Dynamic Duo

By Deborah Cassell

It’s okay to talk with your mouth full, say Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh. When these superhero celebrity chefs aren’t running their new Chicago restaurant or catering parties, they’re teaching Food Network viewers to eat “hearty.”

If Batman and Robin had been given the power to throw a mean dinner party, then the two superheroes might have looked a lot like Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, aka, “The Hearty Boys.” The former actors turned caterers turned comedic Food Network stars first appeared on the small screen just a few years ago after beating out nearly 10,000 other entrants in “The Next Food Network Star.” Today, they are a household name.
Dan is head chef in the partnership. His partner in crime, Steve, runs the duo’s diverse business ventures, which include a new restaurant concept in hometown Chicago and a new book: “Talk With Your Mouth Full.” The pair certainly had a lot to say in their recent interview with Snack Food & Wholesale Bakery. Read on to learn what JFK, NYC and Suzy Qs have to do with this cookin’ couple.
What are your earliest cooking memories?
Dan: My earliest cooking memories, because I’m Italian, are being in my grandmother’s kitchen. I had to be like 3 or 4 years old, I guess, just sitting in a chair ... watching her make the dough for these Sicilian pizzas. She’d make them a couple times a week. They were just always in the house. ... She would roll it out with a rolling pin and then top it with all these great things — homemade tomato sauce, onions, anchovies, whatever was in the kitchen.
Steve: My mom every year would make a very traditional English fruitcake, and it was awful. ... There would be a lot of sherry in it, and you would make it a full year ahead of time and wrap it in layers of tinfoil and wax paper and put it in a tin — she had her same Christmas tin each year — up in the back of the cupboard. After it sat there for a year with the candied fruits in there, she’d pull it out and ice it, but always with just a real simple sugar water icing, so it wasn’t very tasty. But actually what my fond memory of that is that you’d make a wish and put a shilling into the cake as you stirred it. Whoever got the shilling in their slice of cake got their wish.
Dan: Was the wish that you didn’t have to eat that cake?
Steve: My sister and I would pretend to eat it, but we’d just be hacking it apart looking for the shilling.
How long have you been cooking together? What do each of you bring to the table?
Dan: We started the catering business going on 10 years ago now. That’s when we really started to cook together, although we don’t really cook together cuz I’m the cook in the duo.
Steve: Which makes me the brains of the business.
Dan: You’re the brains, and I’m the braun. I’m the one who creates the menus and comes up with the recipes and actually does the cooking.
Steve: I used to cook a lot, but ... I have been relegated to sous chef in my life.
When and why did you first get into the culinary arts?
Dan: I always like to say that I kind of fell into the business because we were both actors in New York, and when you’re an actor in New York, you’re some kind of waiter to try and make money. So after working as a cater water for awhile, I hooked up with a caterer who worked out of her home. She had these great parties for people on Park Avenue in these huge, massive apartments, but she did it out of her little tiny kitchen in her apartment, so she needed help cooking. So I started doing that, and I found that I liked it. I decided a year later that I didn’t want to be an actor anymore and just jumped into it with both feet and moved out of New York and started my own business in Maine.
Steve: When we were both in Chicago and I was working as an actor still but working as a caterer, I’d be at these parties and running them and fixing all the errors the event planners had made, and I was like, so why am I not doing this for myself? So Dan and I literally started hanging up those tear sheets: “Want a caterer?”
What intrigues you about food?
Steve: Food is universal. Everybody loves food. What really intrigues me about catering versus restauranting is that people are always happy when you go their house for a catered event cuz they’re throwing a party, they’re excited and they don’t have to clean up — if we do our job well, which is allowing them to enjoy their party.
Dan: For me, it’s the creativity of it. When I stopped acting, I wanted another career where I could just be creative. ... I get to play with food every day. I get to make things up — sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. Because of the catering, it’s a constant, always changing list of things I can make, because people will always say, you’re a caterer, what do you specialize in? That’s the thing — if you’re a caterer and you’re worth your salt, you have to specialize in everything.
Which chefs inspired you as you were learning your trade?
Steve: My first chef that really taught me to appreciate food at a different level was Jeff Smith, “The Frugal Gourmet.” He was the first person I had seen who gave real-life tips about food. He was the first person who I would hear say, “For goodness sakes, buy a good pepper mill.” I still say that quote to this day when someone has a crappy peppermill or is just using ground pepper. It helped me to understand the tools that were needed to create a better whole.
Dan: I’m inspired by chefs who just make good, interesting food. It’s not any one person I can name. People I worked with back in New York — I learned things from them. I learn things from chefs when I go to out to dinner now. So it’s a constant for me. I’m just always being inspired by really talented chefs, across the board.
When you entered “The Next Food Network Star,” did you think you’d beat the 10,000 people entering?
Steve: I think that what they were looking for at the time was exactly what we do. Dan and I at that point said that our goal was to find a way to do a cooking show because we offered something that other people don’t. We were trying to figure out how to get it onto television. With that opportunity, it was the first time in my life that I’ve ever been up against that much competition and thought, why not me? As an actor in New York, you go to these auditions and it’s just terrifying. “Oh, please, God, I hope they notice me.” This time, we’re very confident with what we do, so we thought, why shouldn’t we be chosen? We were lucky we were so stupid that kharma helped us or that attitude did.
Dan: We were also really late sending the tape in. We had to overnight it. ... We goofed around and sent it in and kind of forget about it because we were busy with everything else.
Steve: We were very irreverent with it because that’s how we feel about food. Our focus is on the party.
You just sold your Chicago restaurant, HB. Describe your new restaurant concept, HB TV.
Steve: It’s the first of its kind in the country. It’s an on-camera cooking experience. So people are going to come in, and Dan and I will do a demo and talk about what it’s like to cook on television and work with teleprompters, and the audience will come up and try a 3-minute cooking demo. They’ll get booze and food and a DVD of the experience.
Dan: We’re telling people it’s like cooking karaoke.
Steve: : It’s not media training. It’s not cooking class. It’s a hybrid. And it’s really fun. ... We’re not doing it for airing. ... It’s all closed circuit television so that the folks can watch it while it’s going on. ... It’s just a goofy night of TV and liquor and knives.
Why do you think America is so into cooking shows and The Food Network?
Dan: It’s really interesting cuz just in the time we’ve been on The Food Network, I’ve noticed that more and more stations are starting to carry cooking show. Like Steve said before, food is universal. There is something really comforting about it. ... Everyone wants comfort food. Everyone wants to return to that time when you were a kid and food was just a big part of your life.
Steve: Bill Buford had said recently that The Food Network was destroying food television, that we’re watching the downfall of food television right now, that it’s being watered and dumbed down, but I really disagree. What we’ve learned with The Food Network is that with the advent of cable, everyone now has access to these cooking shows. ... Those menus and recipes have to be completely, nationally acceptable. ... Everybody’s interested right now, and why shouldn’t everybody have the same opportunities for food?
Describe your new book, “Talk With Your Mouth Full.”
Steve: It kind of follows our show. It’s not just a selection of recipes. We absolutely did not want that. Our vision for the book was something that you’d end up leaving in the living room cuz you were reading the story. ... It’s stories and how we got here without going to culinary school. Our culinary journey led us to become accidental experts. With everything from Dan running through Maine with a wedding cake melting in the backseat of his car to wearing those union suits with those little button things dressed up for a Dr. Seuss party. Plus, it’s real life tips on throwing events, following our TV show. So Dan intros the recipes, and my tips are spread throughout — like how much ice do you actually need for a party, how many glasses do you use per person, how do you really use a chafing dish? All those things that no one addresses. It really gives you, as I was saying before about Jeff Smith, the tools for throwing a party.
What’s your favorite snack?
Steve: I snack a lot on dips and crackers. I always have hummus in the house. I always have a good quality thin cracker in the house.
Dan: Mine would be cheeses. I love any kind of cheeses. And then for sweets, I’ve got this thing for Girl Scout Thin Mints. I could polish a box off in one sitting, which is really scary.
What’s your favorite baked good?
Dan: Pecan sticky buns. I love sticky buns. You can get them anywhere, but my favorite is from Red Hen. They’re a bakery here in the city. They’ve got a couple of retail stores, and we use them as well for the catering business. There’s cinnamon in between and they’re rolled and soft and sticky.
Steve: And I would have to go in the real junk food category and say Suzy Qs. I like them so much, and I never get to have them, so I asked Dan one year for my birthday to try to put them together and make a Suzy Q layer cake.
Dan: And I did, and it was awful, and he hated it. My mom’s fruitcake would have been better. But that’s no reflection on my cooking.
You’re making a turkey sandwich. What kind of bread would you use?
Dan: I would say challah would be really good, with a cranberry mayo — it’s soft and a little sweet. Or, if you want to go in more a savory direction, I’d go with a sourdough and use a pesto mayo on it. It’s got more body to it, and the crust is a little crunchy.
Steve: Mine is very special, coming from the East Coast. It would be a New York bagel — and absolutely not toasted. You do not toast a decent bagel. And a little too much mayo, cuz I’m a white boy from way back, and a good Jersey tomato and either Romaine or an iceberg lettuce — something crunchy.
What’s a typical weekday dinner at your house?
Dan: We tend to eat a lot of hors d’oeuvres.
Steve: Just yesterday we had dried sausage, muffalata and some cipollini onions and balsamic and a sweet roasted garlic.
Dan: And a good loaf of bread.
Steve: Sometimes we’ll bring stuff back from the catering business, too, and end up with spinach Parmesan balls and carved tenderloin and chilled salmon.
Dan: We definitely don’t eat like normal people. Sometimes I think, you know, a lot of people are having, like, chicken baked with mushroom soup, and we’re having salmon with Dijon whipped cream.
If you could have any three people, dead or alive, to dinner, who would they be and, more importantly, what would you serve them?
Steve: I think we would split this up the way we normally split things up, which is I’d plan the event, and Dan would plan the menu. ... I’d pick John F. Kennedy, Jackie O. and John Kennedy, Jr. I think dinner parties are easier if the people, even if they don’t know each other, have something in common. ... The main reason I’d invite them is because they all have stories that I’d love to know.
Dan: One of the things I love to do is take retro food and put a little bit of a modern twist on it. ... I’d probably do a Seafood Newburg for them cuz it’s very ‘50s/‘60s with a twist. This recipe is actually in the cookbook. There are big scallops in it, and lobster tail meat and shrimp. It’s really a chunky dish. It’s a little bit lighter, a little bit more spicy than the traditional Newburg was, and I’d top it with a gramalata, which is a garlic, lemon zest and parsley mix. I think they’d appreciate it because that was their era — they had all of those fabulous dinner parties at the White House. But then they’d get that twist on it that is very contemporary.
I would do something light for dessert ... like some kind of fruit fool, like a mango fool or a raspberry fool with fresh berries.
Steve: You’re not gonna do a flan shaped like a pillbox hat or something like that?
Dan: I’d do it in the shape of the United States.
Steve: They’d love that. SF&WB

Editor’s Note: Find out more about Dan and Steve at www.HeartyBoys.com.