When “The Great British Baking Show” mania hit the U.S., fans of television cooking competitions found themselves questioning everything they thought they knew about the genre.
Why did British audiences get a tent in the countryside, with quirky hosts, playful, plucky music and a cast from all walks of life that all seemed to get along swell, while American shows like “Top Chef” were all about high-drama backstabbing and smack-talking?
Leave it to PBS to fill the void.
The new show “The Great American Recipe,” which premieres June 24 at 8 p.m., appears to take a more genteel approach to the cooking contest. (It hasn’t even announced how much of a cash prize the winner gets. Just that they’ll have their dish featured on the cover of a cookbook.) Instead of a cutthroat, knives-out competition, “The Great American Recipe” brings together a multicultural and geographically diverse cast of home cooks for an “uplifting” and supportive showcase of dishes that represent their identities.
One of those contestants is Tony Scherber from St. Louis Park. Scherber was born in South Korea and adopted by an American family when he was a little over a year old. The 30-year-old social media manager loves to cook. (He even has a side job making hot chili oil, which he sells at the Mill City Farmers Market in downtown Minneapolis.) Many of his favorite recipes fuse his Korean heritage and the Midwestern tastes with which he was raised. Expect to see his signature gochujang chicken tacos (see recipe) on the show — and among the recipes in “The Great American Recipe” cookbook which will be out in August.
The Star Tribune spoke to Scherber ahead of the premiere about how he landed on television, where he likes to eat in the Twin Cities and what he hopes to convey to viewers about transcultural adoption.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Q: Start at the beginning: How did you find out about the show and why did you want to be on it?
A: I first found out about the opportunity through a friend of mine. He messaged me on social media, saying, hey, this seems like a really cool opportunity. And I thought, yeah, that seems like a really cool thing that they’re looking for people who love to cook. I thought, maybe I’ll just throw my name in the ring. And then literally a day later, I get a call from the producer saying, “Hey, you have a really unique story.”
Q: What was going through your head when you got cast on the show?
A: It was surreal. It was definitely an opportunity that I’d never really thought I would have. But I was very excited to be a part of the inaugural cast, and to share my story and resonate with other individuals who are Korean immigrants, Korean adoptees, Asians, Midwestern, representing Minneapolis and Minnesota.
Q: The clip I saw reminded me of “The Great British Baking Show.” It looks to be very pleasant, celebrating individuals and what they had to bring. How would you explain the show?
A: This show is celebrating multiculturalism. We’re all centered around one thing and that’s how food has been impacting our lives, and how it tells a story of creativity and passion. It’s very family-friendly, and there are a lot of feel-good moments. And the people who are part of the cast, we all have such similar yet also unique backgrounds. It’s what we are as America as a melting pot, as a culture.
Q: None of you are professional cooks, right?
A: No, we’re all just home cooks. Some of us have separate jobs that don’t even involve food. We have a barbecue sauce purveyor and we have someone who does home meal deliveries. And then there’s me who works in social media and a guy who’s a comedian. But we all have food very much in the center of our lives in some way.
Q: How big of a part did food play in your life growing up?
A: I was adopted from South Korea, and my brother was also adopted. My mom wanted to make sure that we were still aware of our culture as well as our background. The way some families celebrate their “gotcha day,” we would call it our “arrival day,” the date that we came to the U.S. So, at least once a year, she’d rip out this little Korean cookbook of hers and she would make us Korean food. Everything from the classics that you would think of, from bulgogi and kimchi fried rice to japchae, mandu. As I grew up, I learned more about not only my culture and heritage, but others around me and around the world, and how food is the epicenter of how we take care of one another, how we tell stories and how we show affection.
Q: How much do you cook at home?
A: Quite a bit. Some people say maybe too much. I make a hot chili oil, a little side business of mine that I sell at the farmers market [called TonzKitchen]. This is my first year. I started my hobby of making hot chili oil right near the beginning of the pandemic. Obviously we have that Minnesota spice level that none of us really know how to balance, and so for me this hot chili oil is something that you can use not only on Asian foods, but also on your everyday breakfast. We put it on pizzas, we put it on goat cheese with crackers. It’s a really good transition for those who really love to have that type of spice and flavor who can also handle a little bit heat.
Q: What are some of your favorite local restaurants?
A: I love to support a lot of different restaurateurs and chefs, whether it’s Union Hmong Kitchen and Yia Vang, Ann Kim and Young Joni and Sooki & Mimi, Ann Ahmed with Khaluna, I love to go to Hai Hai. And then the more prominent ones like Gavin Kaysen’s restaurants, Spoon and Stable, and everything else in between. There’s never a shortage of great restaurants here in the Twin Cities that go above and beyond what represents Minnesota. Obviously a lot of people think of us as the Jucy Lucy or the Tater Tot hot dish. But I love to be able to show people we’ve got such amazing local chefs here who are doing some really good work to make sure that it isn’t just that.
Q: What kinds of dishes will we see you cooking on the show?
A: I definitely have a lot of Korean influence. Some say fusion. I’m just taking the Midwestern upbringing that I had, the meat and potatoes kind of mentality, but adding a Korean twist to it. Whenever I cook for other people, I love to suggest Korean chicken tacos first, because that’s usually a big fan favorite. That is combining my heritage and culture with Korean ingredients like gochujang and gochugaru as well as my love for tacos, but also my admiration for how I got into cooking, through Roy Choi and his Korean fusion taco movement that he did way back in the day. He’s been a big inspiration of mine.
Q: What are you most looking forward to about seeing yourself on TV?
A: Oh, I don’t know if I’m really looking forward to it. I am someone that whenever you see yourself on TV, I get a little bit shy and embarrassed. But honestly, this is just a really great show for people to tune in to. Hopefully I can really connect with people based on my story and my experience. I know there’s a lot of Korean adoptees and Korean immigrants here in the U.S. and in Minnesota, and maybe I can be that pillar stone and be able to resonate with them. Or for individuals who are considering adoption outside of the U.S.: Please take a moment to realize how impactful you can be within a child’s life of making sure that their culture and their identity is still intact.
Q: Anything else that you want to share about the show?
A: Just be ready to share some really fun experiences. You’ll be really engulfed in the cast and how you can connect with any one of us based on your love for XYZ, whether it is your love for soul food, Southern food, your interests in comedy, and everything else. One thing I’ll definitely take away from the entire experience is the people that I met who are now considered family.
Korean Chicken Tacos
Note: From Tony Scherber, a contestant on “The Great American Recipe.” “As someone born in Korea and raised in the United States, I did not grow up having a clear connection to Korea,” he said. “I gravitated toward chefs like Roy Choi because of their fusion cooking and looked up to them because of how they created their own way of expressing their identity through food. This is my version of chicken tacos: spicy, sweet gochujang-marinated chicken topped with fermented kimchi. Blending Korean flavors with Mexican flair, these tacos are for sure a favorite for any gathering.” You’ll need to prepare this in advance to give the meat time to marinate.
• 1/2 c. gochujang
• 1/3 c. plus 2 tbsp. soy sauce, divided
• 6 tbsp. vegetable oil, divided
• 5 tbsp. toasted sesame oil, divided
• 1/4 c. maple syrup or honey
• 3 tbsp. hot chili oil or garlic chili sauce
• 2 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
• 1 (2-in.) knob ginger, grated
• 4 garlic cloves, minced
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. ground black pepper
• Gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes) to taste, optional
• 3 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs
• 6 (8-in.) flour tortillas
• 1/2 tsp. sesame seeds
• 1 (14-oz.) jar kimchi, drained and roughly chopped
• 3 green onions, thinly sliced on the bias
To prepare the chicken: In a large bowl, whisk together the gochujang, 1/3 cup of the soy sauce, 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil, 3 tablespoons of the sesame oil, maple syrup, chili oil, rice wine vinegar, ginger, garlic, salt, pepper and gochugaru (if using). Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Add the chicken thighs to the bowl and toss to coat. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a large skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the chicken and cook, turning occasionally and brushing with the marinade, until the internal temperature registers 165 degrees, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the chicken to a plate as it is cooked, and add more oil as needed for the remaining batches. Cut the chicken into bite-size pieces, then transfer to a clean bowl.
Place the tortillas on a grill or grill pan and char lightly on both sides, or microwave for 20 seconds to heat through.
To prepare the dipping sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce, remaining 2 tablespoons sesame oil and sesame seeds.
To serve: Top each tortilla with the chicken, add kimchi and garnish with green onions. Serve the dipping sauce with the tacos.