South Jersey chef battles on NBC's 'Food Fighters'

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Chef Aaron McCargo Jr. on the "Food Fighters" set.

South Jersey chef Aaron McCargo Jr. says he got a flashback to 2008 recently while taping an episode of the NBC cooking contest series Food Fighters, which airs 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 27.

Food Fighters, hosted by Adam Richman, pits a home cook with a signature dish against a pro chef. Their dishes are taste-tested blind before judges. The amateur winner can win up to $100,000 as he or she moves up the ladder.

The hook here is that the pro chef does not know in advance what he or she has to make.

"For me, it felt like The Next Food Network Star," McCargo said, referring to the series' Season 4, which he won. "I had to bring 25 years in the culinary game to win it. You don’t have a lifeline. I had to make this up on the spot."

In McCargo's case, according to a preview video clip provided by NBC, he competed against North Jersey dad Will Spencer in making a dish containing chicken and curry. (McCargo was contractually bound not to disclose any aspect of the taping and of course the outcome.)

The dish seemed to be in McCargo's arsenal. For three seasons, he hosted Big Daddy's House, and his cooking featured big, bold flavors and fun family-style cooking.

"Even if you're a pro, every chef doesn’t know everything," McCargo said by phone. "If you're a heart surgeon, you know hearts. If you're a pastry chef, you know pastry. But if you don't do pastry... That’s a scary thought. If you get caught with a baking challenge, you have to step up."

Come to think of it, he said, he plays a home version of Food Fighters almost every night. "It's always a challenge with three children who have very expensive taste buds," he said. "We eat well but simply. There's not a box of mac and cheese here."

McCargo, who was running the catering kitchen at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital when he won The Next Food Network Star, is developing on a digital cookbook version of his book Simply Done, Well Done, working as a consultant and spokesman for Fresenius Medical Care (which specializes in people with renal issues), and spending his time with his Camden-based nonprofit, Play to Win, which helps keep young men out of prison (serving about a dozen high school youths each school year). He is also seeking investors for a restaurant in Camden.