Up Close & Personal with The Sandwich King, Jeff Mauro

There are those of us who were born to entertain, imbued with a certain sense of timing, personality, drive and love of people that compels us to be the center of attention. It's a burning desire to make people laugh, or to somehow make an impact on an emotional level. Whether our preferred method of delivery is word or deed, song, painting, or plate of food, the desire to seek a public audience is something we are born with. As an entertainer most of my adult life, I understand. Some of us just have an innate need to bring joy, laughter, tears, or in some cases any type of emotional reaction from those around us, or in the audience. Something about type A personalities. Certainly my friend Jeff Mauro has it. Most of us with this affliction know early on what we want in a career. For me it was writing, music at first, and now well, here you are. For my friend Jeff Mauro, this was true at an early age as well.

I met Jeff back in 2012. We spent a few days together at the Fabulous Food Show in Ohio. We talked about careers, hopes and what the future might hold. He'd won the Next Food Network Star, and now into the 2 season of his show The Sandwich King, had gained attention, his momentum presenting a career upswing that would possibly propel him to household name status and bring him to a next level of public awareness. He was aware of the opportunity and it was very clear in our casual after-hours conversations that he was determined to work hard and take advantage of it. 

Flash ahead to December, 2014. Jeff Mauro is now the star of Food Network's Emmy-nominated Sandwich King, $24 in 24 hrs, and the immensely popular, The Kitchen, with co stars, Geoffrey Zakarian, Katie Lee, Marcela Valladolid and Sunny Anderson. He has appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Steve Harvey Show, Chopped, Cupcake Wars and The Rachael Ray Show. When not making TV, Jeff  spends a great deal of time with his wife and first love Sarah, and roughousin’ with his five-year-old son and co-star, Lorenzo. I also hear that he plays above average blues guitar. If you know me at all, you know THAT was music to my ears. 

The thing about Jeff that I admire the most though has nothing to do with fame. It's the fact that no matter how overwhelming his schedule of TV shoots, live show appearances, as well as the frequent appearances on TV, his family stands hands above all the rest of his priorities. We'd talked for some time about him sitting down for an Up Close & Personal and the chance finally presented itself during the 2014 holiday season. His schedule is, to put it bluntly, insane. "Dude, it's crazy," he laughed. "I just got back from the Palm Beach Food & Wine, then flew out to NYC to film The Kitchen, it's nice now over the holidays I can slow down a bit. I'm going on vacation with the family, my wife and son, right after Christmas. But yeah, I basically live to get on a plane." 

Family, to most Italians, including Jeff, is most important. Born in 1978 in Chicago, IL, he was a ham on a roll from the very beginning. As one of 4 kids, he was the family comedian, making the whole family laugh.

Jeff’s flair for the stage was discovered early on in Roosevelt Jr. High 3rd grade's legendary production of "Let George Do It!" From that point on, he immersed himself in the performing arts and flourished. "I was always decent in sports, I kinda liked it, but between you and me, I hated moving. I didn't gravitate toward physical activity. If you see pictures of me I was a chubby kid."

He explained, "It started in the 3rd grade with that play. I went for the part, we all had to audition. I played King George IV. I was like, 'I can do a British accent!' I don''t know where I got it, TV, nursery rhymes, who knows...but I nailed it. Got the part." He continued, "My mom and dad had no idea I had the ability to perform, after all it was third grade. I went out there in the first scene, and breaking into an English accent, quoted lines, ('What ho, what is this nonsense..etc,)' in a Shakespearean manner. My parents from that point on encouraged me into that world. I took Youth Second City classes, was in all the schools plays. I was the funny kid at home and in class. I just wanted to make people laugh from a very young age."

Jeff graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, IL. I mentioned that I had an uncle who had attended Bradley and he replied, "Two of my three siblings, my wife and my sister-in-law all went to Bradley. Out here, everybody goes to Bradley. We don't stray far." Since he was talking about staying in the area close to his roots, I asked him about his keeping things local to his hometown, Elmwood Park and Chicago. He explained, "The only time I lived away from this area, this literal square mile, my whole life, was when my wife and I moved to LA. I was hustling back then, trying to get a cooking show. I went to culinary school out there, but this neighborhood, it always pulls me back. I'm six miles from downtown Chicago, the third largest city in the country. There really is no reason to leave. I notice that folks who've made it in this market (career wise) leave and go to New York or LA. I wanted to stay close and raise my kids here. Have them go to the same schools I went to."

Right after college, armed with a degree in communications, Jeff naturally opened up a deli called Prime Time with his cousin, a fellow chef. Because that's what you do with a degree in communications, you open a sandwich shop. It was there that he honed his people skills and fell in love with cooking and crafting sandwiches. I asked him about graduating top of his class from culinary school. He answered proudly, "Yup, top of my class; never was late, never missed a day." Jeff graduated Valedictorian, packed up his Honda and returned to Chicago. "I felt I needed to legitimize myself, especially if I wanted to be on camera as a professional cook. Practically, if this whole entertainment thing didn't work out, cheffing would be a
fallback." He expanded, "I was 25 or so, it was my second round of school, so I knuckled down....I didn't want to blow it. I showed up early, I cooked harder. I cleaned harder. I was yelling at all the 18-year old students, 'Let's hustle.'"

I asked him what from culinary school had the biggest impact on him as a chef. He answered immediately, "The fundamentals. You can learn from another chef at a restaurant, but I got a good, broad foundation, doing a spectrum of different foods correctly." Instead of going right back to pursuing his TV career, Jeff put in his chef time, as a culinary instructor and successful private chef, while still finding time to be a local comedic performer. "I answered an ad for a corporate chef, for their cafeteria. I went there and the place was a disaster." He remembered, "They had this cafe, the guy doing it all wrong. I transformed it into this destination for people in the offices. I was prepping and cleaning and cooking and interacting all day with all kinds of people. It was great training, steady work and I did my comedy at night."

After 3 unsuccessful audition attempts, he finally landed himself on Season 7 of Next Food Network Star, which he totally won. He offered, "The third time trying out I sent a video. It started because my wife had a premonition. She simply said, 'Send the video, it's going to change our lives,' and she was right." I then touched on his inclusion of his family into his TV show, speaking about the support of his family and especially his wife Sarah. He replied, "My wife was a nurse, I was a cook. We'd known each other since I was a freshman in college. We've been together since we were 21 years old, and she knew I had these dreams. She supported me. She came to LA with me. She was one of 3 people at a comedy show. I want to honor that commitment. I think a lot of people shy away from that, putting their kid, or family in front of the camera, I get that. We're all growing in this together. My son has done 30 episodes of television," he stated firmly. "My wife, my parents, aunts, uncles, they've all been on the show. I want to share this with them. I was approached to do a reality show, cus my family is a bunch of nutzos," he laughed, "but that's where I draw the line."

We talked about his success and accolades for his show Sandwich King and The Kitchen, but I wanted to step back a bit and asked why he stuck to his guns arguing 'sandwiches will sell,' when he won The Next Food Network Star. "It was authentic to me," he explained," I didn't want to change who I was. I think I embody what the sandwich represents, it's an extension of my personality; ya know, kinda fun, loose and creative. I'm not the guy whose going to do farm-to-table, or funky crazy food. Sandwiches was one of the only things not being done on TV that I thought could sustain a series."

Five years later, and a few Emmy nominations would prove Jeff was right. "Luckily I was never persuaded to veer off. I think I gave them a lot, I spoke my mind in those interviews, I hammed it up during the cooking portions." He remembered, "My goal was to show that I could make good television. To show I was producible. That is at least half of the equation, half the job requirements." Jeff brings something to the table that is part of the chemistry of good entertainers. Not only are they producible and able to follow direction, but some like Jeff, have an ability to self produce. They have a certain instinct for where the camera is, the timing, and an overall awareness of the bigger picture that the audience sees.

That brought his new show The Kitchen to the conversation "I love the puzzle of it (television). That's why I like The Kitchen so much, I sit back. I know who's talking when, when to jump in. We're getting into a rhythm now. Geoffery and I are very good friends. He and his wife were one of the first to welcome us with open arms, our wives are good friends." He laughed, "Even though we couldn't be more opposite, he laughs at my crap. We play off each other. When he and Sunny came along to the cast, all of us already had a history, so we were all glad to be working together."

I asked him about his little sidekick, Lorenzo. Does he know who dad is? How does he handle the notoriety, people coming up to Dad all the time, the cameras etc.? He replied candidly, "Oh yeah, he gets it. He's unaffected by it to a certain degree. We never talk about it. If someone brings it up we're honest and open about it. It's all about how we conduct ourselves," he continued. "We teach him you don't act all cooler than everyone else just because you're on TV. I raise him to believe that you work for your stuff. You bring your dish to the sink and clean it for yourself. We live in a normal house, I mean, we live in the same neighborhood I grew up in! We're ten feet from the sidewalk. We sit on the stoop. We are the same. We're normal. He goes to the same catholic school I went to. C'mon , I mean that's amazing! He goes to the same kindergarten classroom I did," he proclaims proudly."It's funny though. When we were out one time and he wanted quicker service, he said, 'you know my dad is The Sandwich King,' and we'll were' like...'Lorenzo!' He laughed, "Needless to say he's a typical Chicagoan. He'll grease a couple of palms, or drop a few names when he has to."

We talked blues guitar, my band days and his collection of guitars and there was some talk of my coming out to play a little blues. Seems Jeff, who's played since freshman year in college, gets together with some of the crew between shoots of his show and they jam. Here is just another example of a constantly creative mind, ever at work trying to find avenues of release. "Instead of sitting there in-between shoots, staring at my phone like a dolt, we play music. It's changed my motivation. The music settles me." With regard to what's coming up in the near future, he mentioned a possible book and some irons in the fire that he is considering, but was very close to the vest. To me, he seems content with the balance and direction of his life right now, and it's clearly evident he's in a good place, content to ride the wave and see where it leads. In wrapping up, on behalf of you my readers, I posed Jeff some questions on a series of topics I thought you might find interesting.

On his most embarrassing moment: 
"It was season two of Sandwich King," he remembers. "We had a brand new set, new production team. It was the first scene, of the first movement, of the first was the first everything. To raise the stakes a bit higher for me, the head of the network stops in to supervise, Bob Tishman. All new crew, all new director, everything new. I'm prepping for the first scene, chopping parsley and I cut off a good chunk of my thumb. Brand new knife, so sharp you could use it as a razor. Shut down production for three hours. Bob said, 'Don't worry, the  same thing happened to Rachael Ray so maybe it's good luck.'

Jeff's go to kitchen gadget at home:
"I would have to say my flat bottom griddle pan," he offered, "No ridges. You can do like 4 pancakes, 4 eggs, grilled cheese."

Favorite food his mom made growing up: 
"Without question, we would get this on special occasions, like birthdays, Christmas, etc.. Her Braciole. So good. So rich. So delicious."

I finished up and asked him what it's like coming full circle. Judging when he sits in on Chopped vs back when he started, being judged, his immediately response was "It's much better to judge than to be judged, let's get that straight right out of the box. But I love doing this. I sit there and think 'this is
the greatest thing in the world, what I do.' Between shooting episodes on the set, as I sit there it hits me and I can't believe that I'm doing this. It's surreal." With regard to his even more hectic TV and appearance schedule, he added, "I get in and I get out. Once the work is done, my priority is to get back here to my family. Home. As long as I can do that, I'm ok with it."
It's apparent that hard work and dedication pays off. Especially when you've got your priorities right.

I hope you've enjoyed this glimpse into the man behind the sandwich. You can get more information about Jeff on his website: Follow him on Social Media: twitter, facebook, instagram.

Til next time, 
All Photos courtesy of Jeff Mauro