An Irvine home cook is helping define America’s great recipe on new TV show

Foo Nguyen stands inside his home in Irvine on Friday, June 17.
Foo Nguyen stands inside his home in Irvine on Friday, June 17. Nguyen competes in PBS’s “The Great American Recipe,” where home cooks put their skills to the test.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Foo Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage influences his culinary game on PBS’s upcoming “The Great American Recipe.”

When he was a young boy in elementary school, Irvine resident Foo Nguyen knew there was something different about the meals in his lunch box.

“When you are sitting at lunch and you are having leftover Vietnam food like crepes and so forth, and your friends have ham sandwiches and Twinkies, it is a little daunting and slightly embarrassing,” said Nguyen. “So you recognize it and acknowledge it right away. There is something different here with our foods.”

But as he got older, Nguyen came to appreciate the love that was behind those lunches his mother packed.

“It is something that I cherish now,” said Nguyen.

On Friday, PBS’s “The Great American Recipe” premieres, with Nguyen among the 10 home cooks competing in the eight-part series. Hosted by chef and “Today” contributor Alejandra Ramos, the show promises to present a mix of cultures and traditions, explore the stories behind the dishes and learn what truly makes us American.

“In the show, you see the influence of people’s culinary culture and backgrounds being fused with traditional American cuisine or dishes, which is absolutely beautiful,” Nguyen said. “And you learn to appreciate more of your culture when you see that.”

Nguyen, whose family immigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon, is one of seven siblings. While growing up in his big family in Cincinnati, Ohio, helping out in the kitchen was expected, and Sunday meals as a family were a given.

“Sundays after church, that was where we would congregate together and Mom would have a meal. That was when we bonded,” Nguyen said. “There was a direct correlation to the emotional tie and bond that I have with food being that centerpiece that is drawing all of us together.”

Although he considers his Vietnamese heritage his greatest culinary influence, Nguyen draws cooking inspiration from multiple sources, often incorporating Asian flavors into the comfort food of the Midwest. A preview of the show mentions him adding Japanese pickles to a Cincinnati cheese coney.

“I just invested in a smoker so I am smoking ribs and infusing Vietnamese flavors in them,” Nguyen said. “My wife is Korean so recently I have been playing with Korean flavors too.”

Foo Nguyen shows off his garden at his home in Irvine.
Foo Nguyen shows off his garden at his home in Irvine.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Nguyen has an edible garden at his Irvine home, where he grows Thai chili peppers, beefsteak tomatoes, serrano chilies, peas and two types of mint he utilizes when cooking for his wife and two daughters.

Nguyen is also a comedian who trained at Second City in Chicago and said his sense of humor helped him deal with the stress of competing on a cooking show.

“Not everybody cooks with 10 HD cameras on you,” he laughs. “Comedy is a tool that I learned growing up because I was the only minority growing up in school, and it has helped me. It helps me with communication, it helps me with public speaking, it helps me break the ice. I think it lends very well to this project.”

Nguyen also credits the show with jumpstarting his culinary creativity.

 Foo Nguyen yucks it up for the camera at his home in Irvine.
Foo Nguyen, a comedian trained at Second City in Chicago, yucks it up for the camera at his home in Irvine.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I learned a tremendous amount, from every aspect,” Nguyen said. “All the way from the production, to learning about being on camera down to what I am passionate about — the cooking.”

Nguyen and his wife are working on starting a meal plan service called Comfort Foo Dee.

“That is something that we are about to roll out in a couple months,” said Nguyen.

He’s looking forward to applying what he learned on “The Great American Recipe” to his home cooking and his new business.

“American food, to me, truly is a melting pot,” Nguyen said.

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