Food Network Star Brings “Home Cooking” Home

Could restaurant be the key in a recovery of an impoverished city?

A nationally-recognized chef is planning to open a restaurant in his hometown and maybe help spark a revival along the way.

Former Food Network host Aaron McCargo Jr. has applied for a $100,000 grant to open a new bistro in Camden, N.J. -- one of the nation's most impoverished cities.

McCargo's Bistro is planned to open at Third and Market Streets -- a short five minute walk from where the chef grew up.

"I want to put an emphasis on the brighter things in Camden," McCargo told "I'm hopeful I can be the pioneer of this new revolution."

“It’s obviously something positive for the city,” said Camden spokesman Robert Corrales.

Earlier McCargo told partner Newsworks that his bistro will be unique.

"This is not your run-of-the-mill pizza palace. We're looking to step it up. We're going to introduce things people aren't used to," McCargo said.

He told about the experience he hopes patrons have when they walk in.

"I want them to feel 'wow, this cannot be in Camden," McCargo said. He says he hopes it can uplift Camden residents and make them proud of the type of establishment that can thrive in their town.

He intentionally wanted to use a previous existing structure known to Camden. The food will share that Camden ideal as McCargo focuses on one of his favorites, soups, an ode to Campbell's as well as offer dishes inspired by the likes of Walt Whitman and RCA.

Expect "good bistro-style food" that appeals to people that want to be naughty or folks looking for healthier options.

"It will be the brand -- my name," that will lure customers from outside the city, he told Newsworks. "And given the location, I'll be able to capitalize on all the city's growth."

This isn’t McCargo’s first venture into running a restaurant in his hometown.

McCargo had a restaurant in Camden a decade ago, but it lasted only two years. That was before his 2008 victory on The Next Food Network Star and his three-year run hosting Big Daddy's House.

"The Food Network status has really helped me a lot," McCargo told

He plans to raise about $1 million through a kick-start campaign he expects to launch next week.

He is being helped along the way by taking advantage of the state program geared towards revitalizing urban areas that he didn't use last time around.

The under-utilized statewide Urban Enterprise Zone program is helping bring McCargo’s Bistro to town. The program, which has existed for 30 years, supplies grants, tax credits and other benefits to businesses that move into the designated UZR zone but hasn’t been utilized in Camden for years, Enterprise Zone coordinator Vince Basara told

McCargo, who now lives in suburban Gloucester County, applied for an Urban Enterprise Zone grant to turn the vacant downtown building that was once a bar/restaurant into McCargo's Bistro. The project will be his own and if all goes well he could open by mid-fall, according to city officials.

McCargo said it would "be a blessing" to be up and running by September or October. He realizes there is still a lot of work ahead.

"I want the community to feel a part of this," McCargo said.

Basara says that the city has looked at successful redevelopment in cities like Asbury Park as a target to improve Camden. The downtown area has seen a recent recovery thanks to what city officials call “Ed & Med Center” that includes the expansion of Cooper University Hospital and the addition of Rowan Teaching Hospital but it has yet to see an overall turnaround

City and community leaders hope the addition of new businesses, including the Rutgers-Camden Barnes and Noble and some smaller businesses, are first steps towards recovery and making the city itself more attractive to people visiting the waterfront rather than just driving through on their way to the Susquehanna Bank Center, Adventure Aquarium, Battleship New Jersey and Campbell’s Field parking lots.

“There are a lot of plans underway,” Mayor Dana Redd told

“We are facilitating retail and looking to bring in some restaurants for the city so that when visitors come for a concert they can stay for dinner and hang out for a little bit. We are moving and trending in that direction.”

McCargo’s Bistro is the next step in that process.

To start out, the restaurant will focus on the lunch and happy hour crowds, serving gastro-pub fare and friendly cocktails between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. each day.

McCargo said that as more police and security personnel are dispatched to the area that he will hopefully include later hours. McCargo is hopeful that will happen as more businesses come downtown.

"I know that we need everyone's support," McCargo said.

And, if all works out right, McCargo hopes to realize a dream and open a restaurant on the Camden waterfront.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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