Mo Rocca Learns the Recipes for a Life Well Lived

 Courtesy of The Cooking Channel

So few of us actually take the time to sit down and talk with our grandparents, listen to their stories, and gain decades of wisdom from the small, graying people without whom we would literally not exist (or be decent humans). They are lighthouses for the wayward ships we call our lives, and as an added bonus, they often fill us with more food than logically necessary. So to celebrate these great people, TV host and former Daily Show correspondent Mo Rocca started going into their homes and kitchens and gleaning what he can from them while helping make their best meal for his Cooking Channel show, My Grandmother’s Ravioli.

“It would be awfully precious if this was about the story behind the food, but it’s not, really,” Rocca explains over burratas at French Roast in Manhattan’s West Village. “It’s about conversations with people who like to cook, and are thus more likely to open up in the kitchen.” Now in its third season, the show has become one of the most popular cooking shows on TV because of the men and women who forget about the camera and share their recipes, stories, and experiences. We recently chatted with Rocca about his own grandma, why he still hasn’t learned to cook, and what he knows about “the recipe for a life well lived.”

So first, tell me about your grandma. What was she like?
My grandmother was pretty great. She was actually pretty funny, quiet, and very hardworking. She worked full time at a department store in D.C. until she was 87, but more than anything, she was really tough. And she loved Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. If you called her during that she would basically hang up on you. But even though she worked full time until late in her life, she still insisted on cooking big dinners for the entire family, because that was the way she showed affection. So this project was driven by her, and in large part by guilt, which isn’t a bad motivating tool.

And what was so special about her ravioli specifically?
I just loved it. It was a pretty simple ravioli made from scratch. They were big envelopes, so even as a ravenous, messy 12-year-old, you couldn’t just shovel them in your mouth like a can of Chef Boyardee. They were pretty and nice, with a light marinara sauce, ground beef and spinach inside, and garlic. No cheese.

Did she ever teach you to cook it?
She actually had a very small kitchen in an apartment in D.C., so I’m not sure my brothers and I could have fit in there, and I’m not sure she would have allowed it, but we never showed any interest. And now, like many New Yorkers, I eat a lot of meals out. I eat a lot of meals here. That’s why I know the whole staff. Hi, Peter.

[Waves to Peter. Peter waves back.]

Was the plan to actually learn how to cook?
Yeah, I thought I’d learn how to cook in the show. It’s not shtick and I am engaged and learning, but I forget right away. I was concerned that it would make the show seem fraudulent, but then I realized that it was better to be honest about it. No, I haven’t learned how to cook. Maybe eventually. I don’t know. I’m starting to host more, though. I own my apartment now, I’ve finished decorating it, and so I’ve been having people over and getting lots of bottles of wine and then putting food out. It’s baby steps. Maybe the next step is that I’ll make something like a dip, instead of buying it. But I’ve not yet really used my oven, and I don’t know what to say about that.

Have you figured out if you like the art or the science of it yet?
I don’t know. I like the eating. Look, I’d like to get to the point where I’m confident enough to not measure as much as I do. There’s probably a point where you just figure it out. It gets into your bones. But I’m not there yet.

So much of TV cooking shows are about knife skills and new techniques. Is it refreshing to learn from cooks that aren’t necessarily classically trained?
Yes. None of them measure. The idea of measurements is so foreign to them. Even this woman named Peggy who bakes scones. I know you have to measure to bake, but she’s an Irish grandmother and she says she just trusts in the Lord. Some come out and some don’t. Often our culinary producer has to go out ahead and do some real detective work, if only so we can put the recipe on the website. He has to ask about the measurements and how they make something that they’ve been making for 60 years. A lot of the time it’s weird for them. He’s like a therapist, or an interpreter. He has to say, “I know you’ve been doing this since WWII, but let’s do it again just so I can get the sense of how much flour we need.”

How do you pick the grandmas?
Well you want somebody who isn’t necessarily a great cook, but likes cooking. And is able to take the reins and make me the apprentice. I don’t want to have to be tap dancing and putting on a show for them. It’s better if they’re in control, but that doesn’t mean they’re loud or wacky. Maybe they are, but they should have a point of view on the world. Eileen, a Japanese grandmother from last season, was willing to say on camera that, “I love my kids, but I don’t always like them. There’s a difference. Love is mandatory, like is optional.” That’s the kind of thing that qualifies you to become a folk hero. Millie from South Carolina didn’t just think Family Feud is the best show on TV. She knows it. It’s an article of faith. Nina and Mona believe in the upside of arranged marriage. It would be awfully precious if this was about the story behind the food, but not really. It’s about conversations with people who like to cook and are thus more likely to open up in the kitchen. 

Why was this the show you wanted to make?
There were a couple things going on. First, I wanted a vehicle where I could interview people, non-celebrities, and really just talk to them about those big things. I thought this seemed like a clean and simple way to do this. Also, it’s not a coincidence that my father died pretty recently, and when your father dies and you’re next in line, you ask those certain questions about what’s important, what you want out of the rest of your life, what you want it to add up to. I’m sounding very clinical about it and I don’t mean to, but my father died and I was thinking about life stuff – non-work stuff – and I found a way to do a show about people who can help fill in those blanks and answer those questions.

And you mentioned guilt earlier.
I’m being a little bit cute about it, but I think there was guilt about not realizing all the stuff she was doing when she was doing it. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, but she was busting her ass, she loved doing it, she wouldn’t have had it any other way, but it’s hard to appreciate those moments when they’re happening. It’s too bad.

There’s no way not to sound hokey, so don’t shoot me for saying this, but the show is really a recipe for a life well lived. People who are on unscripted, so-called reality TV stars, are generally pretty awful. Not always, but a lot of shows feature people who you wouldn’t want to be related to. If we can do a show that features people you would want to be related to and spend time with and be entertained by, that feels pretty good. It certainly feels good when you’re with them. Being on TV isn’t a priority for them. Their priority is being with friends and family. They’ve had full lives, and there are no stakes here for them. They’re not trying to present a certain face. They’re not pursuing a reality spin off. They just are who they are.

Did you ever think a show about you cooking with old broads would be the number one show on the Cooking Channel?
You know, I did a piece on The Daily Show, it was maybe the fourth piece I did there, and it was about a man named Herman Abrams in New Jersey who had a museum to himself. It was basically in his basement, he had kept every wishbone of every turkey of every Thanksgiving, and they were lined up. He had every pizza stand, too, and I remember the studio audience going bananas. This is back in 1999, but I remember thinking, “There’s no hipper audience than this right now, and they love this guy. And he’s in his 80s.” One of my fears at the beginning was that the Cooking Channel was going to want me to find hot grandmas, like, “Get some fifty year old grandmas who work out,” but they’ve been awesome. That I can find a 96-year-old Punjabi guy in Florida and cook with him on TV for a half hour is awesome.