Celebrity chef Jeff Mauro on food and family

As Jeff Mauro was conducting one more on-camera interview after winning Food Network Star in Season 7, young son Lorenzo climbed into his lap.

“Life is just going to change for the better and I’m going to set a great example for him and still be a family man while living out this dream,” Mauro was saying.


He looked down at little Lorenzo, then nearly 3, and said, “What’s Daddy going to be on?” Lorenzo, who now wears a pendant of St. Lawrence, the patron saint of chefs and comedians, said “Cooking show!”


“That’s right: cooking show,” Mauro said.


Lorenzo then peered off camera and asked: “Can I climb on the ladder?”


In his most dad voice, Mauro quickly said, “No, you cannot climb on the ladder.”


Standing in Maggie Daley Park nearly seven years later, Mauro laughs.


“I’ll never forget that moment. It was real, there was nothing staged about that,” he says. “This isn’t a performance, that’s why we live in the same neighborhood I grew up, blocks away from tons of family. I knew our life would change at that moment, and it did, but it was my job as captain of this ship to steer it in the right direction and through the calmest waters possible. There’s a lot to the entertainment business that can decimate a family.”


Mauro, an Oak Park-River Forest High School grad and Bradley University alum, has worked to keep his family the No. 1 priority through his success.


He started by marketing himself as “The Sandwich King” as a contestant in 2011 on Food Network Star. Though his rise through the ranks as a celebrity chef in the last seven years has seemed quick, before that, the deli owner-turned-actor-turned-chef worked for more than a decade on his craft. He is one of four children, and says his immediate and extended family worked in restaurants and helped set him on his career path.


“I kind of engineered my life to do what I’m doing right now,” Mauro says. “It wasn’t overnight, some people are like: what does it feel like to be an overnight success? And I’m like, ‘I was 32. I lived in Los Angeles four years, and failed in my own city for four to five years, so it wasn’t an overnight success.’”


Longtime Chicago residents may have seen him in his run as a waiter and then Tony in “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.” He parlayed that into some stand-up, then a stint in Los Angeles, eventually returning to his roots as he and wife, Sarah, a nurse also from Chicago, came home and began a family.


“Ultimately, I thank my wife, Sarah, who, it wasn’t only, ‘Oh, you can do it, Honey,’ but thank God she was a realist,” Mauro says. “She said, ‘make sure we’ve got a backup. If you don’t get a TV show, what are we going to do?’”


When Lorenzo made the Mauros three, the family lived in University Village. With Lorenzo nearing 3, about the age he was starting to tackle new foods, Mauro was crowned Food Network’s newest star.


Though Mauro was surrounded by the exotic foods of a chef, he says introducing them to Lorenzo is all part of the parenting experience.


“Just because we’re around more food, it’s not like he’s eating nigiri and tamago by the spoonful,” Mauro laughs. “He still loves cheeseburgers and pizza. It’s my job to lead by example and help him try new things.”


Like all parents, there are food rules in the Mauro house: “You don’t give up on just one try,” Mauro says.


The now-9-year-old has grown up with his father in the spotlight, so there are some nuances that the average elementary schooler hasn’t experienced.


“He’s been in countless episodes, he’s been in two Disney episodes for the network. I mean most people go to Disney go for the first time and enjoy it, they aren’t woken up at 4 in the morning to eat meatloaf and drink milkshakes in a closed restaurant or wait in line without riding rides.


“I always ask him: are you sure you want to do this? I love doing this because I can include my family; I’m not an actor going off for six months on location, I get to include them.”


It’s not just his wife and son who get in on the family action. Mauro’s parents were part of the three-generation cast for the Disney shoot.


“My parents, my siblings, it’s been great because we’ve all gone through it together. My family has supported me since I was 9 years old, so it was cool.”


Mauro, who was nominated for an Emmy as one of four hosts of “The Kitchen” on Food Network, takes that support and turns it into his own parenting style. When Lorenzo showed an affinity for music, the Mauros enrolled him in School of Rock in Oak Park to study the drums.


Now, Jeff and Lorenzo have formed their own family band.


“It’s kind of our thing. Some dads play catch with their kids, we play rock and roll,” Mauro says.


Becoming a dad helped Mauro refine the direction he wanted to take his career and work even harder to earn a spot as a Food Network Star.


“I think I was always gravitated to performing and being an entertainer and believe it or not, television has better hours than restaurant chefs, and I knew when I had a family I didn’t want to be a traditional, back-of-the-house restaurant chef,” he says. “As much as I love that work, the hours are so grueling and I’m a baby when it comes to that. I didn’t want to miss out on the formative years.”


Just this year, Mauro’s schedule includes the opening of four new Pork & Mindy’s restaurants—of which Mauro is a partner—and Mauro’s latest endeavor as a Juicy Juice Flavor Expert.


“At home I’m just another dad, taking him to school, playing Xbox with him or taking him to and from all of his activities.”


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