His Irvine home is clean and nearly quiet with just the soothing sounds of Miles Davis blowing a cerebral trumpet solo in the background. His wife is at work and there’s no sign of his 6- and 8-year-old daughters except for two tiny spots of some red, sweet and sticky treat left behind by tiny fingers on the big wooden dining room table and a couple plastic tumblers .
He’s making a soup and salad lunch of grilled Spam bánh mì and creamy, vichyssoise-style cauliflower soup. Sure it’s a homey scene, but Foo Nguyen is no ordinary dad.
In a matter of days his face could be seen by millions of viewers as they watch him compete on the very first season of “The Great American Recipe,” a new eight-part competition series that celebrates the multiculturalism of American cuisine. The program will receive its premiere at 9 pm Friday, June 24 and run through Aug. 12 on PBS stations.
In a format similar to “The Great British Baking Show,” 10 talented home cooks will present dishes informed by their backgrounds: Syrian, Hungarian, Mexican, Italian, Puerto Rican, Southern soul food and Filipino. In each episode, hosted by chef, writer and “Today” show contributor Alejandra Ramos, contestants will prepare two signature dishes they hope will win the national search for “The Great American Recipe.”
Judges include chef-restaurateurs and Top Chef contestants Leah Cohen and Tiffany Derry as well as Graham Elliot, judge of the “MasterChef” and “MasterChef Junior” series, and founder of a self-named bistro in Chicago which was awarded two Michelin stars in 2008.
Born in Nha Trang, in southeastern Vietnam, Nguyen, 49, will show off his family’s favorite recipes. He came to the US at 3, after the fall of Saigon, and grew up in Ohio, where his mother cooked her native cuisine, and his father insisted their eight children speak Vietnamese at home.
Although Nguyen didn’t have a TV growing up, and restricts his kids’ viewing to weekends only, he’s got a hidden talent for showbiz: He’s an aspiring comic. We had to speak with him to get his take on the new show and why he was proud to compete. We’ve only seen the first episode without the elimination scene – so we promise, no spoilers!
Q. So you grew up in Ohio. What was that like?
AND. There was only one other Asian family that 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 separation is about, you’re just absorbing things. So, I lived there till I was about 22 years old. I knew that I had racist experiences, but it’s not like I was oppressed in any way, shape or form.
Q. Everyone says Irvine is a great place to raise kids, with good schools. How do you like it?
AND. Because I grew up in the Midwest I was never exposed to cultural diversity. It’s predominantly White. So I still have an awareness of, “Wow! There’s a lot of Asian folks here. ” I embrace it. It’s wonderful!
Q. What does your wife do?
AND. She works for a gaming company.
Q. Do you have a day job?
AND. I’m a husband, a dad and a comic.
Q. How did you get into comedy?
AND. I moved to Chicago and I studied with The Second City and then I met my wife – she’s Korean – in a national comedy company. It’s an all-Asian company called Stir Friday Night. So we toured and performed.
Q. That’s hilarious. She does comedy too?
AND. Yes, she dabbles in it. She’s more of an actress.
AND. Oh my gosh. It’s a tear-jerker for me because she is 85 and she has dementia. And that was really something: her love for cooking, that she fed her family with no money, and then a lot of the dishes were so labor intensive.
Q. Sounds challenging.
AND. She was feeding nine people. So she’s going to the butcher and the markets – I went with her – and hand selecting each ingredient. Mind you, we’re in the Midwest. So a lot of those ingredients, she can’t find them. She had to try to find ways to replicate those flavors. And she didn’t speak English very well. The labor that she put into those dishes, that’s why I cook. That’s why my mom is so influential in my passion for cooking.
Q. How does your cooking fit with comedy?
AND. I’m writing a show. And I don’t know if I’m making it a stand-up show or a one-man loosely scripted show, based on my improv background. But the opening line is, “Did you eat?”
Q. That’s a Vietnamese greeting, right?
AND. It’s “I love you.” It’s “I need to talk to you.” It’s “How was your day?” It’s “Did you eat?”
Q. It’s like “aloha,” which means different things, right?
AND. Yes. So when I call my mom and dad, that’s what we say.
Q. That’s beautiful. I have to ask, as most folks in So Cal know, Vietnamese food is delicious – so, what were its advantages in the competition?
AND. Vietnamese food is herbaceous and full of flavor. It’s healthy. It’s light. It’s aromatic. And it’s soulful.
AND. 100%. That took away a lot of anxiety and stress and allowed all the contestants to befriend each other, let their guards down. I had a great time with them and I learned a lot from them as well.
Q. We wish you luck, even though we know all the episodes are already on tape. So, what’s next for you?
AND. I want to do that one-hour show next year about food and my experience, my upbringing, my relationship to food. And my wife and I are putting together a meal planning company called Comfort Foo Dee under my Comfort Foo Dee brand, like my YouTube channel. If I could do my mom and my sisters’ cooking justice, it’s a little taste of foods with a Vietnamese influence, but from where I’ve lived: Ohio, the Midwest, Chicago, California and all. And that’s something that we’re really excited about.
‘The Great American Recipe’
Watch: The new eight-part competition series starts at 9 pm Friday, June 24 and runs through Aug. 12 on PBS television.