By Mark Kennedy
AP Entertainment Editor
NEW YORK (AP) — America has perfected the stressful televised cooking competition, pitting amateur or professional chefs against each other in high-pressure, shoutout-filled shows like “Chopped,” “Cutthroat Kitchen” or “Top Chef.”
PBS hopes to change that with an original food contest show, “The Great American Recipe” which dispenses with angst and scary knife graphics. It’s more “The Great British Baking Show” than “Hell’s Kitchen”.
Sweet and supportive, the show brings together 10 home cooks from across the country and gives them the opportunity to showcase their signature dishes. The eight-episode series will premiere Friday on PBS, PBS.org and the PBS Video app.
“Yes, they were in competition, but they were really there to give their best and tell stories through their food,” says show host Alejandra Ramos, a chef and contributing writer. on the “Today” show.
Contestants include a hotel receptionist from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who whips up soul-satisfying linguini; a firefighter from Providence, Rhode Island, cooking a meaty Sicilian-style chicken; and a small business owner from New York who is an expert in cod fritters, or bacalaitos.
Sylvia Bugg, programming director and general manager of mainstream programming for PBS, says it’s the stories behind the food that make the show compelling.
“I hope people can see themselves reflected in the stories through ‘The Great American Recipe’ that they might not have seen otherwise,” she says. “It’s a great competition, it’s great characters, great story. You get that emotion, which I think is just the recipe for success, and we’re very excited about it.
Home chefs are tasked with creating two dishes for the two rounds of each show, which are judged on taste, presentation, execution and how it showcases the theme – things like a meal in a pinch , a crowd pleaser or a meal for a special occasion. The judges are Leah Cohen, Tiffany Derry and Graham Elliot.
“The dishes were delicious and amazing. We loved eating them. But listening to the stories was honestly the most satisfying part of the show,” Ramos says.
Dishes featured offer a beautiful rainbow of flavors, from chicken tostadas and Zuppa Toscana to potato-crusted quiche, pineapple fried rice and shakshouka, a Mediterranean version of huevos rancheros . Many recipes were passed down to family candidates, but added to and played with, America’s melting pot.
“American cuisine is not just one thing. I think it can often be dismissed as, ‘Oh, it’s burgers or it’s pizza.’ While everything else has its own identity,” says Ramos.
“But the reality is that this country is an amalgamation of cultures and histories and regional differences and ingredients and climates and all of those things combined – that’s what American food is. It’s not one thing, it’s really about celebrating that diversity.
There is a camaraderie among the contestants, who will offer to help others when they finish early or taste another’s dish for advice. In a sweet scene, an Italian-born woman admits she can’t wait to spin to make lime shrimp tacos.
“Am I nervous about facing the Mexican in a knockout round when I’m Italian? Yes. But I don’t really have a lane to stay in,” she says. And that’s sort of the show’s motto: the only way is through tasty food.
“I think that’s the beauty of the show – it’s not just about putting people in boxes, but it really allows them to tell the breadth of their story and all the different stops and starts and turns that take this path,” Ramos said.
One of the show’s greatest challenges was asking the contestants to illustrate how they show love through food. One man made a dish he made for his wife, another cooked something their mother had made for them when they were sick, and a third offered something they made for a friend who had the Broken Heart.
The series – filmed in a barn in southern Virginia – ends with a finale in which the remaining home cooks prepare a full meal for the judges. One of the winner’s dishes will grace the cover of an accompanying book, “The Great American Recipe Cookbook,” which will also feature recipes from all contestants and the show’s host and judges.
The home cooks range in age from 20 to 60 and also include a sports operations specialist from Minneapolis; a small business owner from Boise Idaho, with two boys; and a digital content creator from San Luis Obispo, Calif., who does nasty choriqueso. It’s clear that they are the rock stars around them.
And the bonds between them grow to the point where survivor’s guilt sets in. “Every time there was an elimination, it felt like almost everyone was sadder about the elimination than the person going home,” Ramos explains.
Marc Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits