His home in Irvine is clean and almost silent with only the soothing sounds of Miles Davis blasting a cerebral trumpet solo in the background. His wife is at work and there is no trace of his 6- and 8-year-old daughters except for two small spots of a red, sweet and sticky treat left by little fingers on the large wooden dining table and a few plastic cups.
He makes a soup and salad lunch of grilled Spam bánh mì and creamy Vichyssoise-style cauliflower soup. Sure, it’s a domestic scene, but Foo Nguyen is no ordinary dad.
Within days, his face could be seen by millions of viewers as they watch him compete in the very first season of “The Great American Recipe,” a new eight-part competition series that celebrates the multiculturalism of American cuisine. The program premieres Friday, June 24 at 9 p.m. and runs through August 12 on PBS stations.
In a format similar to “The Great British Baking Show,” 10 talented home chefs present dishes based on their backgrounds: Syrian, Hungarian, Mexican, Italian, Puerto Rican, Southern Soul food and Filipino. In each episode, hosted by Chef, Writer, and Host Alejandra Ramos, contestants will prepare two signature dishes that they hope will win the national search for “The Great American Recipe.”
Judges include chef restaurants and “Top Chef” contestants Leah Cohen and Tiffany Derry as well as Graham Elliot, a judge on the “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior” series, and founder of a self-proclaimed Chicago bistro, which was awarded two Michelin stars in 2008.
Born in Nha Trang, southeastern Vietnam, Nguyen, 49, will show off his family’s favorite recipes. He came to the US at the age of three, after the fall of Saigon, and grew up in Ohio, where his mother cooked her native cuisine, and his father insisted that their eight children speak Vietnamese at home.
Although Nguyen didn’t have a TV growing up, and his kids only watch TV on weekends, he has a hidden talent for showbiz: he’s a budding comic book artist. We had to talk to him to get his thoughts on the new show and why he was proud to be on it. We only saw the first episode without the elimination scene – so we promise, no spoilers!
Q. So you grew up in Ohio. How was that?
A. There was only one other Asian family we went to school with. It was a Filipino family and we became good friends by default. … When you’re young, you don’t know what racism and divorce is, you just take things in. So I lived there until I was about 22 years old. I knew I had racist experiences, but it’s not like I was oppressed in any way.
Q. Everyone says Irvine is a great place to raise children, with good schools. What Do You Think?
A. Growing up in the Midwest, I was never exposed to cultural diversity. It is predominantly white. So I still have a sense of, “Wow! There are a lot of Asian people here.” I embrace it, it’s fantastic!
Q. What does your wife do?
A. She works for a game company.
Q. Do you have a day job?
A. I am a husband, a father and a cartoonist.
Q. How did you get into comedy?
A. I moved to Chicago and studied with The Second City and then I met my wife — she’s Korean — in a national comedy troupe. It is an all Asian company called Stir Friday Night. So we toured and performed.
Q. That’s hilarious. Does she do comedy too?
A. Yes, she loves it. She’s more of an actress.
A. Oh my God. It’s a tearjerker for me because she’s 85 and has dementia. And that was really something: her love for cooking, that she fed her family without money, and then many of the dishes were so labor-intensive.
Q. Sounds challenging.
A. She fed nine people. So she goes to the butcher and the markets – I went with her – and selects each ingredient by hand. Mind you, we are in the Midwest. So she can’t find many of those ingredients. She had to find ways to replicate those flavors. And she didn’t speak English very well. The labor she puts into those dishes is why I cook. That’s why my mom is so influential in my passion for cooking.
Q. How does your cooking fit into comedy?
A. I’m writing a show. And I don’t know if I’m going to make it a stand-up show or a loosely scripted one-man show, based on my improv background. But the opening line is, “Have you eaten?”
Q. That’s a Vietnamese greeting, isn’t it?
A. It’s “I love you.” It’s “I need to talk to you.” It’s “How was your day?” It’s “Have you eaten?”
Q. It’s like ‘aloha’, which means different things, right?
A. Yes. So when I call my mom and dad, we say so.
Q. That’s nice. I have to ask, as most people in So Cal know, Vietnamese food is delicious – so what were the advantages in the competition?
A. Vietnamese food is herbaceous and full of flavour. It is healthy. It is light. It’s aromatic. And it is soulful.
A. 100%. That took away a lot of anxiety and stress and allowed all participants to befriend each other, let their guard down. I had a great time with them and learned a lot from them too.
Q. We wish you the best of luck, even though we know all episodes are already on tape. So, what’s next for you?
A. I want to do that one hour show next year about food and my experience, my upbringing, my relationship with food. And my wife and I set up a meal planning company called Comfort Foo Dee under my brand Comfort Foo Dee, like my YouTube channel. If I could do justice to my mom and sisters’ cooking, it’s kind of the taste of food with Vietnamese influence, but from where I’ve lived: Ohio, the Midwest, Chicago, California and all. And that’s something we’re really excited about.
‘The Great American Recipe’
Watch: The new eight-part competition series begins Friday, June 24 at 9 p.m. and runs through August 12 on PBS television.