Chef Tiffany Derry was in the middle of her shift when a talent scout from Top Chef called to speak with her. At first, she thought it was a joke. “What are the odds? Me, a small town girl coming from Beaumont, TX.” The production company was holding tryouts in Dallas. They asked if she would come in and talk with them. “And I said, ‘no.’ I wasn’t interested in drama and I don’t enjoy living with people,” she said. Top Chef countered with, “You have the opportunity to win $125,000.” Derry replied, “What time should I be there?”
Derry came in fifth place during the Washington, DC season that aired in 2010 before she returned for an All-Stars Top Chef season. For the new PBS competition show The Great American Recipe, Derry has long since graduated from her role as a contestant. She’s one of three judges—alongside Leah Cohen, Graham Elliot and host Alejandra Ramos—tasting the dishes of 10 American home cooks. The competition differs from Top Chef, and other reality TV programs like Chopped and Iron Chef, because there’s no cash prize. Contestants are cooking their own recipes, or ones that have been passed down from their family.
Philosophically, the show is more aligned with The Great British Bake Off (GBBO). These home chefs are proud to be cooking recipes from their family’s unique and varied heritages. The cast makes recipes that represent the diversity and multiculturalism of contemporary America. Visually, American Recipe looks like GBBO too. It’s set in and around a bucolic barn. At the beginning of the episode, the camera circles the countryside before it zeroes in on the contestants as they amble across a grassy knoll towards a well-stocked kitchen.
But Derry, who spoke with me via Zoom, said that the producers aren’t making a carbon copy of GBBO. “They gave us room to find ourselves, which is very different,” she said. “I do a lot of competition shows, and I’ve never done one where everyone was kind and loving.” The chef also explained that when she was judging the dishes, she wanted to take a more caring approach.
“You can be two different types of judges,” Derry said. “You can be the Tom Colicchios of the world, who will tell you 100% they are correct in what they’re saying, and they do it with a stern fist.” Then, she adds, “There are those of us, especially women chefs who have learned how to navigate the water, to pull out [from a contestant] what you have that I see the potential for.” As a competitor, Derry didn’t like it when she didn’t understand what a judge didn’t like or suggest how she could have prepared the dish differently. She judges with, “a more gentle fist. I want to make sure that I’m building you up.”
In one significant way, The Great American Recipe differs from The Great British Bake Off. The British show is queer-friendly to the max. The entire production embraces camp humor and quirky personalities. I can’t remember a season that didn’t include gay and lesbian hosts or bakers. In stark contrast, American Recipe is squarely hetero. When the cooks are introduced in the first episode, the producers make sure the audience sees smiling photos of husbands and wives, children and grandchildren. It looks and feels like a deliberate compromise; this is some producer’s vision of a straight-laced Middle America where queer people don’t exist. While the show does prominently feature Asian, Latin, Middle Eastern and African Americans, after you’ve watched a dozen seasons of GBBO, the tone of American Recipe’s first season feels tentative in comparison.
Derry graciously agreed to pass my critical note on to the show’s producers. If the program is renewed for a second season, I’ll tune in again next year to see if any of America’s queer recipes make the final cut.
The Great American Recipe airs Friday nights this summer on your local PBS station.