Mo Rocca: he’s the man who doesn’t need any introduction. But, you know how this works…we’re going to give you one anyway. Mo Rocca’s all over your TV and there is no doubt that you’ve seen him, laughed at his jokes, or even smirked with him in agreement. Maybe you were obsessed with his writing on the children’s show Wishbone, his special reports on The Daily Show, his spot on jabs at pop culture on VH1 specials, his humorous and insightful comments while a judge on Iron Chef, his human interest stories on CBS Sunday Morning (did you see the professional pencil sharpener story?), his show Food(ography), or his brand new show on Cooking Channel, My Grandmother’s Ravioli? Phew, busy man!
However you’ve come to know Mo Rocca, it’s hard not to love him. His boyish charm, his wit, and his natural ability to tell stories make him the geektastic star of the TV world. He’s definitely showing all these qualities off in My Grandmother’s Ravioli, a Cooking Channel show that features how-to cooking lessons from a different grandma or grandpa each week. Along the way, we learn about these interesting people and Mo becomes their adoptive grandson.
Well, we had an opportunity to talk with Mo Rocca about what has made him successful, why he moved over to the culinary world, why he named a show after his grandma’s raviolis, some of his most memorable moments on camera, and some great advice for holiday meals.
You received your B.A. in Literature from Harvard. Some say that will prepare you to do well on Jeopardy questions, but clearly it has done a lot more for you. How would you say your Lit. degree and your time at Harvard helped get you to where you are today?
(Hesitates and takes a deep breath) Great question. I feel like my whole career has been a continuing education program. I don’t mean that in some kind of airy fairy abstract sort of way…I’m drawn to jobs and projects where I end up learning stuff. I’m especially drawn to areas where I know nothing at all. I’m one of those people that would have benefited, perhaps, more from my fancy college education if I had it later in life. I had all these great professors, took all these courses, some of them with world-class scholars, teaching. But, I couldn’t really take advantage because I wasn’t completely ready.
So, in a sense, a lot of the jobs after that are like college courses I took very seriously is the best way to put it. For example, I wrote and produced for a kid’s TV show called Wishbone, which was a great show that taught kids about classic literature through the eyes of a Jack Russel terrier. I know it was kind of trippy, but it worked. Well, that was really pivotal for me and I have only realized recently how important it was for me just developmentally as a person, not even just for my career. Because even though I was an English major at Harvard, I didn’t really learn how to write there and that wasn’t their fault, it was my fault. But, I did learn how to write when I was hired by a friend to write for Wishbone.
I had to take the greatest books in Western literature and really break them down and take those stories and tell them to an audience of 6 to 11 year olds. And, that audience is a very tough audience. They will respond when the narrative is really well constructed and really well told. So, I took some of the world’s greatest stories and tried to figure out how to tell them to an audience of kids and it taught me more about writing and story telling than…(he makes a quick connection) it was storytelling boot camp. And, ever since then, everything has really stemmed from that. And, hopefully I’ve gotten better at story telling. But, whether it was doing satirical reports for The Daily Show, or The Tonight Show, or doing more human interest stories for CBS Sunday Morning, now telling the stories of grandparents and through their own biographies. So, while we’re telling the story of a recipe, it all goes back to telling stories to that audience of 6 to 11 year olds. That was really the starting point for me.
You’ve had quite the experience on TV. From writing on Wishbone, to some of our favorite VH1 specials, to The Daily Show, to CBS, and now shows like food(ography), My Grandmother’s Ravioli, and Iron Chef America. Why did you shift to the culinary side of things?
It was an accident. I was friends with Bob Tuschman of Food Network and my agent at the time asked if I wanted to be a guest judge on Iron Chef. At the time I was doing a lot of different jobs. I didn’t have a regular gig and was always figuring out what to do next. I’ve always been a big eater and had a high metabolism so there was no downside. At Kitchen Stadium, even the worst possible kitchen disaster is still culinary heaven. At first I didn’t have a burning passion to do something in the food world, but did it and now I do. I also didn’t want to come off looking like a chef or a cook: I didn’t want to be a sham. You know, the stomach is sort of the portal…a way in on history, on culture, on family. It just is. History on the stomach – how it’s been the center of everything (not the heart, the way in) already had the idea. Didn’t see anyone doing this telling story through food. Like a lot of things, it’s about matching.
We really love the idea of your newest show, My Grandmother’s Ravioli, and we especially enjoy watching it. What was it about your grandma’s raviolis that made them worthy of a tv show?
She was actually a much better cook than she had the chance to show off because she was always working. She was a force, raised during the depression, and was very “keep your head down and keep working.” The ravioli weren’t anything showy, but they were big and delicious with ground beef, garlic, and spinach. They were hand-made and billowy with no cheese inside which Lydia Bastaniach couldn’t believe. They were very delicate, not thick, and had a light tomato sauce on top. They were big, beautiful, simple, and delicate because of that…kind of like her in a way.
I think of her and the people we feature like her on the show—people you actually want to be related to. They have a spunk and an edge. I also didn’t want to be do-goody or preachy. One of the tricks we had was to find people who actually want to be on TV. The people who are good on TV are generally the ones who don’t want to be on TV. By definition they’re hard to find because they’re not out there, they’re not trolling the web, looking for auditions. They’re not driving themselves into Manhattan to throw themselves on camera because it will mean their life is worth something. So, we had to track them down and I think that’s part of why they’re really terrific.
In your “Eating Outdoors” episode of My Grandmother’s Ravioli, Gaetano (from nearby Harrison, NY) gives you a rifle to shoot and helps you to learn a moose call. What did it feel like to fire that weapon and was that one of the other odder things that you’ve done filming a tv show or was there something even more exciting?
He was great and that episode was really interesting to do because he was very old. He was 91 when we shot it. But, when he turned 92 he couldn’t even come to the press event because he was (he pauses for dramatic effect) off elk hunting in Colorado. It was an interesting creative crossroads for us because a lot of the things he said were not pc and others were not just pc, they were totally antithetical to the Cooking Channel like when he was talking about cannibalism. We’re not doing cuddly grandparents. We’re not doing sanitized warm and fuzzy grandparents. And, they won’t necessarily be likable. What’s interesting is when he went on his whole thing about how his marriage of over 50 years worked because he was in charge and his wife didn’t go to fancy exercise classes. And he thought that women should do the laundry for exercise. I think what made it funny was my discomfort with it. After we cut tape, the person who thought it was the best of all was our Supervising Producer Emily Bernstein and she was like, “Look, this is real. This is a generational difference and it doesn’t make him a bad guy. In fact, we’ll probably like him more because we’re showing who he really is.”
Also, Cookie Ohma, who is in one of the final episodes. She’s a German grandmother and her husband Herman is an Elvis impersonator. And, just having him do a parody of (sings to himself, remembering the song) “Heartbreak Hotel” was amazing. I loved Mina and Mona, the two Indian grandmothers and best friends who let me help them host their Diwali, festival of lights. And, you know, Ruth will always be the fairy godmother of this series. What a life force. She was the first one to teach me how to make kreplach and gefilte fish.
You have definitely tasted some amazing food while filming your shows on Food Network and Cooking Channel. We’re kind of jealous, actually. What was one of the most memorable dishes that you’ve ever had and where was it from?
One of the things that was really interesting when I was a judge on “Iron Chef Battle Oyster.” Cat Cora made cheesecake from oysters. Always one of the running jokes of the show as you probably know is making desserts out of seafood. And, I’m not a cheesecake person, but the oyster cheesecake was amazing. Somehow the oyster flavor cut the what I find annoying sweetness of cheesecake. And it made it this very kind of mild creamy taste that I really like. So that was really interesting and kind of surprising.
And then Mario Batali did this amazing dish during Battle Fennel…it was ridiculous. I’m going to be like David Petrateus with all these ribbons on my jacket from all the battles I’ve fought in. So, it was during Battle Fennel, it was Mario Batali against Gail Gand and Rick Tramonto and they ran a restaurant called Tru in Chicago. And, both of them for their main courses used fennel on pork. Now, Gail and Rick did this beautiful dish that involved a mirror and a pulley. It was amazing and I remember along this long narrow sliver of mirror was line of fennel dust. It looked like something a supermodel would snort. And when you looked at it, it was so visually fascinating and you looked at it and went, wow this is really cool. And it was and tasted good. But then Mario came out with just a white plate and a piece of pork with a sprig of fennel on top. And, when Gale and Rick’s dish looked like it had been engineered by Rube Goldberg, Mario’s plate was so simple in a ballsy way. It was the most simple thing you ever saw. I looked at it and my mouth started watering. So, I think I learned a lesson about art. You can make something complicated and that doesn’t necessarily make it good. And, I’m not trying to rag on Gail and Rick…it was great and they are world-class chefs, but Mario just knows what it’s about: your eye going right to the pork and that’s it. And, it was indeed that good when you ate it.
So, (he giggles) to bring it back to my show, in this grandparents series I wanted to keep it really simple, just really simple. Don’t try to make it complicated and with the storytelling keep it simple.
So with the holidays coming up, it seems appropriate to ask, what dishes do you think would make up a perfect dinner party or holiday meal?
When I’m thinking about food, I have a more conceptual tip…and I say this with a big caveat. I think tapas are the culinary world’s biggest scam. It’s a huge scam that’s been imposed on us by Spain—and I love Spain—but the tapas thing is going to bankrupt us all. This is why Spain is going the way of Greece right now because everybody’s over extended themselves on tapas. That being said, I’m a huge side dish person. As far as I’m concerned, Thanksgiving should be done without the turkey in the middle or the turkey should simply be a balance in the middle of the table so it doesn’t collapse because there are too many side dishes at one end of the table. But, I’m all about side dishes. I think they’re healthier, more enjoyable, and perfect for me because when I grew up I loved the little variety packs of cereal. So that’s my advice. It will add more variety and excitement to the holiday and more people can contribute and people are less likely to get bloated and fight with each other because they can’t get out of the seat that they’re in.
My Grandmother’s Ravioli airs on Cooking Channel
Wednesdays, 8:30 pm ET
food(ography) airs on Cooking Channel at various times.
Iron Chef America airs on Food Network and Cooking Channel at various times and new episodes Sundays at 10 pm ET.