Home cooks are being put in the spotlight through the new PBS series “The Great American Recipe,” a nationwide search that has been conducted to find what makes American food unique and iconic. It has come down to 10 home cooks from different culinary regions across the country who will be competing head-to-head with their signature dishes.
Executive producer Jilly Pearce explains that the extensive casting call to find the competitors was complicated by the pandemic. That resulted in a lot of starts and stops for the project but they finally were able to get the eight-episode first season completed.
The opening episode can be seen at 9 p.m. June 24 on Valley Public Television.
“We had a massive group of contestants that we went through. We wanted for season one to show the full gamut of what America has to offer,” Pearce says. “So we looked at the recipes that they had, the collection of recipes that they would bring, what are their specialties, their heritage, their personality, which is a huge part of the show for us, and also where they fall in the country.”
The group participants will be judged by Leah Cohen, Tiffany Derry and Graham Elliot. Cohen, the chef and owner of New York City restaurant Pig & Khao, reflects her Filipino upbringing in her work. Derry is a Texas native who is the founder of Tiffany Derry Concepts and co-founder of T2D Concepts, the Texas-based purpose-driven hospitality group behind Roots Chicken Shak, Roots Southern Table and ‘Shef Tiffany spice and apparel line. Rounding out the judges table is Elliot who has traveled the world to feed his culinary hunger.
Each episode finds the contestants tasked with preparing two dishes based on that week’s theme. Each recipe will be judged on taste, presentation, execution and how well it showcases the theme. Because the participants ended up creating dishes that were so vastly different from each other, the producers had to come up with a system for the judges to compare what could literally be apples and oranges.
Pearce jokes that she seems to recall that there were a lot of variations on tacos.
“But what I would say about that is I have never seen so many types of tacos, and that was incredible,” Pearce says.
One contestant will be eliminated each week until the series finale, when the three final cooks will compete head-to-head for their dish to be named “The Great American Recipe.”
The competition actually required the participants to make some adaptations in their dishes. One of the big differences was in equipment. None of the professional chefs were accustomed to the high heat generated by stoves used by professionals.
There was also a matter of timing to consider. The tight framework for filming each episode meant the participants could not take their usual long hours to slow cook a dish. This meant many of the participants had to use a pressure cooker for the first time.
Pearce says, “Everybody has got to remember these folks aren’t chefs. They are home cooks. One of the aspects that was most nerve‑wracking and challenging to them was cooking in a competition environment.”
One of the winner’s dishes will be featured on the cover of The Great American Recipe Cookbook, which will also feature recipes from all of the contestants and the show’s host and judges. The cookbook will contain more than 100 recipes from the contestants, judges and host Alejandra Ramos.
The cookbook will be an extension of the TV series. Elliot expects that viewers will attempt to use what they see on the series to create their own dishes.
“I feel there was nothing technique wise that was so out of left field that no one’s going to be able to re‑create it at home if they wanted,” Elliot says. “Hopefully every viewer is going to see that with so many different cultures being represented, ingredients that they use and have in their pantry are probably different than what everybody has at home. So hopefully this will encourage them to go out and try some new things and experiment with those ingredients.
“I would say every dish, whether you’re a chef or not, especially if you have the recipe in front of you, you’ll be able to re‑create, and then hopefully as you understand the flavors more, you can almost get inspired and take it in your own direction from there as well.”
The bottom line – according to Pearce – is that “The Great American Recipe” is more than a show about cooking.
“This is a show that’s about love and family and connection. The recipes tell the story of who we are,” Pearce says. “That was sort of the main criteria that we were looking for when we were casting the show.
“I think it made it really special.”