HEALTH: Zero Salt Equals Bold Flavor at ‘Big Daddy’s House’




With a dash of flair, pinch of humor and warm smile, Aaron McCargo Jr. makes you feel right at home in the kitchen on his popular Food Network show, Big Daddy’s House. Recently, you may have spotted the award-winning chef and author on Spike TV’s reality series Bar Rescue, judging meatloaf recipes on The Chew, dispensing restaurant safety tips with Katie Couric and appearing on The Dr. Oz Show.

Adding to the full schedule, this former Food Network Star winner is raising awareness about kidney disease. “Patients on dialysis can’t have certain types of food – like salt or foods high in potassium – so it’s easy to get discouraged and not enjoy eating anymore,” McCargo says in the following Q&A with Tania Fuentez Media. “That’s why it’s so great to be able to share cooking tips that are easy, flavorful and cost-effective, and to be able to prove to the patients that meals can still taste great.”

NOTE: Photos courtesy of Aaron McCargo, Jr. Click here for one of Chef McCargo’s dialysis-friendly recipes.

TFM: You recently wrapped a four-city tour visiting dialysis clinics as part of National Kidney Month in March. What left the greatest impressions and did it change how you eat and prepare food significantly?

AM: I really enjoyed meeting with patients and teaching them how to prepare delicious foods that work with their special diets. Fresenius Medical Care North America (FMCNA), the nation’s leading dialysis provider, asked me to help them develop delicious dialysis-friendly recipes to prove to their patients that it’s still possible to enjoy eating – despite their strict dietary restrictions. While on tour to share those recipes, I got to meet with so many great, inspirational patients. I was also impressed by the FMCNA staff, who are committed to providing excellent care, so that patients can have the best quality of life possible.

Patients on dialysis can’t have certain types of food – like salt or foods high in potassium – so it’s easy to get discouraged and not enjoy eating anymore. That’s why it’s so great to be able to share cooking tips that are easy, flavorful and cost-effective, and to be able to prove to the patients that meals can still taste great. Then they get excited to go home and try my recipes.

One particular memory that sticks with me was watching the kids and families in Kansas City come together to try my chili, and then commenting on the spectacular taste and layers of flavor. They could hardly believe it when I told them that the recipe had zero salt. I have a real passion for cooking meals with big, bold flavors. I hope to inspire people with kidney failure to stay creative in the kitchen and get excited about food, because it can bring fun and joy to their lives, as well as to the lives of their families. Our uniquely flavorful recipes help patients realize they can live a better life on dialysis and get more enjoyment from eating than they think!

TFM: You’re best known for embracing bold flavors in the kitchen. Can you offer a few tips for those trying to eliminate or reduce salt in their diet?

AM: Many people are trying to reduce or eliminate salt, including the dialysis patient population. I like to use a little bit of low-sodium cheese, a variety of oils and vinegars, and foods that are high in protein and low in saturated fat, such as lean meats, poultry and fish. To use less salt, here are five fresh herbs and spices that I recommend substituting instead:

1. Chili powder* – tastes great in chili or taco meat flavoring. Also try adding it to rubs.

2. Smoked paprika – adds a deep brown color to bread-crumb casserole toppings, barbecue rubs or to seasoning blends for sautéing or searing proteins. Also adds a great smoky flavor to marinades.

3. Lemon zest – adds a lively taste to bread crumbs, breaded chicken tenders and fish sticks or to renal-friendly vegetables like eggplant or string beans. Also great in dressings and marinades, or mixed with dry spices and used as a rub for broiled or baked seafood.

4. Dried oregano – enhances the flavor of scampi sauces and combines well with lemon zest. Gives steamed vegetables or tossed salads a fresh, earthy taste and aroma. Or add it to fajita seasonings, along with chili powder, cumin, cayenne and lemon zest.

5. Italian seasoning* – a blend of thyme, oregano, and basil is great for finishing off sauces such as stroganoff or gravies. Works well on baked, grilled, or sautéed proteins with lemon zest and a little oil. Or add it to lemon zest, juice, and olive oil to make dressings or marinade.

* Most brands are salt-free, but check to be sure you’re using a salt-free product.

TFM: In addition to the successful Food Network show, Big Daddy’s House, there’s a new cookbook out. Are more planned in the future and how did you feel seeing it on bookshelves for the first time?

AM: My first cookbook, Simply Done, Well Done, came out in 2011. I remember seeing it for the first time and saying, “All the hard work paid off.” Years of creating and sampling my recipes on different circuits allowed me to develop a collection of what I believe to be great-tasting food that the whole family can enjoy. I’m working on my second cookbook now, and can’t wait to see it alongside the first.



TFM: As a New Jersey native, has Hurricane Sandy affected you in any way? Can you offer some advice to encourage many still in need? How did you overcome difficulties or personal challenges?

AM: I personally was not affected by Hurricane Sandy, but my in-laws were. It was a traumatic event, and I had them move what they could to my house to stay while their power was restored. I felt blessed to not have been directly affected, but was thankful to be there for them in their time of need. I also know and believe that we as a nation, and the best nation at that, know how to stand strong and support each other in times of struggle to eventually make things even better and stronger.

Through my ongoing work with FMCNA, I’ve also learned how dialysis patients are at increased risk during natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy, because they need treatment typically every two days. The company has a robust disaster-response plan and I was really impressed by the way they sprang into action to help patients at over 100 clinics that were in the storm’s path. Following the storm, the FMCNA staff worked tirelessly to restore and renew the Hoboken, N.J., clinic, which was almost completely destroyed during Sandy, while ensuring that patients continued to receive treatments at nearby facilities. After several months of hard work, the clinic reopened to the community, and patients who had to switch clinics during the reconstruction period were able to return.

TFM: Family clearly plays a significant role in your professional life. What childhood lesson did you learn in the kitchen that stuck to this day? Who were your mentors early on and why?

AM: From an early age, I was taught to never leave my food unattended or I was gonna burn down the house! I never burned down the house, but I did burn a whole lot of toast :) My parents were my mentors because they taught be how to survive and how to stretch a meal; how to be creative enough to make something out of nothing (usually leftovers).

TFM: I read somewhere that you play the drums. If you had a band, what would you name it? That would be a cool TV special, jam sessions with Big Daddy … now we’re talking about some bold flavor!

AM: I would name my band “The Signature Blend.” Oh yeah, baby!! We want the big stage!!

DISCLAIMER: Health and wellness material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, cure or to prevent any disease. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. You should consult a qualified health care professional before starting any diet, supplement, home remedy or exercise program, or if you have or suspect you may have a health condition. I encourage individuals to research all avenues for optimal overall wellness.


Chef Aaron McCargo, Jr.:

Fresenius Medical Care:

Food Network:

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