Starting this Friday, June 24, ten talented home cooks will grace our screens and compete in PBS’s search for “The Great American Recipe.” Amongst those chosen to share their signature dishes with the world is Rhode Island’s very own Dan Rinaldi. We caught up with the Cranston firefighter by day and meal maker by night ahead of the premiere to learn a little more about his Italian cooking roots, his time on the show and his favorite Rhode Island eats.
Congrats on representing Rhode Island in the show! Did you grow up here?
I’m from Providence; I grew up in the city and now I live just one street over the city line in Cranston. So, I’m pretty much still in Providence. I grew up in a three decker right across the street from my grandmother’s three-decker. It was nice because my aunt was on the first floor, my uncle was around the corner and my other uncle lived three houses down in another three-decker. We grew up in three-decker-ville. There was always somebody from the family around. I could never screw up as a kid, obviously, because there were a million eyes watching me.
How did you get into cooking?
I grew up cooking with my grandmother, mom, aunts, pretty much everybody in my family.
The first thing I got my hands on, physically, was probably pasta. My aunts and everybody would come over on a Saturday and they would just make pastas. They would give me a piece when I was five or six years old just to keep me quiet, like ‘yea, you’re going to help us make the pasta for tomorrow.’ I’m sure it was tossed in the garbage after, because God only knows where my hands had been. But that’s pretty much my first recollection of hands-on cooking: making fresh pasta.
What other types of things did you and your family make?
My grandmother stuck right in her wheelhouse of making all the old school traditional Italian stuff. My mother also made all of that, but she would cook a steak every now and then, too. You would never see a steak at my grandmother’s.
Did you ever consider becoming a chef or going into the restaurant business?
I did go to Johnson and Wales on a field trip in high school during either junior or senior year and thought, ‘Oh, it might be kind of cool to go here.’ But then I took the fire department test when I was seventeen and next thing you know, I’m on the fire department. All that [Johnson and Wales consideration] went by the wayside and I was totally committed to the fire department at that point. But I still cooked at home.
Do you cook for the firehouse?
We take turns cooking at the firehouse because it’s so busy. You could never be the sole cook. So, you’ll have your week to cook. I usually make a meat sauce for the house – that’s a pretty consistent one. The recipe is passed down from my grandmother. You know how Sunday gravy is — it’s kind of like chili in Texas. Every firehouse is cooking it on any given day, and everyone has their own version of it.
What are some of your other go-to recipes and traditions from your grandmother?
During the wintertime, I’ll make her pasta and beans or a lentil soup. We actually couldn’t eat too much of the heavier pastas in her house because when my grandfather was in WWII, he was run over by a half-track. If it wasn’t for the rainy season in the South Pacific at that time, he would have been dead. He got squashed down into the mud, but he did end up losing 2/3 of his stomach and as a result he couldn’t eat heavy cheeses and things like that. So, I never had lasagnas and things of that nature for the most part growing up. My mother would make them sometimes, but not my grandmother. She would also do sausage and rabe sandwiches and that’s become a classic for us. In fact, I just made that yesterday because I had picked all the rabe from my garden. Talk about farm to table – just twenty feet! Oh, and then, of course, some sort of seafood on Fridays, regardless of whether it’s Lent or not
How did you first hear about the show? Did you have to submit a recipe?
That’s the million-dollar question that I don’t even have the answer to. I received an email one day for a cooking show and I thought it was a firefighter prank a little bit at first, to tell you the truth. Because those guys will go through an unlimited amount of energy to pull off a prank. But then I start going through it and I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is real.’ Next thing you know, I’m going through this whole selection process: submitting recipes, doing interviews, things of that nature. Then, finally, I’m one of the ten. Still, to this day, I have no idea how that email ended up in my inbox. I don’t have any social media. No Facebook, Twitter…. Nothing. But all the other contestants are on social media and were easy to find. I don’t know how they found me.
Maybe you have a secret nominator!
I was wondering that myself. I was curious about that, trying to think who could have done this. But if someone did, no one’s owned up to it!
Did you grow up watching cooking shows?
I did! I first started watching them when they did a lot of teaching on the Food Network. Emeril’s show was really good. But the one person I’m dying to meet at some point, I don’t care if I have to go to his restaurant in Cleveland, is Michael Symon. I remember first seeing him – this is going back, maybe twenty-five years – on Wayne Harley Brachman’s show. I was like this guy’s laugh is infectious, just funny as can be. Then during the pandemic, he was doing something online… My wife knows the whole social media thing, and she pulled up these videos of him doing cooking stuff in his house every single day. That was fun to follow along.
Did you feel a bit more prepared for your turn on “the Great American Recipe” having watched these shows?
I wouldn’t say I was more prepared than any of the other people there because cooking is their profession, or at least a big thing they do. But I was prepared for the long days. I felt as though being a firefighter in a busy firehouse gave me a little bit of an edge when it came to mental fatigue. Because most people aren’t used to being up twenty-four hours straight or running around like crazy. Some filming days were sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hours long, and then you’re up early the next morning for more. I was like, ‘Alright, that’s right in my wheelhouse. I can still function when it comes to that. ‘ I would say that was one of the things that maybe offset it a little, when other people may have had more experience in cooking in the kitchens.
How does this show work?
Each round you were given a task like, ‘cook your favorite meal for your spouse’ or something like that. Then you would have a limited amount of time to cook and put it together and then the judges would taste and judge it.
Can you tell us about any fun behind-the-scenes stuff?
I don’t know what will make it on the air, but we had a lot of funny moments, that’s for sure. Truthfully, when the cameras are rolling, you don’t even know what’s going on with everyone else. The setup is different stations lined up one behind each other – so it’s like two side by side and then five of those in a row. I was at the first one, so I couldn’t see anything else going on – everything was behind me. And then you’re so focused on what you’re doing because the time goes by lightning fast.
It’s a different kind of stress. It’s a little different than crawling down a smoke-filled three-decker! But it was good, we had fun.
Did you get to try the others’ recipes?
Everything was so fast paced. Especially that first round. As soon as we finished, we pretty much had to pack up and go because the team had to get it all cleaned up and reset for the next round. So, we really didn’t get a chance to taste a lot of the stuff. Which was unfortunate, especially when everyone is so good! They’re all there for a reason. They can all cook and they’re extremely knowledgeable.
Did you become close with any of the other contestants?
Oh, definitely. We filmed last year and were there during COVID and were pretty much in lock down. After filming, we really could only go to our rooms or go to the restaurant in the hotel complex. We were allowed to eat together because we were tested every single day. I didn’t realize what a big deal this show was till I got there. There were more than 200 people on the staff. If I got COVID at that time, it would shut down the whole production. I don’t know anything about TV or productions, but I know it wasn’t cheap to be shutting down for a few days. They were trying to keep everyone very safe by keeping us in a bubble like that. So, we had dinner every night and really got to know one another. That’s one thing I can say about the other nine people: they are good, decent people. We still stay in touch. All ten of us are in a text thread and we talk every single day. One of them, Nikki [Tomiano-Allemand], is coming to visit in a couple months – her son is going to look at PC for lacrosse. And then Foo [Nguyen] and I, we go back and forth all the time and just bust each other up because he’s a professional comedian.
Did you pick up anything new?
I’m going to try a Korean chicken that Tony [Scherber] made. He was in the station right behind me and I always was able to turn around and taste something that he was making. He’s really good. So, yea, I’m gonna try and make his Korean chicken. I wasn’t able to do too much cooking after the show because right after I got back, I had shoulder surgery. I had a torn rotator cuff the whole time I was on the show, but you would never know. So cooking was on the back burner for a couple months, but I’m back at it now.
I believe I saw you making a calamari dish in one of the previews… Was that a nod to your Rhody roots?
Of course, we’re the calamari capital of the country! I can’t talk too much about the different rounds, but it was part of one of those themed rounds, let’s put it that way. So, you can kind of piece it together!
What are some of your favorite Rhode Island foods?
I don’t even know where to begin with that! I love D Palmieri’s on Killingly Street. Best party pizza there is. I love Del’s Lemonade – I’m a Del’s guy. I have one at the top of my street. And I’m a big seafood guy, too. But one of my real favorites is Olneyville Wieners. I’m not an onion guy, though, so I don’t order it totally all the way, but extra mustard, extra sauce, extra celery salt. Oh my God, I love it. Greg does a great job over there.
It’s funny, when you do all this cooking stuff, people automatically assume that you’re a food snob. Especially in the firehouse, I’ll say when something absolutely sucks. And it’s not because I’m a food snob, it’s because it absolutely sucks and I can’t even tell it’s food! The firehouse is brutal, believe me. I get it just as bad as I give it. People ask me about the judges on the show and I’m like, ‘I’m judged by these clowns all the time, on the show they were professionals!’
Anything else we should know about you?
I’ve been on the fire department for a little bit of time, thirty-four years, but because people see me do all the cooking stuff and that’s what I’ll be known for. It’s funny because I also work for a different company and teach firefighters internationally. I’m going to go down to Austin to teach the Austin Fire Department soon about elevator rescue. So, it’s like, I do all this national and international fire service training, but I’ll always be the cook. But I’ll take it! I just find it funny because in all these other places, the people don’t know I cook.
Well, now they will! Watch Dan Rinaldi show off his culinary skills on PBS’s “The Great American Recipe” Fridays at 9 pm