glass of wine or a cocktail, have that inaugural portion of chunky Parmesan with a cracker that you put a little salami on, or you have a swipe of hummus, that first one, and you get to sit there and you look at your wife or your lover, and you're like, "Okay, the onslaught's coming. We know what we're about to get into the next couple hours. Let's enjoy this moment just basking in the smells, everything's set, and everything unadulterated."

My, probably, the most favorite part, which people got to remember, to enjoy it. So often you host and you're a gopher; you're just getting things for people during the dinner, you're cleaning up, and you're bussing tables. Sit down and enjoy the meal. If you can't do that, it's hard for me to enjoy that, especially putting so much effort into it, make sure you have a little bite. That's when you go, you sit in the back for a minute, you take 10 minutes to yourself, and you pour a glass of wine. When everybody's chattering and so happy, you take a breath, wash your face, change your shirt maybe, I'm a messy artist, a messy cook, I might have some splatter, change your shirt, and then rejoin after you get to reinvigorate and re-calibrate your brain and soul, then you go back in there. I guarantee you'll enjoy the evening way more.

Jan: What's your advice for someone who finds out that they have to host, say, the big family holiday gathering for the first time, or grandpa's birthday, something where you really feel like, "Wow, this is a performance. I'm on stage," that kind of thing. What should they do to make sure that it comes off without a hitch?

Jeff: Plan and cook what you know. There's no such thing as over-planning. You write it down, "This is our menu. We're doing the mashed potatoes, we're going to do the big chop salad, we're going to do the jerk chicken, we're going to make it all work together. I'm not going to overthink it by doing too much." Don't take on too much. It's stressful enough taking on the responsibility of feeding a crowd, whether it's 2 people or 20 people, you're still responsible, you're still at the helm. So cook what you know. I know how to grill chicken, this is a great recipe to grill chicken, let's make it work. But also, over-planned to the point where everything's so super set up when people walk in the door, you're not scrambling.

Laura: Let's take an occasion, like grandpa's birthday, very simple.

Jeff: It's a rager, I love a grandpa's birthday.

Laura: Let's say the pressure's on to cook something that he loves. We're just going to stick with baked chicken, even though it's so easy, but his standards are high, would you recommend just saying at that point, "You know what? I know we've done baked chicken every single year, but let's try and do something different." If you're nervous, you're just not going to meet that cooking standard?

Jan: Especially if you're doing it for a large group.

Laura: Yeah.

Jeff: For sure. If it's something elaborate, I would not take on the responsibility, keep it simple. Look at it this way, you might upset old Grandpa Joe. But since the food's good, you're making 18 other people happy. Or do you keep Grandpa happy and then maybe roll the dice on doing something you've never done before with the possibility of it not coming out very well. That's the balance. I think you do a test run. Maybe if you give yourself a couple weeks, a week or something, be like, "I want to make this roast chicken." If Grandpa loves something, I'm sure Grandpa loves it, sounds like an old-timey recipe, like roast chicken, and maybe an aspect or something, some gelatin meat, but you do a run through, you lock it in once, you can make it for a crowd then. For sure. You make everybody happy. But if it's your kid's birthday, keep it kid-like, chicken fingers.

Jan: Easy.

Laura: You can never go wrong with that, it's always going to make me happy.

Jan: What about asking your guests to help say, “Hey, can you bring over a couple of dishes?” Are you an advocate of that?

Jeff: Love it. Not too much. Again, you alleviate the stress from, I know my mom makes, my mom's mashed potatoes are in the book, it's the best to the point where all my co-hosts on Kitchen only make this mashed potato recipe for all the holidays because I say it's 50% potato, 50% butter, and 50% cream cheese, what could be wrong with that?

Laura: Absolutely nothing.

Jan: Sounds low calorie.

Jeff: It's very good for you, nothing but vitamin something and riboflavin, I believe. Don't quote me on that, I'm not a medical professional.

Jan: Exactly.

Jeff: My mom's like, “I'm going to make my potatoes.” I go, “Please bring them over.” I know they stay piping hot, she doesn't really need to put them anywhere, so you do that. But, let's say my sister, Dana, I love her to death, but she's like, “I'm going to make a salad.” I'm like, “Oh boy.” It's a mixed bag, could be good, could be not so good. Can you rely on her? Maybe. But if you know they're kind of testing their culinary limits, maybe say no. Plus, you know sometimes when people walk in your house with all these trays of food, sure you're going to have all this food, but where do you put it? It's stressful to have to receive it in those stressful beginning portions of the day, of the party, or whatever it is. You don't know where to put it, you certainly don't have room in your oven a lot of the time. If you can control it all and do three, four really great, well-executed dishes, that's where you win. And then have your mom bring them, you got to make your mom happy. If she wants to bring the potatoes, you let her bring the potatoes.

Jan: Of course.

Jeff: Who am I to argue with her?

Laura: It seems like right now you've got a lot of people who are getting excited, like we are, about getting together again; but you also have people who feel like they're not quite ready. What are some gracious ways that we can say to people, “Hey, we would love to have you over, but we totally understand if you don't want to come over.” And do you also think that it's a smart idea to just get ahead of the game and explain our COVID protocols over the phone, send a text and explain it, or is that kind of overkill?

Jan: Interesting, yeah.

Jeff: I guess it depends on the family and the individual, not only the host, but who you're potentially inviting. I think that's part of taking on the job of a host, is trying to make everybody comfortable across the board. If you have to go in and be very clear about the parameters of the house, "We're going to keep it all outside, it's spring now. Come on over, if you're not comfortable with this kind of setup, fine, we'll try to work on keeping it safer for you." Don't be afraid if you want to host and you have your bubble or whatever and you're going to extend an invite to that person who hasn't been part of that bubble and they're super uncomfortable, then maybe it's not best for them and they need a couple more months or whatever. But give them the option, I think.

Right now, it's time. It's not like we're pushing it, but we know more and we know how to space ourselves well by this point, a year and so many months into it. And food is a communal experience for the most part. People coming into a situation like that, I think once you say, "Yes, I'm coming over." You sign up for, "Okay, I'm going to scoop it in the same communal dish as you, but I know I'll wear a mask when I do it, I'll let you go first, then I'll come over and then we'll sit six feet apart outside with a fan blowing. I'm a big believer in fans. I got giant church fans and they're good for everything but keeping you cool outside. But it's also for the bugs, it blows the bugs away, and keeps the bees from landing on your food and all this stuff. Now's a good time to break out the big fans.

Jan: Jeff, our show is called Nobody Told Me! We always ask our guests, "What is your nobody told me lesson?" Take it anywhere you want. Maybe what did nobody tell you about entertaining or about becoming a successful celebrity chef, or just the value of having family and friends to share meals together with? What is it that nobody told you that you had to learn the hard way or came to realize that you'd learned along the way?

Jeff: Nobody told me how hard it was to be the nucleus of a family. My wife, Sarah, and I, my son, Lorenzo, we've turned into this, not so much the matriarch and patriarch, those are my parents, but we have the house, we have the outdoor space. I built the outdoor kitchen, the fire pit, the pergola, the foosball table, a basketball hoop. It's great in theory. I'm the center of the entertaining universe of my family, but my mom never told me how much work it truly is. I grew up watching the matriarchs of my family, my mom, her two sisters, my uncle. It was just food, family, and laughs constantly for whatever occasion; birthdays, graduations, God forbid a wake, a funeral. Everything was surrounded by family and eventually laughter. It's so much fun as a kid, you just show up places, but they never told me how hard it is.

Writing this book, you really dig into that. I gained a greater appreciation for my mom and my aunts, and how much effort they put through to keep us all together. As we kind of reintroduce ourselves to some people, even our own families, now seeing them in person after a year, it's now more important to, obviously be safe, but also find that person in your family who's going to be like, "You know what? I'm having you guys over. Come on over, it's time." Because this is what makes our country, our society, and human nature great, is our ability to communicate over food. Now it's time to reacquaint each other with each other.

Jan: Yeah, yeah.

Laura: Jeff, how can people connect with you and learn more about the book and everywhere else you are?

Jeff: That's a great question. You can go to comeonover.com where you can pre-order the book, order it now, depending on when this is going to air, hopefully it's out by now, or it comes out the 13th. Go to comeonover.com, order the book.

I have two seasons of my podcast also called, Come On Over. We're 50-something episodes in, it's doing gangbusters. It's just me and my little sister, Emily. In my family, we're like the Chicago Kardashians but way chubbier, way more obsessed with food, and all on a podcast. It's the only podcast where a Food Network talent writes one to three new songs each episode, whether or not you want to hear the song or not, you're getting them, darn it. I'm really proud of it. That's been kind of my passion project over this last year and a half, really proud of what we're doing with that. You go to comeonover.com.

You can go to mauroprovisions.com and order any of my Craft Giardiniera, or my Italian Beef Kits, and my spice rubs. All that stuff we package here in the basement and do it all ourselves. Or watch my shows on Food Network, check me out every Saturday, 10am Central on The Kitchen, and then Kitchen Crash.

Jan: We thank you so much for spending time with us, this has been an absolute delight. It really makes us want to go and spend some more time with family, obviously safely, sharing meals together.

Jeff: We'll all get back there collectively, 100%, very soon, I feel in my bones. We're almost there, we're getting there, we're inching there.

Jan: Our thanks to Jeff Mauro whose new book is called, Come On Over: 111 Fantastic Recipes for the Family That Cooks, Eats and Laughs Together. I'm Jan Black.

Laura: And I'm Laura Owens.

Jan: You're listening to Nobody Told Me! Thank you so much for joining us.

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