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Most senior citizens, it turns out, don’t really want anyone coming into their kitchen with cameras. That’s one of several lessons Mo Rocca learned while casting the first season of his new Cooking Channel show, My Grandmother’s Ravioli.
The CBS Sunday Morning correspondent, who got his big break working on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, recently launched the series in an attempt to learn how to cook from some of America’s most-experienced chefs. And the ones who agreed to open their doors made it very clear that they had better things to do.
“We had an amazing Polish grandma,” Rocca tells The Hollywood Reporter. “She and her three best friends are all widows that refer to themselves as the Golden Girls. They all carpool to church and drink wine afterwards. After two days of shooting her episode, she turned to me and said, ‘Alright, get out of my house.’ And that was it.”
It’s one of several balls the veteran humorist is juggling these days. On top of weekly duties to CBS News, he still regularly shows up on NPR mainstay Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! and earlier this year he started promoting a timely passion project, the documentary Electoral Dysfunction.
“I need one of those fancy Hollywood personal assistants but I can’t afford one right now,” he says. “So I’ll keep using iCal instead.”
Rocca recently spoke to THR about his new project, what else he’s learning from other people’s grandparents and how he’s using his career as a more lucrative form of higher education.
The Hollywood Reporter: My Grandmother’s Ravioli is new TV territory for you. How did the series come about?
Mo Rocca: I had done a few things on the Food Network — Iron Chef and Foodography — which were both made for me because I wasn’t ever asked to cook. And I don’t cook, which is what inspired this. And learning to cook from grandmothers and grandfathers is just unalloyed joy. I had this amazing grandmother growing up who would make this big Sunday dinners with these delicious, simple ravioli. But like most kids, I would show up right when they were finished being made, shovel them down and take off. If I had a time machine, I’d show up a half-hour early and learn some of what she was doing. You could just call this whole series guilt abatement for not helping my grandmother.
THR: Are you already cooking more?
Rocca: When it comes to certain things, I’m a quick study. When it comes to cooking, I’m a slow learner. It’s going to take many seasons of me pretty much visiting very grandparent in America to approach her level of skill — but I think it will start happening.
THR: Was it easy casting the she show?
Rocca: I have such respect for people who do non-fiction casting after settling on the grandparents we got for this. It is really hard to find people who are not fame-whores. We’re lucky these people actually wanted to spend their time doing this. All of them would have much rather been cooking without the cameras, being with their families. That’s why they’re great characters.
THR: Fame-whore grandparents sound awful.
Rocca: It would be terrible, but I’m sure it’s in development right now.
THR: Are you going to be learning basic cooking or more ethnic recipes?
Rocca: At the end of the week I’m going to meet with two Indian grandmas living in New Jersey, Meena and Mona. They came to America separately about 40 years ago, but they settled by each other and their families have intermarried. Their names are Mina and Mona. What more do you want? I’m pretty much just doing it so I can play “Eenie Meena Mona Mo” to decide who has to clean up afterwards.
THR: So its not entirely unlike the kind of thing you do on Sunday Morning?
Rocca: It’s all about telling stories and telling a good story between three and nine minutes. Sunday Morning is such a great show to work on because I can do a piece on the birther scandal around Chester Alan Arthur, not Barack Obama. There were people at the time who insisted that he was born in Canada, and there’s no other show that would pay me to go up there to talk to people who still insist he was the first Canadian president of the United States. Then the next week I can talk to Sally Field or do a story about the challenges of a tall girl trying to date. It’s like going to college and only taking electives.
THR: And you’re still on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me a lot.
Rocca: I’m always flattered when people ask me how I have time to do Wait, Wait every week when I’m actually only on it about once a month. Maybe it’s because my voice is so hard to get out of people’s heads. It can be a bit of a buzz saw sometimes.
THR: What prompted you to do Electoral Dysfunction?
Rocca: A team of documentary filmmakers came to me with a subject that made my eyes glaze over — which was how the electoral college works in the United States. Part of what drew me to it is that it makes a lot of people’s eyes glaze over. I love the challenge of taking something that may be boring to a lot of people but is unarguably important. It’s irresistible. I always take projects that I’m paid to learns stuff. I study much harder now than I did when I was in college.
THR: You’ve worked on it a while, was it always the intention to time it to this election?
Rocca: Yes and I think we were the only documentary to play at both the DNC and the RNC as a part of the Impact film Festival. I didn’t know the documentary film world before this, and these guys are really inspiring because you have to be really unwavering to see these things come to fruition. Most documentaries take 125 years to get made. This one only took six, so that’s like lightening speed.
My Grandmother’s Ravioli Airs Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m. on Cooking Channel
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