Jeff Mauro Is So Ready For Both The NYC Wine And Food Festival And Halloween - Exclusive Interview

Fall is definitely a delicious season for foodies. The change in the weather brings with it a plethora of harvest produce, signals the start of all the best baking holidays, and of course, means that it's time for the ultimate event for food and drink lovers. We're talking about the annual Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival (NYCWFF). Each year, the multi-day celebration highlights the top culinary trends, presented by some of the biggest names in the business. This year will be no different, and if you snag a ticket, you'll get the chance to wine and dine your way through New York City and hang out with some of your favorite Food Network stars along the way.

That includes the one and only Jeff Mauro. He's best known as a member of "The Kitchen" cast, but he's appeared across Food Network, from "Chopped" to "Worst Cooks in America" to "Beat Bobby Flay" and more. The chef with a knack for comedy is also a Chicago native and the self-proclaimed sandwich king. When he's not making you laugh, he's probably making you hungry, and he's more than ready to be back for this year's NYCWFF.

In an exclusive interview with Tasting Table, Mauro teased all the exciting things to look forward to at this year's NYCWFF, including some of the food, drinks, celebs, and entertainment that ticket holders have in store. He also talked about Chicago sandwiches, his favorite Halloween traditions, and so much more.

What to expect from the ultimate fiesta with the cast of The Kitchen

Let's talk about this Caviar Tacos and Tequila event at NYCWFF. It seems like this is going to be a pretty festive party.

We haven't done an event with all five of us, the full cast of "The Kitchen," hosting an event at one of these food [events]. This is a first for all of us. That's exciting for us that we get to connect with all our fans, surrounded by a ton of tacos and a ton of tequila. It's a win-win-win.

That's great, and it's also going to be a contest where there will be a winner. These chefs in these restaurants making these tacos are coming full guns-a-blazing, ready to win, so the food's going to be outstanding.

How is the winner going to be determined?

I believe we are deciding. I know I'm judging ... That's a lot of tacos.

That's a lot of pressure too.

I've judged Burger Bash several times in the past. I've judged many, many food competitions over the years, both at festivals and on television. It's not an easy job — it's not for everybody, especially when it's 20-plus tastings.

How do you pace yourself to get through that?

I've had a lot of hard jobs — eating food is not one of them. I'll put it that way. But you can't go in hard on the beginning ones. You've got to definitely resist the temptation to eat the first 3, 4, 5 taste portions. You can't get too aggressive on it, not too many bites.

Who do you think is going to be the life of the party at this event?

Me, of course, 100%. I am born for it ... No, listen, I love this stuff. I eat it up. I love talking to people. I love connecting again with fans among great food and beverage, and I'm not one to shy away from a conversation. I love working a room, and this is a perfect opportunity to do that. My co-hosts are the same exact way. Geoffrey is great with fans. Everybody's so excited to do this that we're all going to be coming in hot.

What is Geoffrey Zakarian like after a couple of tequila shots?

Oh, he's a snooze. He's such a bore. No — he's the best. He's a dear friend and like anybody after two to three tequila shots. We'll say he is GZ times three.

Among the cast of "The Kitchen," who likes tacos the most? Who's going to be the most excited to eat this many tacos?

Sunny for sure. Sunny Anderson has lived everywhere. She was raised in the services as an Army brat, if you will, so she's lived in Texas — El Paso and Houston — New Orleans, everywhere, the Carolinas. Whenever I make a taco or someone makes a taco on the show, she's all in.

NYCWFF is a star-studded event

You've got a lot of friends at the festival. Is there anyone in particular that you're looking forward to catching up with?

That's a good question. I feel like some people I only see at the festivals, which is weird, especially pre-Covid stuff. Now that we're back into the swing of things ... Don't judge me because I love everybody equally. That's probably the political answer. I'm [looking forward to] seeing all these wonderful people here.

I'm also wondering if there's anybody that still makes you a little starstruck ... There's a lot of talent that rolls through here.

There is. It's funny; you see these people frequently enough or work with them enough, but who am I starstruck by? It's all the people like ... Rev Run. That's the people I look for, the musicians that make surprise appearances at these events.

One of them will be doing a surprise appearance at our Tacos and Tequila event, by the way. That'll be something I'm looking forward to because they won't even tell me who it is. But it's the non-food people. I get excited ... Whoopi Goldberg will be there ... Neil Patrick Harris is always great to see. He's a friend. One time I got a compliment from Neil Patrick Harris saying, "Oh, you look very nice. I like that shirt. You look good. You look in shape." I was like, "What?"

You're still wearing that shirt today.

Exactly. I haven't taken it off since.

As a chef and as a member of the talent team, is that the best part about attending and participating in this festival?

It would be nice to one day experience it non-working in a part of the public thing — to buy a ticket, enjoy all the stuff without all the work involved. But it's easy. They make it so easy for us. To have your name on a marquee event plus being whisked around, set up, and everything while ... part of the job is to connect and laugh and party. It's wonderful.

Outside of this Tacos and Tequila event, are we going to see you at other events around the festival over the weekend?

I do have my demo on Saturday with Katie Lee. We're doing our first-ever joint demo together. We're going to make the longest hot dog ever made on a stage at a food festival. That's all I'm going to say.

We're aiming to break a Guinness World Record here is what you're saying?

I want to make a splash. I want to have fun. I want to teach people stuff. But I'm going to put on a show up there, and I know Katie's along for the ride. She's going to make her famous West Virginia-style Cincinnati chili, which is a mouthful. Me being a Chicago boy, I am going to represent from that angle. We're going to have a giant bun and a giant frankfurter. It's going to be a giant party.

Italian beef is having a moment, and Chicago native Jeff Mauro is here for it

I was going to ask if you were going to be showcasing any sandwiches at the festival this year. This summer, there was so much buzz around Italian beef sandwiches and "The Bear," and they were having such a moment.

It has been amazing as a lifelong Chicagoan born and raised, especially in the Italian beef culture and being a sandwich guy. My first job was when I was 14, slinging Italian beefs at the Taste of Chicago, getting under-the-table work permits, making six bucks an hour ... I loved every minute of it.

It's in my DNA. Finally, it took 44 years of my life for it to finally have a national platform. I've been trying to spread the gospel for the last several years with my own brand, Mauro Provisions, which has been providing prime Italian beef kits with the bread, the giardiniera, the sausage, the gravy, the meat, and all this stuff for a year. This was a great time for us too — it legitimized this underrated, wonderful sandwich.

There is a whole world of Chicago-style subs to try, says sandwich king Jeff Mauro

Are there any other Chicago sandwiches that we all should be eating more of?

There's the jibarito, which is a Puerto Rican sandwich in between two tostones. You paint it in garlic oil. In between, you might find some steak or some ham and American cheese and a ton of garlicky mayo, lettuce, tomato. It's a heck of a sandwich. Then there's the gym shoe sandwich ...

I'm sorry, did you just say the gym shoe?

If you didn't know this about Chicagoans, we don't call them sneakers or tennis shoes. We call them gym shoes. That's a big point of contention with us. We'll very much defend that to the end. Just like we say "pop" and stuff, gym shoe could be spelled "Jim" as in the name or "gym."

It's got meat on there — it's a combination of usually corned beef, roast beef, tomato, a ton of mayo, cheese, onions, mustard, giardiniera, white sauce. It's a very saucey, big, wrapped-up-in-greasy-paper sandwich that you find in a lot of beef stands and stuff on the West side.

Then you have the mother-in-law, which is kind of the same thing but with a hot tamale. Picture almost a Chicago-style hot dog, but instead of the hot dog itself, it's a hot tamale in there. It's like a tube of tamale. It's bun and soft corn meal and weird meat. It's something.

Those are under-observed, unsung heroes of the Chicago sandwich world.

Jeff Mauro explains his obsession with giardiniera

You've mentioned before how much you love giardiniera, and you sell craft versions of it at Mauro Provisions.

I've never met anybody who doesn't like the eating experience when you taste giardiniera on anything from eggs to pizza to sandwiches to Italian beefs to salads. It's amazing.

The problem I have is being a guy who's been trying to spread the gospel of this humble pepper for years. If you count all my years doing it and making it on Food Network, we're looking at 12 years. It's hard to get people to say it [correctly]. It's a weird word with a lot of vowels in there and a G. In Chicago, there's two ways of saying it — you can either say giardiniera with the A, or the slang way is "giardinier," and you take off the last syllable.

What are some of the most unique things you like to put it on?

This is what my wife does — she does a little nice toast or something ... She does it almost like a smear with cream cheese — a little bit of everything seasoning on multi-grain bread, a smear of that whipped cream cheese, and then you top it with our Honey G, which is our honey-kissed giardiniera. It's all you need.

I put it on my avocado toast all the time. It's delicious. It punches it up, gives you crunch. It's fermented. It's pickled. You got that funk attached to it too that you don't get with a pickle. It's not overpowering like a kimchi, which I love, but this is somewhere in between. It's bright and vinegary but also has that fermented funk.

Are there ways to put a twist on giardiniera in terms of flavor?

Totally. [Mauro Provisions has] four varieties. Other than heat level — hot, medium, mild — we do have our Honey G, which is our most popular, cured with honey and agave during the fermentation process. It's got a higher sweet note to it.

I love cooking with it because it is an oil base. Start a mirepoix with the oil and the vegetables already in there, and if you want to add your onions, you can. But it already has the celery, the carrots, the cauliflower, the five kinds of peppers.

I love starting a chili with it. You don't need much more than that as a base for flavor. Then you add your spices. It's fun to play with.

We've done everything here. I've deep-fried it before, dusted it in all-purpose flour and some corn starch or rice flour, seasoned it ... You get it all kinds of crunchy and light. Put a light breading on there and it's so addictive. You serve that with calamari, anything fried, and you throw a couple of those in there, and include it in the little symphony of flavor and texture there.

No one does Halloween like Jeff Mauro

It seems like the fall season and Halloween is a fun time in your house. Do you guys still like to go trick-or-treating?

Listen, we have transcended trick-or-treating. On Halloween — ask anybody that knows me — we go all out. It is insane how much I care about it. I loved Halloween as a kid. We were big on trick-or-treating, getting into mischief. The big thing was we'd pin shaving cream cans and make them shoot very far, and then spray kids — stupid. I don't know if it's a Chicago thing or whatever, but we did that our whole life.

Now, my son doesn't even want ... they trick-or-treat, but it's more like scaring people. At my house, I have two fog machines [and] 12 high-powered black lights that make my house glow — and a 12-foot glowing skeleton, five additional human-sized skeletons dragging the giant skeleton, five jump-scare animatronics, projected windows with holograms of ghosts and headless ladies, dead babies, bones, everything.

I sit out there the whole time, and we set up a table up our walkway. Kids are scared left and right. My son and his buddies are scaring everybody. The whole block is participating. Everybody on my block goes all out. People bus in just to trick-or-treat on our two blocks. No joke — there's no parking on the street. It's crazy.

But I sit there and I don't dress up. I wear the same pumpkin hoodie every year, and I have a microphone and an amp and do a three-hour set during trick-or-treating.

That's amazing. Do you guys have any Halloween food traditions that go along with this?

Oh, yeah. Usually, no joke, we either crockpot it up with a low and slow something — pork shoulder, something like that — or Italian beef at the end. We always had Italian beef because it's something you [can] have ready to go. You dunk the beef, you make a sandwich.

You should not be cooking. Definitely make it ahead. If you're a kid, you're rarely hungry by dinner time if you did it right. If you did trick-or-treating right, you should be comatose or sick to your stomach from stealing everybody's Butterfingers, in my case — not stealing, trading. [And] pizza was always like, "I can't wait to order it." But you never get it because everybody is ordering pizza. Whenever trick-or-treating ends is when the whole world is ordering pizza. You might as well be more prepared and not worry about a delivery driver.

Jeff Mauro shares his favorite way to use leftover Halloween candy

Do you guys end up with a lot of leftover candy? What do you do with it all?

Nope. We sell out every year. When we're done, we're done. I get six to eight Costco bags of candy, the biggest, and it's gone every year.

I was going to ask if you had any tips for what to do with leftover candy, but it seems like you've never been in that situation.

Well, no, we do have leftovers — I just eat my son's candy. He has all the candy, and I do have one [trick]. It's available on Food Network. It's my candy bucket cookies, which are legendary.

Chop up all the appropriate candy. You don't want to put gummies in there — you don't want to put sugary Sprees or Dum Dums, stuff like that. No Dum Dums in the cookie; [use] your favorite chocolate-based candies. In my case, I'm focusing on Snickers, Reese's, and Butterfingers. You chop them up, and it's great. It's the perfect foundation cookie recipe that holds all those wonderfully. It's so good. It's my favorite cookie of the year.

You can see Jeff Mauro, the whole cast of "The Kitchen," and so much more at the 2022 Food Network New York City Wine and Food Festival presented by Capital One on October 13-16. Click here to learn more and purchase tickets.

This interview was edited for clarity.