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John Catucci finds food, forks, and fun on his "Big" new TV show

Comedian and TV personality John Catucci is back with a new show, where he takes on North America's essential eats on Big Food Bucket List.

For five years, Food Network Canada viewers could catch comedian and performer John Catucci getting behind-the-scenes access to some of the country's must-try eats at restaurants coast to coast.

Armed with a catchphrase, a fork in the pocket of his plaid shirt, and his fair share of witty quips, Catucci steered Canadians to some over-the-top dishes on his show You Gotta Eat Here. While you can still see YGEH in re-runs, after a nearly-two-year TV pause, Catucci is back with a new show, where he takes on North America's essential eats on Big Food Bucket List.

 John Catucci hosts the new show John Catucci hosts the new show “Big Food Bucket List” on Food Network Canada. Photo by Mike Ford.

"Big" is definitely one way to describe Catucci's personality, which cuts through the cloud cover of a typical Vancouver morning, even over the telephone, punctuated with plenty of hearty laughs - and a healthy side of sudden food cravings.

Catucci jokes that during his post-YGEH time, you could generally find him hanging out at home, out doing comedy, and figuring out if he could eat without a camera present. When Food Network Canada came to him with a proposal to do a new show, he jumped at the chance to hit the road.

Big Food Bucket List sprang from the uprising of similar online content over the last few years outlining all the "things you had to do before you die." Hoping to hone in on the less morbid aspects of kicking the bucket, Catucci sees the new show, which tracks down must-try eats across North America, as a way to have fun with it - no death involved.

"These are the dishes you must have in your life," explains the host. "Not the dying side of things. The things you will eat with a smile."

In this case, "big" isn't just a matter of size; Catucci says viewers will see him tuck into dishes that are "over the top in flavour and idea," and, borrowing some millennial hype parlance, "drool-worthy."

"You will be drooling!" exclaims Catucci.

 Yaki Udon at Guu with Garlic in Vancouver. Photo by Nick Coffin.Yaki Udon at Guu with Garlic in Vancouver. Photo by Nick Coffin.

For the show's stops in Vancouver, Catucci says the Big Food Bucket List crew set up shop for about two weeks, hitting up four restaurants for the small screen, and some local favourites of Catucci's, like Banana Leaf, Samurai Sushi, and Via Tevere. Before you envy Catucci's roaming professional eater lifestyle, you should know that he'll confess to often wanting nothing more than to grab some peanut butter from the grocery store and eat something simple in his hotel room.
Luckily for Vancouverites, we can hit up the four spots Big Food Bucket List shows off in our city. There's Guu with Garlic, which was Catucci's first izakaya (Japanese pub-style small plates) experience, complete with the high energy of the restaurant as they shout their greetings and serving up eats like Yaki Udon - a sizzling noodle dish topped with steak and bonito flakes that "hit the hot noodles and move around - like the dish is alive." Oh, and did he mention the sake?
There's more magic, this time in the versatility of a delicata squash, as handled by Chef Amanda Healy at Royal Dinette, in a dish that uses every part of the veggie in a creative fish dish.
Over at Fat Mao in Chinatown the fun starts before you walk in the door. "I love a place where you can look through the window and see people cooking. Instantly brings me back to being a kid," he recalls. The noodle shop specializes in steaming bowls of soup noodles, ladled out of large pots you can see bubbling away on the stove amidst the steam.
A beefy bowl of laksa from Fat Mao provides Catucci with precisely what he needs to combat Vancouver's gets-in-your-bones cold and damp.
Then at Burdock & Co., Catucci gets to enjoy the award-winning fare of chef-owner Andrea Carlson, considered one of the pioneers of the west coast's farm-to-table movement.
"One of the things I love about the new series is we are searching out restaurants that do farm-to-table," elaborates Catucci, hailing Carlson for her long-standing connection to the region's farmers and producers.

 Beef Laksa at Fat Mao. Photo by Nick Coffin.Beef Laksa at Fat Mao. Photo by Nick Coffin.

"When you have that close of a connection with who is making your food, that imparts itself into the final dish." Catucci feels the love on the show in Burdock's beloved fried chicken, and a pappardelle with pork and fennel ragu that made him break his own loosely-kept rules about not eating the whole thing.
Here's how it goes down, according to Catucci: "I'll take a couple of bites, know what I want to say about it, and then...I'll fucking eat the whole thing. I'll put my elbows up, I'll growl, and even when the crew reminds me I've said I'm not going to eat the whole thing, I'll just say 'SHUT UP! I need this!'" he booms. "You need this!"
Cut to me on the other side of the phone, nodding and smiling (he had promised me an f-bomb before we got started, so I'm now a career two-for-two with Catucci interview f-bombs). But I'm also nodding and smiling because I've been there - that moment when you just want to eat it all, it's that good.
Food memories are powerful, and Catucci definitely carries several with him, and understands the emotional resonance eating can carry with it, that "emotional tinge," he describes.
"Food is an emotional experience in general when you're eating. You're feeding your soul as well as feeding your body," says Catucci. A good tomato sauce will remind him of his dad's tomato sauce, for example, or he'll think about his dad taking him to Toronto's Little Italy when he was a boy to get a panzerotto. In turn, Catucci has taken his daughters to many of the same spots, so that moment has been replayed over a couple of generations now.
Comfort food, which is to some extent at the core of Big Food Bucket List, is "reminding you of something from when you were a child," says Catucci. "It's a hug from the inside. It always comes back to that."
Cue the awwws. But don't get too carried away. Catucci still brings his comedian's POV to the table, even if it's just expressed in the shared laughter of friends sitting down together to have a meal. What he won't be bringing to the TV this time around are all the plaid shirts ("the plaid is there, but there is the occasional solid, a few checkered," he says, laughing) and his personal fork in the pocket, and a catchphrase - you're just going to want to take his word for it and put all these dishes on your own "big food bucket list."
Big Food Bucket List premiers on May 24 at 9 and 9:30 p.m. on Food Network Canada and airs Friday nights.