The great American recipe will premiere Friday, June 24 at 8 p.m. on WTTW and will be available to stream. Sample some signature recipes and stories from Chicagoans and submit your own recipe.
What’s The great American recipe? It is a culinary creation rich in tradition, heritage and memory that someone from Mississippi or Oregon or New Mexico makes for a celebration, or simply to express their love for family and friends. It’s also a new cooking competition show on WTTW looking for that excellent recipe, giving home cooks from across the country an opportunity to showcase their talents and background on a plate in front of a jury. One judge is Chef Graham Elliot, who for years ran creative restaurants in Chicago and appeared on numerous cooking shows such as: Chef and top chef† He is joined by Texas-based chef, television personality and advocate Tiffany Derry and Filipino and Romanian Jewish chef and owner of the Pig & Khao restaurant in New York City, Leah Cohen. TODAY show host, chef and food writer Alejandra Ramos hosts.
WTTW spoke to Elliot about the show and his enthusiasm for working with home cooks and sampling their recipes.
This interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
Why did you want to be part of The great American recipe†
I always liked the idea that we would focus on the food and the story, rather than, “You have twenty minutes to cook with one hand on your back and using a dull knife.” And – not that everyone wins – but nobody looks bad. There’s a blue ribbon at the end, but you’re not playing for a million dollars. No one will turn off your furnace to do whatever it takes to win.
Not to be too preachy, but because the state of the country is so divisive, to be able to show your ethnic background and whatever part of the country you represent, I thought that was a really positive message. We all kind of universally come together around food.
Why is it important to celebrate the stories and backgrounds behind food?
Because people do the best with what they have. Regardless of whether you’re in the low-resource South or a second-generation Vietnamese American, I feel like the more people know, the more open they are to the whole culture, not just that dish.
You have worked with professional chefs before. What’s the difference in working with these home cooks from so many different backgrounds?
It was an eye opener for me to see no professionals who live on Instagram these days and only put food on the table that looks like it came from Noma, whether you’re in Omaha or Atlanta. This is more authentic, from the soul: “This is my grandmother’s recipe, this is what I like to make for my children.”
You don’t have to deal with tweezers and brushes and stuff like that. And no one who was on the show was there because they wanted to be the bad guy, or the fun one, where they play characters. And none of them hope to open their restaurant tomorrow and use it as a platform to jump off it. We literally had a 65 year old grandma making delicious food.
And I think that’s the reason The Great British Baking Show connected with so many people. The viewership is “everyday American” and they relate to that. I think that’s a good direction for food shows.
Have you learned anything by experiencing more regional, home-cooked food and hearing the stories behind dishes?
Absolute. I didn’t really know that Rhode Island and Providence had such ingrained Italian populations, seeing food coming from a firefighter that he just cooks for his family, and this is his mom’s pasta recipe. Or you drop borders and you realize that California, New Mexico, Arizona: that was Mexico, about 150 years ago. And then we come over and take that, and it doesn’t change the food all of a sudden. I have a feeling that even if you were just a passive viewer seeing this show, you’d walk away from, “Damn, I didn’t know America was really that cool.”
I think some PBS viewers will see dishes they’ve never been exposed to. And they might say, “I want to try and make that,” or “I’d like to go to a restaurant somewhere and have it.” That’s the most exciting thing for me because as I get older it’s teaching, inspiring, showing where the food comes from, why they make it, what the ingredients are, the geography, the history – that’s so much more rewarding worth then, “I have a Michelin star and I’m on this other show.”
Food should be that thing that introduces you to the who, what and why. For example, if you keep kosher, you won’t eat shellfish, but then someone else is going to pay $100 for a lobster. You cannot judge.
Why show home cooks and their stories?
I feel like when you cook in a restaurant you’re doing the guest a favor and you’re also that ego driven artist. A lot of people just want a giant Caesar salad with croutons, but no, I have to make it all about the brioche Twinkie. [One of Elliot’s signature dishes in Chicago was a deconstructed Caesar salad that included giant “croutons” of cream-filled brioche bread.]
When you are at home, you just have a great time with friends or family and make good food. If you go to a friend’s house and they grill in the back and it’s family style steaks and charred veggies, that’s a lot tastier and more fun. I think that’s cool: understanding why people cook and what they do.