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Food & Drink

Tony Scherber Represents Minneapolis and South Korea on ‘The Great American Recipe’

He'll share 'Korean flavors with a Midwestern flair' on the new PBS series.

A headshot of Tony Scherber, wearing glasses and a denim apron
PBS/VPM

Great news for fans of fun and positive cooking shows like Guy’s Grocery Games and MasterChef Junior: A new eight-part “uplifting competition series” called The Great American Recipe hits PBS this month. And a Minneapolis home cook is one of the 10 contestants.

Tony Scherber was born in South Korea and adopted at age 2, when he moved to Minneapolis (where he lives to this day). In the show’s first episode, he describes his home cooking as “Korean flavors with a Midwestern flair.”

“I attribute a lot of my cooking to my mom, she was someone who was really impactful with my culture and my heritage, being an adoptee from Korea,” he says. “She did not want my brother and I to lose sight of our background and culture. And so the medium of that was through food.”

Dishes like bulgogi and mandu and fried rice and japchae made regular appearances on their Midwestern table—always on their arrival day, the day they came to America. It kept Scherber and his adopted brother connected to his heritage, and many of those dishes are regulars in his repertoire to this day.

“That’s kind of my approach to food,” he says, “I just want to be able to share my story and share my food with family and friends so they can enjoy it as well and learn about the story that I’m telling.”

Scherber has no formal culinary training, just lots of practice trying and adapting new recipes and watching cooking TV shows like Iron Chef and Chopped. But his experience was exactly what the producers at PBS were hoping for. The Great American Recipe invites home cooks from around the country to celebrate their unique culinary heritage, be it Syrian, Hungarian, Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Southern soul food.

It was a friend who sent him a message about the casting call. Scherber looked it over, and then did what we all do when presented with these kinds of opportunities—put it on the back burner for a few weeks. He did eventually apply, “and literally a day later I got a call from one of the producers saying, ‘Hey, can we talk a little bit about your story? It sounds really unique.'”

After the initial interview, months went by—enough time that he forgot about the opportunity in the first place—before getting the call that PBS wanted him on the show.

After a winner is crowned at the end of the eight-episode series, one of the their winning dishes will appear on the cover of The Great American Recipe Cookbook, where it will be published alongside recipes from each contestant as well as the show’s host (Alejandra Ramos) and judges (Leah Cohen, Tiffany Derry, and Graham Elliot).

Spiritually, The Great American Recipe has more in common with Great British Bake Off than Top Chef. Episode one opens on a shot of a pastoral Virginia setting, where the 10 home cooks compete each week inside a big barn outfitted with cooking stations. And you can tell the contestants are really rooting for one another rather than sabotaging each other.

“The other individual contestants on the show—they’re really close to me now,” Scherber says. “We became very tight-knit and bonded during a time when the pandemic was still very much a reality in our lives.”

Scherber is proud to be representing Minneapolis, where the food scene is still “under the radar” even though the culinary community has blossomed over the last few decades. “Not to take a blow at the Jucy Lucy, but when people think of Minnesota, it’s kind of tough sometimes, that that’s all they can recognize,” he says.

(Well, that and tater tot hot dish.)

“You have Hai Hai and Hola Arepa, you’ve got Ann Kim from Young Joni, Yia Vang from Union Hmong Kitchen and Vinai,” Scherber says. “These pillar stones, within the Asian community alone, have been very influential in my life—learning more about their stories, their food, and the dishes they’ve put on their plates.”

If you want to catch Scherber in person, he’ll be selling his artisanal TonzKitchen hot chili oil at the Mill City Farmers Market this summer.

The Great American Recipe premieres Friday, June 24, and runs through August 12, airing from 8-9 p.m. Central on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video app.