John Catucci’s Big Food Bucket List
By Leigh-Ann Brodber
We show affection in different ways. Whether it’s through our actions, spending time with our loved ones, giving gifts, doing things for those we care about or even through our words. For John Catucci, his love language is food. From hosting shows like Food Network’s series You Gotta Eat Here! and the Big Food Bucket List to preparing meals in his own kitchen for his teens, expressing love through food comes naturally to him.
What’s the best part about hosting a TV food series and how does it differ from doing comedy shows?
It’s quite different. When you’re on stage, there’s an immediacy that exists between you and the audience compared to when you’re shooting a TV show. There are a lot of different hands that touch the show before it goes to air so something that might’ve worked at the moment doesn’t necessarily work on TV. I mean, sometimes I’ve eaten food on stage but not to this extent!
I think one of the best parts of the show is meeting people. That’s one of the things I love to do. I love figuring out what makes them tick, how they got into this business and why. One of the main similarities between chefs and people that I’ve interviewed over the years is that food is their love language. To share food with people is everything and it was never about making millions of dollars but more about the relationship and forming a connection.
Which episode would you say that you enjoyed the most?
It’s hard to choose just one! There have been so many great experiences, but one of my favourites is when I visited a restaurant called La Palma. It’s an Italian restaurant in Toronto and Chef Craig Harding is an amazing chef. He makes dishes that his mom and grandma taught him.
La Palma is known for its 100-layer lasagne and it’s massive. When I took a bite of it, it brought me back to when I was a kid and tasting my dad’s food that he’d make with love. We had to stop shooting because I started crying. It’s been like 14 years since my dad passed away and his love language was always food. He was an Italian immigrant who worked all the time and had three jobs which meant I only saw him on Sundays. But every Sunday, he would make his ragu and tomato sauce. He loved feeding his family and I was reminded of that moment. As much as travelling around, eating food and meeting chefs is great, it’s when you’re able to have those moments where you’re connected through food. Food has that nostalgic feeling that transports you to your grandmother’s kitchen or a backyard barbecue.
Even if I tried to make stuff that my mom and dad made me as a kid — even if they told me every ingredient — it wouldn’t matter because it wasn’t made by them. The secret ingredient is love. That is an ingredient that you can’t quantify.
Do you think that the way food is presented to kids makes them more likely to eat it? If so, why?
We all eat with our eyes. Having vibrant colours on a plate is always more appealing than sloppy brown stuff but it’s also more about the connection between you and your kids in the kitchen. A moment that you can share that isn’t on a device. You’re in each other’s space; it’s something that you can’t recreate.
Do you think that food shows teach kids about different cultures?
For sure! We feel separated from each other sometimes — especially over these past two years we’ve been so isolated. Shows like Big Food Bucket List show just how similar we are. It doesn’t matter what culture you’re coming from or where you grew up because food is such a connecting force between us all — love through food is universal. It connects us more than separates us.
When you were a kid what was on your big food bucket list?
I grew up with Italian food, so a good plate of pasta is my comfort food. But it was more of a Sunday afternoon meal. During the week, there was always a pasta dish, but it would be quick – a more peasant-y variation like a can of beans with some pasta or a chicken broth with some noodles.
When I was a kid, one of my favourite foods was a grilled cheese sandwich. It still reminds me of being a kid. I’m not talking fancy bread or expensive cheeses but white sliced bread, margarine and kraft single slices. That is my childhood. It was also one of the first things I learned how to make myself.
When you got older, did you try to add anything to it to make it fancier?
Yeah, I tried to get fancier bread, cheddar and slice some apples but it’s not the same. It’s the simplicity that made it great. I mean, now I’ve upgraded to actual butter and not margarine!
Is this also your kids’ favourite meal or do they have another?
I have two daughters. They’re in their teens (a 15-year-old and 13-year-old) and they grew up with me cooking Italian food but sometimes I can see it in their faces saying “ahh, not pasta again!” But for me, it’s a comforting thing — a quick thing. My youngest is pickier than my eldest about food but when they’re both saying “oh, that’s really good” I know I did it. It’s also my love language as well.
Is there a certain dish that they like out of all the meals you make?
That’s a hard one. I mean, I make some killer meatballs and have a good recipe. I used to bake them first and finish them off in the sauce until a chef friend of mine said that I should try frying them. It gives them a nice, little crust around them and then you finish them off in the tomato sauce that you would’ve had going for a while now. Honestly, it’s a labour of love. You have to put some hours into the dish seeing that the sauce takes at least three hours to make.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten?
There was one time I had to eat sweetbread. It’s a pancreas that’s deep-fried and put in a taco!
If you had to choose a favourite all-time dish, what would it be and why?
That’s like when someone asks you if you had to choose one dish before you die what would it be. One of my most favourite meals is a turkey dinner with all the trimmings. That’s roast turkey with mashed potatoes, yam, green beans, brussels sprouts with a beautiful gravy over everything and cranberries on the side like for a Thanksgiving meal. That’s my favourite meal of the year. I don’t know why I don’t do it all year round instead of just at Thanksgiving. Also, I have to have apple pie afterwards. Especially, if there’s apple pie and pumpkin pie!
Lastly, we’d love to hear more about your opinion on how food/cooking shows influence kids. Do you think that they’ll eat more broccoli and veggies?
I don’t know if cooking shows are encouraging kids to eat healthier or to eat more vegetables, but the shows are opening their eyes to food and the joy of cooking. I’ve met a lot of families on the show who say that their kids watch the show with them and get inspired to be more active in the kitchen. It makes them more aware of the work their parents put into meals and is connected to how their meal is being made.
Parents should always involve their kids in the kitchen; show them the prep work, and have them taste stuff. One of the things my dad used to do when he was cooking sauce was to call me into the kitchen, take a bowl and put one single penne and put a little bit of sauce and say, “taste it”. Then, he’d ask me what I think about it — if it needs a little bit more of something. I would do that with my kids too. I think involving kids in the cooking process shows them the importance of staying connected with their family through food.
A great way to get kids to eat more veggies would be to have a vegetable garden if they have the space and then use the food that they’re growing. It’s about getting them to understand what goes into making the food they’re eating. With the show, it’s really helped open kids’ ideas of what a meal can be.
Big Food Bucket List, Season 3 premieres September 3 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Food Network Canada. Food Network Canada and is also available to stream live and on-demand with STACKTV.