Have you always been really into food?
“I’ve been a food lover since I was a kid and come from a big, food-loving family. We always did the holidays in the biggest fashion: Holiday dinners were 30 to 40 people. Some of my favorite food memories are with my Aunt Tad. She was a passionate home cook, always very creative in the kitchen, and I spent a lot of time with her as a kid. We cooked together, but we’d also order in food, and she’d walk me through different cuisines from around the world.”
What did Aunt Tad teach you about cooking?
“My family’s Irish, but we lived in a very Italian area in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and she taught me some of the tricks of the trade of great Italian food. She passed away in 2008, but my tomato sauce recipe is still based on hers, with my own twists and turns here and there. The biggest thing I learned from my aunt is the more you make from scratch, the better your food is going to be. And that there’s no substitute for quality ingredients: She taught me about using fresh tomatoes versus canned, little things like that.”
Got any other home cooking tips?
“Don’t be afraid to try things that seem complex or difficult. It’s totally worth it. Taking that extra time and not cutting corners is the key to making a dish work or not work. And don’t be afraid to throw out the recipe book—just eyeball it and throw stuff in. That’s how to learn to taste and season things properly, much better than just reading a recipe. The faster you take those training wheels off, the quicker you improve your skills in the kitchen.”
You’ve spent a lot of time on the road as a stand-up comedian. What’s the secret to finding great food in an unfamiliar city?
“It’s a combination of using technology and knowing when to throw that technology out the window. I start with Yelp, but then I’ll dive in on Twitter and Instagram to get more details on the local food scene. The locals will always say their place makes the world’s best corned beef, pizza, whatever, but you have to take that with a big grain of salt. For me, a place has to have good pictures and a large number of good reviews online to be interesting. When 30 of the 50 posts about food in a city are about the same place, that’s where you want to go.”
Is there one giant dish you’ve tried on Ginormous Food that really stood out?
“The Battle Royale from Pepperfire in Nashville in season 1. It’s four deep-fried grilled cheese sandwiches topped with pounds of spicy chicken tenders and these cinnamony apples that are basically apple pie filling. The combination of sweet, spicy and crunchy was just incredible. It’s still the undisputed champion in my mind. Me and the guys on the crew are still craving that dish six months later.”
Why do you think oversized dishes are so popular?
“There’s sort of a spectacle and an awe factor. But I also think food as conquest is interesting to people. One thing we try to emphasize is that these are supposed to be shared. It’s a great way to bring people together around food. A lot of times, it’s also a cheaper way to get a big group of people something to eat! What we’re really trying to highlight with the show is how much these bring people together and become a tourist attraction and something to do. It’s like a quest: People decide to get together and knock down a giant dish. Everybody watches the show and goes, ‘I want to see that in person!’”
What’s currently your favorite food city in America?
“Louisville was one that really jumped out. I had never been before we filmed there for Ginormous Food. I didn’t know what to expect, but every meal we had was really good. The burgers at HammerHeads were awesome.”
From what I’ve read, you’re a pizza fanatic. Got any recommendations for the country’s best pie?
“Surprisingly enough to me, one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had anywhere in the U.S. was a little place called Pizza Delicious in New Orleans. One of the best New York-style pizzas I’ve ever had. Shout out to my sound guy, Jacob Falls, for telling me about that! I have to credit Jacob with changing my topping preference, too. Usually I was a pepperoni guy, but he convinced me that margherita with fresh basil is the way to go. If a pizza place can knock that out of the park, the rest of the pizza’s gonna be pretty good, too.”
Josh Denny is the host of Ginormous Food, whose second season is now airing every Friday on Food Network. He also talks food with fellow comics and other celebrities on his podcast, March of the Pigs.
Interview has been condensed and edited.