Jeff Mauro is a lot of things: He’s the winner of Season 7 of “Food Network Star” and co-host of the Emmy-nominated series, “The Sandwich King.” He’s a celebrity chef who’s made his rounds on the “Today” show and “Good Morning America,” author of a new cookbook, podcast host, comedian and entrepreneur.
Accomplishments aside, Mauro, who spoke to dozens of students at Oak Park and River Forest High School Oct. 8, wasn’t shy to reveal all the twists and turns on his long road to success. Last Friday morning, Mauro, who graduated from OPRF in 1996, returned to his alma mater for a cooking demo and Q&A with students from the business incubator and family and consumer science courses.
“The first job I ever had was at a butcher shop on Lake Street, and they paid me $3.62 an hour to scrub fat off pans – dream job – and then, I went to a deli,” said Mauro, 43, who lives in River Forest. “I always worked in food, but I [also] performed here at the high school. I always wanted to meld my two loves – food and performance.”
Inside the school auditorium, Mauro was onstage, underneath the bright lights he once stood under many years ago, and fielded questions from eager business and culinary arts students. Mauro shared stories about moving from Chicago to Los Angeles to pursue stand-up comedy, going to tryout after tryout and not getting a callback, juggling jobs and auditioning four times before landing the spot on the “Food Network Star.”
“I left my family for two-and-a-half months to live in a house with strangers – 24/7 videotaping me brushing my teeth, getting out of the shower (with a robe on), waking up, going to sleep, cooking, competing [and] all that stuff,” Mauro said about being on “Food Network Star” in 2011, which ultimately propelled his career forward, giving him his own show and opening the doors to other opportunities.
For Matt Prebble, an OPRF business teacher, inviting Mauro and allowing him to talk about his personal journey was a beneficial experience for his students. He, along with food and consumer science teachers, Kristina Belpedio and Jackie Morris, thought Mauro could shed light on various career pathways apart from attending college or four-year universities.
“Working hard pays off. Failing also pays off,” Prebble said.
There were moments in between where Mauro, whose boisterous voice boomed throughout the auditorium, talked about attending OPRF and now returning to his hometown of River Forest to raise his son, Lorenzo.
When asked where his passion for food came from, Mauro kept his answer simple: His large Italian-American family.
“Food is the epicenter of every celebration or event,” Mauro said. “Happy or sad, we’re eating. We’re always surrounded by trays of eggplant, trays of lasagna and big, beautiful food whether it’s a graduation party or a funeral.”
Mauro can still recall watching his grandmother, mother and aunts cooking, and he drew upon those fond memories for his latest book, “Come on Over: 111 Fantastic Recipes for the Family That Cooks, Eats and Laughs Together.”
“They taught me not only the recipes, but just the power of the importance of communal eating and [that] food is always better when you make it from scratch,” he said.
Moments before Mauro appeared onstage, he stopped by the cafeteria and led a cooking demo on an egg parm sandwich. There, surrounded by faculty and students, Mauro joked around, while coating the sliced eggplant. He leaned on his sous-chef, as well as family and consumer science teachers, Jackie Morris and Kristina Belpedio, for help, and engaged with students. He laughed, poking fun at the cafeteria food and asked students to shout out their favorite area pizza joints.
“I am a former class clown,” said Mauro during a brief one-on-one interview with Wednesday Journal after his presentation in the auditorium. “I love getting laughs from people. I was a decent student, but I always aimed for extra credit whenever I could.”
As Mauro sat on a makeshift theater prop, he opened up more, disclosing one piece of advice that he’s learned throughout his career.
“Surround yourself with real people, not cheerleaders,” said Mauro, who credited his wife, Sarah, for keeping him grounded and focused. He said she always asked him, “What are you doing today to make it realistic … to help give you exposure, an opportunity?”
“You need support” from those kinds of people and to truly succeed in life, you have to “find what excites you the most,” he said.
More on Mauro
For more on celebrity chef Jeff Mauro, visit comeonover.com/