Chef Graham Elliot on the New PBS Home Cooking Competition Show 'The Great American Recipe'
May 23, 2022
What is The Great American Recipe? It’s a culinary creation rich with tradition, heritage, and memory that someone from Mississippi or Oregon or New Mexico makes for a celebration, or just to express their love for family and friends. It’s also a new cooking competition show on WTTW that will search for that outstanding recipe, giving home cooks from across the country the chance to showcase their talents and background on a plate before a panel of judges. One judge is chef Graham Elliot, who led creative restaurants in Chicago for years and has appeared on numerous cooking shows such as MasterChef and Top Chef. He's joined by the Texas-based chef, television personality, and advocate Tiffany Derry and the Filipino and Romanian-Jewish chef and owner of Pig & Khao restaurant in New York City Leah Cohen. TODAY show contributor, chef, and food writer Alejandra Ramos hosts.
WTTW spoke to Elliot about the show and his excitement about working with home cooks and sampling their recipes.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why did you want to be a part of The Great American Recipe?
I always loved the idea that we were going to focus on the food and the story, as opposed to, “You have twenty minutes to cook with a hand behind your back, and use a dull knife.” And—not that everyone wins—but no one’s looking bad. There’s one blue ribbon at the end, but you’re not playing for a million dollars. Nobody’s going to turn your oven off to do whatever it takes to win.
Not to be too preachy, but with the state of the country being so divisive, to be able to show your ethnic background and whatever part of the country you’re representing, I really thought that was a 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 best with whatever they have. Regardless if you’re of meager means in the South or you’re a second-generation Vietnamese American, I feel that the more people know, the more open they are to the entire culture, not just that dish.
You have more typically worked with professional chefs. What’s the difference working with these home cooks from so many different backgrounds?
It was eye-opening for me to not see professionals who nowadays live on Instagram and just plate food that looks like it came from Noma, regardless of if you’re in Omaha or Atlanta. This is more authentic, from the soul: “This is my grandma’s recipe, this is what I love to make for my kids.”
You’re not dealing with tweezers and paintbrushes and things like that. And nobody that was on the show was there because they wanted to be the bad guy, or the fun one, where they’re playing characters. And none of them are hoping to open their restaurant tomorrow and using this as a platform to jump off. We literally had like a 65-year-old grandma making great food.
And I think that that’s why The Great British Baking Show connected with so many people. The viewership is “everyday American,” and they relate to that. I feel that that’s a great direction for food shows to go.
Did you learn anything from getting to experience more regional, home-based food and hear the stories behind dishes?
Absolutely. I didn’t really know that Rhode Island and Providence had such a rooted Italian population, and seeing food coming from a firefighter that he just cooks for his family, and this is his mom’s pasta recipe. Or you get rid of borders and you realize that California, New Mexico, Arizona: that was Mexico, like 150 years ago. And then we come over and take that, and it doesn’t change the food all of a sudden. I feel that, even if you were just a passive watcher seeing this show, you would walk away like, “Damn, I didn’t know America was really so cool.”
I think some PBS viewers are going to be seeing dishes that they’ve never been exposed to. And they might say, “I want to try to 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 that, what the ingredients are, the geography, the history—that is so much more rewarding than, “I got 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 instance, if you keep kosher, you won’t eat shellfish, but then someone else is going to pay $100 for a lobster. You can’t judge.
Why showcase home cooks and their stories?
I feel that when you cook in a restaurant, you’re pleasing the guest and you’re also being that ego-driven artist. A lot of people just want a giant-ass Caesar salad with croutons, but no, I gotta 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’re at home, you’re just having a great time with friends or family and making tasty food. If you go to a friend’s house and they’re grilling in back and it’s family-style steaks and charred veggie, that’s way more tasty and fun. I think that’s what’s cool: understanding why people cook and what they do.