Cranston Firefighter Dan Rinaldi reviews cooking chops in PBS search for “The Great American Recipe”

Courtesy of PBS/VPM.

Starting Friday, June 24, ten talented home chefs will grace our screens and compete in the PBS search for “The Great American Recipe.” Among those chosen to share their signature dishes with the world is Dan Rinaldi of Rhode Island. We caught up with the Cranston firefighter by day and the mealmaker by night before the premiere to learn more about the Italian cooking roots, his time on the show and his favorite Rhode Island cuisine.

Congratulations on representing Rhode Island on the show! Did you grow up here?

I’m from Providence. I grew up in the city and now live only one street on the city line in Cranston. So, I’m still very much in Providence. I grew up on a three-story across the street from my three-story grandmother. It was cool because my aunt was on the first floor, my uncle was around the corner, and my other uncle lived three houses on another three story floor. We grew up in a three-story city. There was always someone in the family. I obviously couldn’t fail as a kid, because there were a million eyes watching me.

How did you get into cooking?

I grew up cooking with my grandmother, my mom, my aunts, pretty much everyone in my family.

Probably the first thing I got, physically, was pasta. My aunts and everyone would come on Saturday and they would just make pasta. They would give me a piece when I was five or six just to keep me calm, like, “Yeah, you’ll help us make pasta for tomorrow.” I’m sure it was just thrown in the trash after that, because only God knows where my hand was. But that’s pretty much the first thing I remember about hands-on cooking: making fresh pasta.

What other kinds of things did you and your family make?

My grandmother is stuck in her driver’s room making all things traditional old school Italian. My mother made all of that too, but she would cook a steak every now and then, too. You won’t see steak at my grandmother’s house.

Have you ever thought of becoming a chef or working in the restaurant business?

I went to Johnson & Wells on a high school field trip during my junior year or high school and thought, “Oh, it might be cool to go here.” But then I took the fire department test when I was 17, and the next thing you know is I’m in the fire department. all of that [Johnson and Wales consideration] I went by the wayside and was fully committed to the fire department at that point. But I still cook at home.

Do you cook for the extinguisher?

We take turns cooking in the fire room because it’s very busy. You can never be the only cook. So, you will have your week to cook. I usually make meat sauce for the house – it’s very consistent. Recipe inherited from my grandmother. You know what Sunday broth is like — it’s kind of a Texas chili. Each fire station cooks it any day, and everyone has their own version of it.

What are some other recipes and traditions that you use from your grandmother?

During the winter, I’ll make her noodles or lentil soup. We actually couldn’t eat a lot of heavy pasta in her house because when my grandfather was in World War II, he was run over by half of the track. Had it not been for the South Pacific rainy season at the time, he would have died. He fell in the mud, but lost two-thirds of his stomach and as a result he couldn’t eat heavy cheese and things like that. So, I’ve never had lasagna and things like that most of the time. My mom would make them sometimes, but not my grandmother. She would also make sausage and spring roll sandwiches and this became a classic for us. In fact, I made it yesterday because I picked all the spring from my garden. Talk about farm to table – only twenty feet away! Oh, and then, of course, some kind of seafood on Fridays, regardless of whether it’s Lent or not

How did you first hear about the show? Did you have to provide a recipe?

This is the million dollar question that I don’t even have an answer to. I got an email the other day for a cooking show and thought it was just a little firefighting prank at first, to tell you the truth. Because these guys will go through an unlimited amount of energy to make a joke. But then I started reviewing it and said, “Oh, that’s real.” Next thing you know, I’m going to go through the entire selection process: submitting recipes, doing interviews, and things like that. Then, finally, I’m one of the ten. However, to this day, I have no idea how this email made it to my inbox. I don’t have any social media. No Facebook and Twitter… nothing. But all the other contestants are on social media and they were easy to find. I don’t know how they found me.

Maybe you have a secret filter!

I was wondering that myself. I was curious about it, trying to think of who could do it. But if someone does, no one owns it!

Did you grow up watching cooking shows?

she did! I first started watching them when they did a lot of teaching on the Food Network. Emeril’s presentation was really good. But the only 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 Simon. I remember seeing it for the first time – that’s going back, maybe twenty-five years – on The Wayne Harley Brackman Show. I was like this guy’s laugh is contagious, as funny as it can be. Then during the pandemic, he was doing something online… My wife knows everything on social media, and she’s been showing these videos of him doing the cooking stuff in his house every day. It was fun to follow.

Did you feel more prepared for your role in The Great American Recipe after watching these shows?

I wouldn’t say I was more prepared than anyone else out there because cooking is their profession, or at least an important thing they do. But I was ready for the long days. I felt as if being a firefighter in a crowded fire station gave me a bit of an edge when it came to mental fatigue. Because most people aren’t used to getting up for twenty-four hours straight or running like crazy. Some days of filming were sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen hours, then wake up early the next morning for more. I was like, ‘Okay, that’s right in my wheelhouse. I can still work when it comes to that. I would say this was one of the things that she probably made up for a bit, while others might have had more experience cooking in kitchens.

How does this offer work?

In each round you were given a task like “cook your wife’s favorite meal” or something like that. Then you will have limited time to cook and put together and then the judges will taste and judge it.

Can you tell us about any fun things behind the scenes?

I don’t know what will make it live, 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 stations side by side and then five stations in a row. I was on my first time, so I couldn’t see anything else happening – it was all behind me. Hence, you are very focused on what you’re doing because time flies by lightning fast.

Look cumbersome!

It’s a different kind of stress. It’s a little different than crawling on three floors of smoke! But it was good, we had fun.

Have you tried other people’s recipes?

Everything was fast paced especially that first round. Once done we pretty much had to pack up and go because the team had to clean everything up and reset for the next round. So, we didn’t really get a chance to sample a lot of things. Which is a pity, especially when everyone is fine! They are all there for a reason. They can all cook and are very knowledgeable.

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Courtesy of PBS/VPM.

Did you get close to any of the other contestants?

Oh, sure. We filmed last year and were there during COVID and were pretty much in lockdown. After filming, we could only go to our rooms or go to the restaurant in the hotel complex. We were allowed to eat together because we took the test every day. I didn’t realize how important this show was until I got there. There were more than 200 people on the staff. If I catch COVID at that time, it will shut down production entirely. I don’t know anything about TV or production, but I do know that it wasn’t cheap to be off for a few days. They were trying to keep everyone safe by keeping us in a bubble like that. So, we ate dinner every night and got to know each other. This is something I can say about the other nine people: they are good, decent people. We are still in touch. All ten of us are in a text thread and we talk every day. One of them, Nikki [Tomiano-Allemand], she’s coming to visit in a couple of months – her son will be looking at the PC for lacrosse. Then Foo [Nguyen] And me, we go back and forth all the time and mess each other up because he’s a professional comedian.

Did you catch anything new?

I will try korean chicken an tony [Scherber] made. He was at the station right behind me and I was always able to turn around and sample something he was making. It’s really good. So yeah, I’ll try making his Korean chicken. I wasn’t able to do much cooking after the show because right after my return I had shoulder surgery. I had a rotator cuff tear the whole time I was on the show, but you’d never know. So cooking has been in the background for two months, but I’m back at it now.

I think I saw you making calamari in one of the previews… Was that a nod to Rod’s roots?

Of course, we are the calamari capital of the country! I can’t talk too much about the different tours, but it was part of one of those themed tours, let’s put it this way. So, you can kind of put it all together!

What are some of your favorite Rhode Island foods?

I don’t even know where to start with that! I love D Palmieri’s on Killingly Street. Best pizza party out there. I love Del’s Lemonade – I’m a Del guy. I have one up my street. And I’m a big seafood guy too. But one of my real favorites is the Olneyville Wieners. I’m not an onion guy, so I don’t quite order it, but extra mustard, extra sauce, extra celery salt. Oh my God I love him. Greg does a great job there.

It’s funny, when you do all these things in cooking, people automatically assume you’re a food snob. Especially in the fire room, I’ll say when something is totally bad. And that’s not because I’m snooty about the food, but because it’s so bad I can’t even say it’s food! The fire room is brutal, believe me. I get it just as badly as you gave it to me. People ask me about the judges on the show and I’m like, “These clowns judge me all the time, on the show they were professionals!”

Anything else we should know about you?

I’ve been in the fire department for a short period of time, thirty-four years, but because people see me doing all the cooking and that’s what I’m going to know. It’s funny because I also work for a different company and teach firefighters internationally. I’m going to Austin to teach the Austin Fire Department soon about elevator rescue. So, it feels like I’m doing all this national and international fire service training, but I’ll always be a chef. But I’ll take it! I find it funny because in all of these other places, people don’t know I’m cooking.

Well, now they will! Watch Dan Rinaldi show off his cooking skills on PBS’ “The Great American Recipe” at 9 p.m.

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