Cranston firefighter Dan Rinaldi shows cooking ribs in PBS research for “The Great American Recipe”

Courtesy of PBS / VPM.

Starting Friday, June 24, ten talented home cooks will grace our screens and compete in PBS’s quest for “the great American recipe.” Among those chosen to share their signature dishes with the world is Rhode Island’s Dan Rinaldi. We caught up with the Cranston firefighter by day and the meal preparer by night before the premiere to learn more about his Italian culinary origins, his time on the show and his favorite Rhode Island dishes.

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

I come from Providence; I grew up in the city and now live alone on a street across the city line in Cranston. So, I’m basically still in Providence. I grew up in a three story building right across from my grandmother’s three story building. It was nice because my aunt was on the first floor, my uncle was around the corner and my other uncle lived three houses down in another three-story. We grew up in a three-story villa. There was always someone from the family around. As a child I could never have been wrong, of course, because there were a million eyes looking at me.

How did you get into cooking?

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

The first thing I got my hands on, physically, was probably the pasta. My aunts and everyone came on a Saturday and just made pasta. They gave me a piece when I was five or six just to shut me up, like “yeah, you’ll help us make pasta for tomorrow”. I’m sure it got thrown in the trash after that, because God only knows where my hands had been. But this is more or less my first memory of practical cooking: making fresh pasta.

What other kinds of things have you and your family done?

My grandmother got stuck in her wheelhouse to do all the traditional old school Italian things. My mother made all this too, but she also cooked steak every now and then. You would never see a steak from my grandmother.

Have you ever thought about becoming a chef or dedicating yourself to catering?

I went to Johnson and Wales on a high school trip to senior or senior year and thought, “Oh, it might be great to go here.” But then I took the fire department test when I was seventeen and the next thing you know, I’m in the fire department. Everything [Johnson and Wales consideration] it went into oblivion and at that point I was totally busy with the firefighters. But I still cooked at home.

Do you cook for the fire station?

We take turns cooking at the fire station because it is very crowded. You could never be the only cook. Then, you will have your week to cook. I usually make a meat sauce for the house, it is quite consistent. The recipe is handed down from my grandmother. You know what Sunday gravy is like – it’s kind of like chili in Texas. Each fire station is cooking it on a given day and each has their own version of it.

What are some of your other recipes and traditions from your grandmother?

In the winter I make her pasta and beans or a lentil soup. We actually couldn’t eat too much heavier pasta at his house because when my grandfather was in World War II, he was hit by a half-track. Had it not been for the rainy season in the South Pacific at the time, he would have died. He was crushed in the mud, but eventually lost 2/3 of his stomach and as a result he couldn’t eat heavy cheeses and things like that. So, I’ve never eaten lasagna and stuff for the most part growing up. Sometimes my mother made them, but not my grandmother. He also made sausage and rabe sandwiches and this became a classic for us. In fact, I did it just yesterday because I had collected all the rabe from my garden. Talk about farm at table: only six meters! Oh, and then, of course, some kind of fish on Fridays, regardless of whether it’s Lent or not

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

This is the million dollar question that I don’t even have the answer to. I got an email one day for a cooking show and at first thought it was a fire department joke, to tell you the truth. Because those guys will spend an unlimited amount of energy playing a joke. But then I started dealing with it and I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is real.’ Next thing you know, I’m going through the whole selection process: submitting recipes, doing interviews, stuff like that. Then, finally, I’m one of the ten. However, to this day, I have no idea how that email ended up in my inbox. I don’t have any social networks. No Facebook, Twitter…. Anything. But all the other competitors are on social media and were easy to find. I don’t know how they found me.

Maybe you have a secret name!

I was wondering myself. I was curious about this, trying to think who could do it. But if anyone has done it, no one admits it!

Did you grow up watching cooking shows?

I did it! I started watching them when they were teaching a lot on the Food Network. Emeril’s show 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 Symon. I remember first seeing it – this is going back, maybe twenty five years – on the Wayne Harley Brachman show. I was like this guy’s laughter was contagious, just plain funny. Then during the pandemic, he was doing something online … My wife knows the whole social media thing and she pulled out these videos of him cooking at her house every single day. It was fun following him.

Did you feel a little more prepared for your breakthrough on “The Great American Recipe” after watching these shows?

I wouldn’t say I was more prepared than any other people there because cooking is their profession, or at least an important thing they do. But I was prepared for the long days. I felt like being a firefighter in a crowded firehouse gave me a bit of an edge when it came to mental fatigue. Because most people aren’t used to standing 24 hours straight or running like crazy. A few days of shooting lasted sixteen, seventeen, eighteen hours, and then you get up early the next morning to get more. I was like, ‘Okay, it’s right in my wheelhouse. I can still function when it comes to that. ‘ I would say it was one of the things that perhaps made up for it a bit, while other people may have had more experience cooking in kitchens.

How does this show work?

Each round you were given a task such as “cook your spouse your favorite meal” or something like that. So you would have limited time to cook it and put it together and then the judges would taste and judge it.

Can you tell us about some fun behind the scenes?

I don’t know what’s going to air, but we’ve had a lot of fun moments, that’s for sure. In truth, when the cameras roll, you don’t even know what’s happening to everyone else. The setup has several stations lined up one behind the other, so it’s like two side by side and then five of those in a row. I was on first, so I couldn’t see anything else happening – everything was behind me. And then you are so focused on what you are doing because time passes at the speed of light.

It sounds stressful!

It’s a different kind of stress. It’s a little different than crawling down a smoke filled three story! But it was good, we enjoyed it.

Did you get to try other people’s recipes?

Everything was so fast. Especially that first round. As soon as we finished we basically had to pack up and leave because the team had to clean everything up and reset for the next round. So, we didn’t really get a chance to taste a lot of the stuff. Which was a shame, especially when everyone is so good! They are all there for a reason. Everyone knows how to cook and are extremely knowledgeable.

Courtesy of PBS / VPM.

Did you get close to any of the other competitors?

Oh, definitely. We shot last year and we were there during COVID and we were basically in solitary confinement. 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 were tested every single 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 had had COVID at the time, it would have stopped the entire production. I don’t know anything about TV or productions, but I know it wasn’t cheap to close for a few days. They were trying to keep everyone safe by keeping us in such a bubble. So, we had dinner every night and really knew each other. This is one thing I can say about the other nine people: they are good people. We still stay in touch. All ten of us are in a text thread and talking every single day. One of them, Nikki [Tomiano-Allemand], will come to see us in a couple of months: his son will look to the PC for lacrosse. And then Foo [Nguyen] and I, we go back and forth all the time and we get mad at each other because he’s a professional comedian.

Have you picked up something new?

I’ll try a Korean chicken that Tony [Scherber] done. He was in the station right behind me and I could always turn around and taste something he was doing. He is really good. So, yeah, I’ll try to make him Korean chicken. I wasn’t able to cook too much after the show because right after I got back, I had shoulder surgery. I’ve had a torn rotator cuff the entire time I’ve been on the show, but you’d never know. So the kitchen has been on the back burner for a couple of months, but now I’m back.

I think I saw you making a squid dish in one of the previews … Was that a nod to your Rhody roots?

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

What are some of your favorite Rhode Island foods?

I don’t even know where to start! I love D Palmieri on Killingly Street. The best party pizza there is. I love Del’s lemonade – I’m Del’s boyfriend. I have one at the top of my street. And I’m a big fish guy too. But one of my real favorites is Olneyville Wieners. I’m not the onion type though, so I don’t order it completely, but extra mustard, extra sauce, extra celery salt. Oh my God, I love it. Greg does a great job over there.

It’s funny, when you do all these things in the kitchen, people automatically assume you’re a food snob. Especially in the fire station, I will say when something absolutely sucks. And it’s not because I’m a food snob, it’s because it absolutely sucks and I can’t even say it’s food! The firehouse is brutal, believe me. I take it as bad as I give it. People ask me about the judges on the show and I say, “I’m always judged by these clowns, on the show they were professionals!”

Anything else we should know about you?

I’ve been in the fire department for a while now, thirty-four years, but because people see me doing all the cooking stuff and that’s why I’m going to be famous. It’s fun because I also work for another company and teach firefighters internationally. I’m going to Austin soon to teach the Austin Fire Department about elevator rescue. So, it’s like I’m doing all this national and international training for the fire brigade, but I’ll always be the cook. But I’ll take it! I find it funny because in all these other places people don’t know that I cook.

Well now they will! Watch Dan Rinaldi show off his cooking skills on PBS’s “The Great American Recipe” on Friday at 9pm