When you walk through the newsroom at WCCB-TV at 6:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, there’s only one head visible, a lone reporter who’s probably been chasing news since before dawn. But the place already smells like bacon.
A few feet away, in Studio B, Troy Gagliardo is getting ready for his closeup. He came in at 5 a.m. to prepare for his weekly “Chef Troy” appearance on “WCCB News Rising.” After hauling in two coolers and a rolling suitcase full of food and tools, he’s lined up camera-ready bowls of shredded cheese, cornmeal and buttermilk and egg batter, for Fried Green Tomato Pimento Cheese Sandwiches. He’s browned a skillet of his home-cured bacon for Hoppin’ John Risotto. His notes are ready, hidden in a drawer of the fake-kitchen set.
Studio manager Scott Fulmer rushes through, talking quickly through timing and camera setups. Host Derek James strolls by, daubing makeup on his forehead, checking on the details of which dish to talk about when.
When it comes to cooking on TV, “There’s no school for this, or at least, no school I know of. I learned as I went along,” Gagliardo says.
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“Fake it ’til you make it” is an old saying among motivational speakers. Gagliardo, 46, doesn’t exactly fake it – he seems to genuinely love food, love people, love cooking. But being quick to change and learn has gotten him past two failed restaurants to a TV show and his own company packaging seasoning mixes for restaurants.
Now it’s also gotten him a book, “Pseudo Southern: A Playful Twist on the Art of Southern Cooking,” printed by Charlotte-based Warren Publishing. It may not be from a well-known publisher, but it’s got endorsements on the back cover from N.C. chef Vivian Howard and “Top Chef” star Fabio Viviani. Howard visited the set when she was cooking at an event in Charlotte and took a liking to Gagliardo. And Viviani – well, when Gagliardo sent out letters asking people to look at his book, he was the one who wrote back.
Gagliardo is a guy who knows how to take a chance and make something of it.
“I don’t think you can take yourself in too many directions,” he says. “I’m not going to miss an opportunity.”
Getting real with ‘Pseudo’
What does the title “Pseudo Southern” mean? Gagliardo says it’s his way of acknowledging he’s not originally from around here. He was born in Michigan and learned to cook from two grandmothers, one Italian and one from Arkansas.
His cooking is everyday and approachable, inspired by Southern flavors with no claims of regional purity.
“Pseudo can be anything. It’s not Sean Brock,” he says, referring to the Charleston chef who focuses on heritage recipes and heirloom ingredients. “This isn’t a Southern cookbook, I can’t say that.”
He does have a Charlotte-area history, though. After his parents divorced, his mother took her two sons to live with her family in the small town of Coloma, Mich. When he was 13, his mother remarried and the family moved to Mooresville, where he still lives.
Gagliardo’s original dream wasn’t cooking, it was baseball. He played in college and then was semi-pro in an independent league, as a closing pitcher. He met his future wife, Tracy, in the 10th grade. When he was 22, they married and he gave up baseball to support a family.
“The way this whole cooking thing started was when I knew baseball wasn’t going to work out.” He had learned a lot about food doing chores on his grandparents’ land back in Michigan. But his mother didn’t cook much, and his connection to food had slipped away. He realized he wanted it back.
He started jotting food ideas in a journal. He got videos of TV chefs Justin Wilson and George Hirsch, watching them over and over. He got a job as a server at a restaurant chain, then worked his way up to partner.
In 2004, he opened a small restaurant in Mooresville, Gagliardo’s Grill. It was a few blocks off Main Street, before the downtown Mooresville area took off. After two years, he was in debt and had to close. He doesn’t consider it a failure, though, just “ahead of its time” and too upscale for the area.
A couple of years later, he got a partner and opened Gagliardo’s Grill Express in the same location, focused more on lunches and faster service.
It closed as well. But then another opportunity came along: There was this customer who really loved her steak ...
A stake with a steak
On Valentine’s Day in 2006, Fox News TV personality Beth Troutman got taken out to dinner by her now-husband, who promised her that Gagliardo’s would have the best steak she’d ever eaten.
Troutman agreed, and asked to meet the chef. Now living in Phoenix where she has the TV show “Right This Minute,” she says she took to Gagliardo right away.
“He’s graceful and lovely and fun,” she says. “It just worked.” She did a segment of a travel show, “Cruisin’ the Carolinas,” on Gagliardo’s restaurant and ended up inviting him to come on “Fox News Rising” to grill on air for a tailgate feature.
“He gets it,” Troutman says. A lot of chefs have trouble with that – it’s hard to cook in sound bites. He’s funny and quick-witted.”
By the time his second restaurant closed, Gagliardo had become a regular on WCCB, appearing every Tuesday for “Troy’s Everyday Eats.”
“I’m just me,” he says. “Once I figured that out, it got easier. Talking about food seems natural.”
He admits he misses the adrenaline rush of nightly restaurant work. And yes, he sometimes feels a little out of step with restaurant chefs who are “in the trenches.” But he says that comes from him, not from the local chefs he knows through the Piedmont Culinary Guild. His spice company, Motown Spice Provisions, packages customized blends that are used at places such as Cabo Fish Taco and Bank of America Stadium, giving him a reason to visit restaurants every week and keep in touch with other local chefs. (His own spice blends, Chef Troy’s, are sold online, at cheftroy.net, and at Fresh Market).
“The chef community is getting closer and tighter by the day around here,” he says. “I’m happy that I’m even the smallest part of it.”
Switching to TV, though, let him be home with his family, a problem for many chefs with restaurant hours. The Gagliardos have two daughters, Isabella, 17, and Ally, 20, a freshman at East Carolina University.
“I missed so much of my kids’ early years,” he says. “Most days, I was gone before they got up and they were in bed when I got home.”
These days, though, he has more time to focus on the family. As a one-man production company, he spreads the work through the week: On Wednesday, he comes up with a theme and a couple of recipe ideas. By Friday, he’s ready to work it out on paper. On Saturday, he shops and tests the recipe. On Sunday, he preps his ingredients and gets everything ready. On Monday, he packs the coolers and his tools.
On Tuesday, he’s up at 3:30 a.m. and on the way to the studio by 5.
Even with his spice company to run, he’s home by 7 every night to cook dinner for his family.
“Looking back, I know I made the right choice.”
Cooking for your eyes
The recipes he makes on TV have to look good, sound delicious and be simple enough to explain in four three-minute segments. That teaches you to do a certain kind of cooking – comforting, with a twist or a hook to get the viewer’s attention.
That’s also the kind of cooking that led him to this cookbook. He was already developing two recipes a week for the show. He started working with photographer Richard Rudisill, who stands by during the show, ready to plate each dish and shoot a picture as soon as it comes off the air.
There’s also a built-in panel of test-tasters: The minute the cameras go off and Rudisill is finished, staff from all over the building descend to scarf up the leftovers. Pizza Day, mac-and-cheese and anything with bacon goes fast, while Gagliardo stands by, watching and pushing people toward the plates.
“This is my creative outlet, to feed people,” he says. “You never know where life’s going to take you.”
Hoppin’ John Risotto
From “Pseudo Southern: A Playful Twist on the Art of Southern Cooking,” by Troy Gagliardo (Warren Publishing, 2015).
6 slices thick-sliced bacon, sliced into short strips
1/4 cup white onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1 poblano pepper, finely diced
1 pound frozen black-eyed peas
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
6 to 8 cups chicken stock
1 (35-ounce) can fire-roasted crushed tomatoes (drain and reserve about 1 cup liquid)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 pound arborio or short-grain rice
4 green onions, sliced thin with white separate from green tops
Cook bacon until slightly crispy. Add onion, garlic and poblano. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 5 minutes.
Add the black-eyed peas, season with salt and pepper and cover with stock. Bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer on low until field peas are tender, about 30 minutes.
Ladle out 4 cups of the cooking liquid from the field peas. Place in a pot with the reserved tomato liquid. Keep warm over very low heat.
Add the drained tomatoes to the field peas and stir to combine.
Melt butter in a large nonstick pan over medium heat. Add the rice and the white part of the green onion. Stir to coat and cook, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Raise heat to medium-high and season with salt and pepper. Begin adding warm stock/tomato liquid one ladle at a time. Cook until the stock is absorbed and continue adding a ladle at a time, stirring until all has been incorporated.
Remove from heat after adding the last ladle of liquid. Add more black-eyed pea cooking juice if needed to keep the risotto loose.
Place the risotto on a platter and top with the black-eyed peas. Garnish with the green onion tops.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Pro Pork for the Home Cook
From “Pseudo Southern.” In the book, Gagliardo’s barbecue is part of a larger sandwich recipe with slaw, sauce and onion rings.
8 to 10 pounds pork butt with fat cap, bone-in or boneless
Chef Troy’s Back Rub, to coat, or your favorite barbecue dry rub
4 cups hickory wood chips, soaked at least 1 hour
Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Pat pork dry and completely coat with rub. Place in a roasting pan fitted with a rack and cover with aluminum foil.
Roast until tender, 8 to 10 hours. Preheat grill or smoker for indirect, low heat, about 225 degrees.
Remove foil, remove rack with pork and place on the grill, away from the coals or gas jets. Add wet wood chips to the coals and smoke for 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove rack with pork and place pork in a large bowl. Pull apart into chunks.
Drizzle with a little sauce, season lightly with dry rub or Back Rub and serve.
Yield: About 8 servings.