America has perfected the stressful TV cooking competition, pitting amateur or professional chefs against each other in such high-pressure, scream-filled shows as “Chopped,” “Cutthroat Kitchen” or “Top Chef.”
PBS hopes to change that with an original food competition show, “The Great American Recipe,” which dispenses with the angst and scary knife graphics. It’s more “The Great British Baking Show” than “Hell’s Kitchen.”
Gentle and supportive, the show gathers 10 home cooks from around the country and gives them the opportunity to showcase their signature dishes. The eight-episode series premiered June 24, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video app. Locally, it airs Fridays at 10:30 p.m.
“Yes, they were competing, but they really were just there to be their best selves and tell each other stories through their food,” the show’s host, Alejandra Ramos, a chef and writer who contributes to the “Today” show. Said.
The contestants include a hotel receptionist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who makes a soul-satisfying linguini; a firefighter from Providence, who makes a meaty Chicken Sicilian; and a small business owner from New York, an expert on cod fritters, or bacalaitos.
Sylvia Bugg, chief programming executive and general manager for general audience programming for PBS, said it’s the stories behind the food that make the show compelling.
“Hopefully people can see themselves reflected in the stories through ‘The Great American Recipe’ that they may not have otherwise seen,” she said. “It’s nice competition, it’s great characters, great story. You get that emotion, which I think is just the recipe for success, and we’re pretty excited about it.”
The home chefs are tasked with creating two dishes for each show’s two rounds, which are judged on taste, presentation, execution, and how it highlights the theme — things such as a meal in a pinch, a crowd pleaser, or a special occasion meal. The judges are Leah Cohen, Tiffany Derry, and Graham Elliot.
“The dishes were delicious and incredible. We loved eating them. But listening to the stories was honestly the most satisfying part of being on the show,” Ramos said.
The dishes that are presented offer a lovely rainbow of flavors, from chicken tostadas and Zuppa Toscana to a potato-crusted quiche, pineapple fried rice and shakshouka, a Mediterranean version of huevos rancheros. Many recipes have been handed down to the contestants from family but added to and played with, the melting pot of America.
“American food is not just one thing. I think it can often be dismissed as like, ‘Oh, it’s burgers or it’s pizza.’ Whereas everything else gets its own separate identity,” Ramos said.
“But the reality is that this country is an amalgamation of cultures and stories and regional differences and ingredients and climates and all of those things combined — that’s what American food is. It’s not just one thing. This is really about celebrating that diversity.”
There is a comradery among the contestants, who will offer to help others when they finish early or taste another’s dish for advice. In one sweet scene, a woman of Italian heritage admits she’s anxious about pivoting to make lime shrimp tacos.
“Am I nervous that I’m doing Mexican in an elimination round when I am Italian? Yes, I am. But I don’t really have a lane to stay in,” she said. And that’s sort of the show’s motto: The only lane is good-tasting food.
“I think that’s the beauty of the show — it’s not just about putting people into boxes, but it’s really empowering them to tell the breadth of their story and all the different stops and starts and turns that path takes,” Ramos said.
One of the sweetest challenges on the show was when contestants are asked to illustrate how they show love through food. One man made a dish he made for his wife, another cooked something their mom made them when they were sick, and a third offered something they whipped up for a friend who was broken-hearted.
Finale to feature full meal
The series — filmed in a barn in southern Virginia — culminates in a finale in which the remaining home cooks prepare an entire meal for the judges. One of the winner’s dishes will grace the cover of a companion book, “The Great American Recipe Cookbook,” which will also feature recipes from all of the contestants and the show’s host and judges.
The home cooks range in age from late 20s to 60s and also include a sport operations specialist from Minneapolis; a small business owner from Boise Idaho, with two boys; and a digital content creator from San Luis Obispo, California, who makes a mean choriqueso. It is clear they are the rock star food people of their circles.
And the bonds between them grow to the point that survivor’s guilt sets in. “Anytime there was an elimination, it was like almost everyone else was more sad about the elimination than the actual person that was going home,” Ramos said.
Dan Rinaldi, a firefighter in Providence, leaned on his state’s fresh seafood for this dish. He said battered squid tossed with hot cherry peppers is a great representation of where he lives and of his Italian roots. He said his family has been making this recipe for generations.
RHODE ISLAND-STYLE FRIED CALAMARI
3 pounds large squid, cleaned, tubes sliced into 1-inch pieces and tentacles left whole
Vegetable oil, for deep frying
2 tablespoons salted butter
1 (16-ounce) jar sliced banana peppers, drained
1 (16-ounce) jar sliced hot cherry peppers, drained and 1½ tablespoons juice reserved
¼ teaspoon garlic powder
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
3 cups all-purpose batter mix, such as Fis-Chic
Chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish
3 lemons, cut into wedges (see note)
1 (1-pound) package mesclun mix
In a large bowl, soak the squid in the buttermilk for 20 minutes.
Pour the vegetable oil into a deep fryer or large, heavy-bottomed pot and heat to 375 degrees.
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil and butter in a large skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and cook until just browned, then add the banana peppers, cherry peppers, reserved pepper juice, and garlic powder and cook just until heated through. Set aside.
Put the batter mix in a large bowl. Drain the squid and coat it in the batter mix.
Working in batches as necessary, add the squid to the hot oil and fry for 3 minutes, seasoning with the black pepper while it fries.
Transfer the calamari to paper towels, season with the salt, and let drain for 1 minute, then transfer to a large bowl. When all the calamari is done, quickly toss with the pepper mixture.
Pour the calamari and peppers onto a platter, sprinkle with parsley, and serve with lemon wedges and mesclun mix.
Note: Instead of cutting the lemon into wedges, you can make 45-degree cuts all around each lemon to cut it in half, then dip the lemon halves into the parsley.