Do you ever watch celebrity chefs whip up an exquisite, seemingly impossible, scrumptious-looking dish on television and wonder where the chef journey began for them?
For chefs to make it to the top of their profession, oftentimes they were influenced, encouraged and supported by a family member, a friend of the family or someone else close to them.
For Father’s Day, we caught up with some of the region’s top TV chefs to ask about their influences.
Not surprisingly, many of us are strongly influenced by mothers, grandmothers and other women in our lives who knew their way around the kitchen.
But many of the chefs we spoke to also pointed to fathers who cooked meals for the family, showed them first-hand how putting together a simple meal could be fun, easy and delicious.
Father’s Day can bring up very vivid memories of our own fathers and the influence they may have had on the meals we ate (or still eat), whether it was grilling on holidays, making a special breakfast or resurrecting a family recipe at the holidays.
We spoke with celebrity chefs about their dads — and father figures — who influenced them the most in their cooking careers:
Joseph Gramaglia, ‘Chopped’
These days, you won’t always find Salvatore Gramaglia at his namesake Italian restaurant Saly G’s in Warren, New Jersey. But every day, the retired father of four inspires his sons with his work ethic that helped the family to open six locations of A & G Italian Fine Foods, as well as Saly G’s.
“He expected us to work a certain way and that was something he was very demanding of,” said Joseph Gramaglia, chef and co-owner at family-run Saly G’s. Joseph was a “Chopped” winner in January.
“He put me on the right path, taught me how to be a business owner and taught me how to stay hungry and motivated,” Joseph recalled.
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Salvatore immigrated to the United States from Italy in 1963 and started in the food industry at 12 by doing bicycle deliveries in Brooklyn for A & S Pork Store. He opened his first A & G Italian Fine Foods location in Sayreville in 1971.
“He did a lot in his life at a very young age,” Joseph said. “When an immigrant comes from Italy with nothing, opens multiple businesses and has four kids, that’s motivation for me to provide the same lifestyle that we had for my future kids someday.”
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Now, Salvatore gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor and watch his sons carry on the family legacy, as they continue to run the A & G Italian Fine Foods locations. But you just might spot him at Saly G’s enjoying a homemade Italian meal.
“He’s just here now to enjoy it,” Joseph said. “He still gets involved when he has to and he always gives me advice from his 50 years of experience.”
Aaron McCargo, Jr., ‘Next Food Network Star,’ ‘Big Daddy’s House,’ ‘Cook’s Essentials’
The Camden, New Jersey, native and father of three remembers growing up in a house full of people, yet there was always food on the table.
His father, Aaron McCargo, Sr., wasn’t a chef, but managed to find creative ways to help feed his six children – four boys and two girls.
“When I was very young, he started to speak the chef thing into my life,” McCargo, Jr. said. “When I didn’t know what it was about to be a chef, he led by cooking around the house as a man, encouraging me that my food would be good, encouraging me to stick with it when everything was not looking in favor for me wanting to be a chef because it wasn’t very popular and common at the time.
“He was cooking survival meals. It was eight of us. We weren’t living in the high rises of Camden. We were really trying to survive and he was using his basic skills to just make sure there was food on the table, alternating with my mom. I enjoyed watching him because he just thought outside the box and he made things that were creative and different.”
How creative? “We got a nice-looking pancake loaded with hot dogs,” McCargo, Jr., recalled with a chuckle. “It was something new and different.”
His father’s not the only one who influenced him in his culinary career, however. McCargo gives lots of credit to his mentor, Jonathan Jernigan, Willingboro native and former executive chef of Cathedral Kitchen in Camden.
“He took me from being a raw, knucklehead from Camden, New Jersey, and invested the time in teaching me and showing me the ropes and, if I’m going to do this culinary thing, how to be good at it and how to teach others and instill the better part of the cooking, which is making people happy by doing it the right way,” said McCargo, Jr., who added that if it weren’t for God, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
A graduate of Camden High, McCargo, Jr., later won Season 4 of “Food Network Star” and also hosted his own show “Big Daddy’s House” for six seasons on that same network.
In addition to doing cooking videos on Instagram, he’s promoting his The Sauce and the Spice business on his website, focusing on cooking and prepping healthy meals for diabetics or those on dialysis, and he has partnered with QVC as the expert on-air guest for the network’s proprietary cookware line, “Cook’s Essentials.”
“I was blessed to be able to take on a job and partnership with QVC,” McCargo, Jr. said. “That’s been amazing … I’m able to introduce to folks kitchen gadgets, cookware and electronic (appliances) that I know works for me and they can get for an affordable price.”
Christian Petroni, ‘Food Network Star,’ ‘Restaurant Hustle’
Christian Petroni’s father Lorenzo inadvertently inspired his son’s culinary career by installing an illegal cable box in their home.
Petroni is now the former chef/owner of the Fortina Restaurant Group (which he left in 2020) and the 2018 “Food Network Star.” He also appeared in the Food Network documentary “Restaurant Hustle 2020: All On The Line.” But in the ’80s, Petroni was just a kid sitting in front of a television screen at his home in the Bronx, watching the Discovery Channel during commercial breaks on Nickelodeon.
He fell in love with the show “Great Chefs of the World” – Tyler Florence in his green kitchen and Ming Tsai with his ceramic knives. “I never had a thought in my head to do television,” said Petroni. “I just knew I wanted to cook. If my dad didn’t get that illegal cable box, who knows what I’d be doing.”
Lorenzo moved to the U.S. from the island of Ponza off the Southern coast of Italy when he was around 18. “He loved his new country so much,” said Petroni.
His father signed up to serve in the Vietnam War and worked as a carpenter when he returned. His side hustle was as a produce supplier for restaurants. Petroni remembers waking up at 1 a.m. to go with his dad to Hunts Point Produce Market in the Bronx.
“I was so excited to be there with my Pop. It was my happy place,” he said. “My dad was the guy people would call if they wanted the freshest, best stuff. All the vendors loved my dad, so they would let him go into the walk-in boxes to find the best strawberries and the broccoli rabe with the most florets.”
Petroni now has two kids of his own: 4-year-old Beau and 1½-year-old Briar Rose. Lorenzo is now a doting grandfather, as well.
“The faith that my father continues to have in me, it’s just amazing,” said Petroni. “I feel really lucky to have a father like mine.”
Kimberly Roth, ‘Hell’s Kitchen’
It was season 16 of the television competition show “Hell’s Kitchen,” and contestant Kimberly Roth was competing in a fusion challenge. A spin of a wheel landed on French and Chinese cuisines, which she’d have to combine in one dish.
She immediately thought of her father’s recipe for steak au poivre. She paired it with a quail egg-infused fried rice and a hoisin sake sauce. Chef Roy Yamaguchi complimented her dish, and she won a point for her team.
It was one of many times Brad Roth has impacted his daughter’s cuisine. “My dad was a huge influence in my career,” she said.
While growing up in Webster, New York, Kimberly would watch Brad Roth cook without recipes, using whatever they had on hand. His specialty was Italian fare, but he also made Jewish recipes passed down from his own father.
“He makes a mean matzoh ball, I tell you,” Kimberly Roth said. “I can’t even make it as good as he can.”
With her parents’ encouragement, she started cooking at a young age. By age 11, she’d pound out chicken cutlets for the chicken saltimbocca that her father would complete when he got home from work.
Roth now owns the Bamboo Panda Catering Co. as well as The Back Alley Grill, a seasonal food trailer that serves sushi and Asian fare in Sodus Point, Wayne County, New York. It recently reopened for its second season.
Roth has applied for Ramsey’s new competition show, called “Next Level Chef. “I need that thrill of winning something,” she said. “It’s been years.”
Whether or not she makes the cast, she’ll have the full support of her father. “He’s my biggest fan right now,” she said. “He’s my biggest cheerleader.”
Gregory Stott, ‘Chopped’
Gregory Stott, executive chef of Café Panache in Ramsey, one of North Jersey’s most beloved fine-dine restaurants, credits his mom with influencing him in the kitchen; she was the cook in the family.
His dad on the other hand? He not only taught Stott to love upscale restaurants and international cuisines but, Stott said, may be the reason he is at Café Panache today.
Michael Stott, who died nine years ago, was a regular at Café Panache and a friend of its legendary chef and owner Kevin Kohler. Kohler died suddenly this winter and Gregory Stott was chosen to take over the legendary restaurant’s kitchen.
“My father always loved going to Café Panache,” said Stott, 50, who grew up in Ridgewood and lives in Haworth with his wife Dana and their two daughters. “Kevin knew me because of my dad.” And he ended up hiring him twice to work at Panache. “He was my mentor.” Kohler had told his family that if anything should ever happen to him that they should call Stott.
When Stott decided to go to culinary school at age 32 – he is a graduate of the International Culinary Center, formerly known as the French Culinary Institute – his father was thrilled.
“He was excited, very supportive,” said Stott, who was a semifinalist on the Food Network’s TV show “Chopped.” “Whatever restaurant I was working at, he made a point to bring his customers there. I would just be starting out, maybe even just prepping, but he’d make a big deal out of me coming out in a white jacket to say hello.”
After all, Michael Stott appreciated fine food and good service. He respected professional chefs. He had taken his family of six to some of the finest restaurants, not only in the U.S but abroad.
“I didn’t eat chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks growing up,” Stott said. Instead he’d feast on raclette in Zurich, gruyere souffle in London, and Chilean sea bass in New York City. With his dad, he ate in New York City at the 21 Club (“Michael Lomonaco was the chef and I was in elementary school; I got the 21 Burger”); La Grenouille (“I was around 12 and intimidated; the menu was in French and they were reluctant to translate’); Lespinasse (“It was chef Gray Kunz’s last night there”); plus Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, Le Taillevent in Paris, Le Gavroche in London, among others.
His favorite? La Caravelle in Manhattan, where his grandfather, who grew up poor and ended up becoming vice-chairman of Exxon, had a table.
“All my love and passion for food and restaurants came from my dad,” he said. “All my great culinary experiences go to back him.”
Armando Ferrante’The Butcher’
Third-generation butcher Armando Ferrante has spent more than half a century working with meat and now works at one of New Jersey’s most popular steak restaurants.
It all started with the family business.
“(My great-uncle) owned a slaughterhouse in south Philadelphia, and most of the men in the family helped Uncle Sam,” said Ferrante, 66, of Long Branch. “Some liked it and continued, and others went in different directions.”
Ferrante’s father stuck with it, going on to open a wholesale veal business. Ferrante went to work with his dad as a kid, visiting livestock auctions in Lancaster and learning to break down whole animals. He remembers his father’s relationship with local farmers.
“My dad had a rapport with a lot of the Amish farmers,” he said. “He knew who took pride in raising their animals, so they would tip him off at the auction and say ‘this one’s mine, this calf is mine,’ and he would bid a little higher knowing that the quality was there.”
Ferrante wasn’t a good student in school, he admits. “I didn’t take to it, the schoolwork. So my father’s like, ‘Here we go, we’re going to work.’
“I loved it,” he said. “I fell in love with it.”
Ferrante went on to own his father’s business, Ferrante’s Meats & More, and began offering catering and sandwich platters when the demand for specialty meats began to slip.
“The old lady with the note every Friday morning, every Saturday morning, that went away,” he said.
Ferrante eventually sold the store to two employees – he visits once a month – and went on to work for Whole Foods Market, where he won the company’s nationwide Best Butcher competition in 2012. In 2019, he appeared on History Channel’s competition show, “The Butcher.”
Then a friend, Tom D’Ambrisi, told Ferrante he needed a butcher for a restaurant he was opening in Long Branch. Ferrante was put in charge of the in-house butcher shop at The Butcher’s Block. “It worked, because we did butcher the stuff right for the customer,” he said.
“It’s going back to the more personal, ‘tell the butcher what you’re going to make,’ ” he said. “That’s what I love about the business. I would say, ‘I know you’re reading off of a recipe, but what are you making? Let me take over from there.’ “
Andrew Zappley, ‘Master Chef Junior’
Ever wonder what became of 2015 ‘Master Chef Junior’ runner-up? Well, then 11-year-old Andrew Zappley from West Deptford is now 18 years old and a culinary graduate of Gloucester Institute of Technology.
Since his TV appearance, where he shared his love for Italian cooking and his crush on Gordon Ramsay’s daughter Matilda, Zappley went through a culinary program at his high school, graduated in 2020, received his ServSafe certification for foodservice and is now looking to work his way up in the restaurant industry.
While he job hunted during the pandemic, he spent time cooking, baking and grilling at home, making pies, fresh pasta and more. His dreams include opening an Italian restaurant in South Jersey.
“I was cooking a lot more, beginning of the pandemic, just trying new things,” Zappley said. “I’ve taken a little bit of break towards the end now. But the pandemic, it just gave me so much time to get back in the kitchen, get back on what I love doing.”
Though his grandmother was the main person to lead him to his culinary passion, Zappley says his father was a big influence. “He was always in the house always cooking dinner, so a lot of stuff I learned came from him – his recipes that I’ve refined, done my way because I think my way is better than his,” Zappley said with a laugh.
His father, Phillip, got Zappley into grilling, teaching him how to work with different proteins like steak, chicken burgers, seafood and pork.
Zappley said his favorite food memories with his dad are going to Philadelphia for cheesesteaks at Tony Luke’s or Geno’s Steaks.
On Father’s Day, Zappley usually cooks for his family and this year he’ll be grilling up some steaks to share his skills with his dad.
“It’s Father’s Day, so I gotta give respect to my dad,” Zappley said.
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