Finding Your Focus, and Sticking to It — Jeff Mauro's Advice for the Rachael Ray's Kids Cook-Off Competitors

Guest judge Jeff Mauro offers his advice to the competitors on Rachael Ray's Kids Cook-Off.
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Host Rachael Ray and guest judge Jeff Mauro as seen on Food Network’s Rachael Ray’s Kids Cook­‐Off, Season 1.

Photo by: Scott Gries ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

Scott Gries, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved.

On last night's episode of Rachael Ray's Kids Cook-Off, Mondays at 8|7c, Jeff Mauro joined Rachael as a guest judge for the challenges, which focused on creativity. When it comes to food, there's no such thing as too much creativity; it's more about finding what works and sticking to it, as Jeff recommends. On his show Sandwich King, Jeff comes up with new and unique combinations, and it's that lesson in creativity that he came to teach the kids. Another lesson from him: Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes. This is true no matter what you're doing, whether it's comedy or cooking, notes Jeff, who actually has been able to master both.

FN Dish caught up with Jeff to chat about the episode, the kids and more. Find out his best advice for getting kids in the kitchen at a young age, and what's the best dish to teach them first.

So the episode that you guest-judged challenged the kids to focus on creativity? How important is creativity when it comes to cooking?

Jeff Mauro: Creativity in the kitchen leads to the discovery of new recipes, techniques and ultimately new food experiences.

When it comes to re-creating a classic dish or completely reinventing it, how do you know which direction to go in?

JM: I guess you don't know until you're right in the middle of it. I scrap recipes all the time because, through testing and experimenting, I discover a better way. My mom has been making meatballs her way for her whole life, and years ago, through training and experience, I discovered a way to actually improve on them. Needless to say, I did not share this new way with her.

Now, you started out in comedy and acting. How did food fit into your grand scheme? How did you find the food world?

JM: I always supported myself professionally with cooking, pre- and post-culinary school. Cooking is another performance art that, just like comedy, puts smiles on people's faces when executed well.

What advice do you have for the kids competing on the show?

JM: Make a decision and stick to it. Keep it simple and cook what you know.

As you watch these kids compete, is there anything that surprises you? What has impressed you the most?

JM: This was some of the best food I've ever judged — not just on a kids' show, but compared to all the other, adult-based shows I've judged. It's quite ridiculous that these 10-year-olds are using techniques I could only dream of when I was 10. The food was, pound for pound, some of the best I've tasted.

Could you see yourself doing this at that age? What were you doing then?

JM: No! I was rolling around on my basement couch eating fat-free potato chips while playing TurboGrafx. These kids are way more developed than I ever was.

For their main challenge the kids had to create some spooky dishes using an ingredient Dracula hates, garlic. What would you create?

JM: Spaghetti aglio e olio with extra red-pepper flakes, served on a silver, cross-shaped mirror.

What do you think is the most-important advice for someone who's following a dream, whatever it may be, as these kids are?

JM: Don't just talk about what you're going to do; DO IT. Write, paint, cook, comedy, whatever. Practice your craft a lot, even if it's for free and in the confines of your home or bedroom. Constantly explore and practice.

In your experience, what's a good age to get kids involved in the kitchen?

JM: 4 years old. … The earlier, the better. Just understand that with this stage comes lots of mess, but you've got to start somewhere.

How would you recommend getting kids involved in cooking? How do you start them out?

JM: My boy started young, with whisking, pinching in salt and now cracking eggs. At 6 years old, he can cleanly crack several eggs. Cracking eggs for scrambled eggs is [the] perfect intro into a more-advanced technique. If they mess up, it's easy to pick out the shells, but when they succeed, it's encouraging for them. Plus, from that point, they can launch into several more techniques: whisking the eggs, heating up a pan, pouring eggs into pan, stirring eggs, plating, garnishing. Scrambled eggs is the greatest first dish to teach children.

Tune in next Monday at 8|7c for the finale and find out who will win his or her own Web series on FoodNetwork.com.

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