If you’re from Rhode Island, talking to Dan Rinaldi might feel like talking to your witty neighbor or funniest uncle.
You know a guy like him. Warm personality, Rhode Island accent, quick wit, contagious laugh.
The longtime Providence firefighter, 53, is also one helluva cook.
Raised in Providence’s West End, next door to his “classic Italian grandmother,” Rinaldi was helping with Sunday dinners by the time he was in kindergarten.
His culinary passion blossomed during high school at Cranston East, and he’s been refining his skills since joining the Providence Fire Department at age 18.
On the show, cooks from around the United States bring their recipes to a farmhouse kitchen for an epic cook-off. Hosted by Alejandra Ramos, the show “celebrates the multiculturalism that makes American food so vibrant and unique,” according to PBS.
We talked to Rinaldi, at home in Cranston, about everything from Foxwoods to firehouse favorites.
Q: So how did you get on this show?
Rinaldi: That’s the million dollar question. I have no idea. ... I have no Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, anything. Next thing you know, I get an email. I’m thinking it’s a firefighter prank, ‘cause these guys will go through unlimited energy to pull off a prank.
So at first I’m like, “Alright, whatever.” Then I get a little more insight: “Oooh, this is for real.” Next thing you know, I’m in Virginia. All the other contestants have a huge social media presence, so they know how they were found. That was the running joke. They’re like, “Are you even supposed to be here?” I’m like, “I don’t even know.”
Q: So the show is done filming at this point?
Rinaldi: Right, we filmed last [fall]. I had the great idea of going to Foxwoods the night before I drove down. Well, you know how it is when you’re at Foxwoods. Next thing you know, here it is 4 in the mornin’ and it’s like, oh boy. I gotta drive to Virginia.
Soon as I got there, we were on complete lockdown. They couldn’t take a chance on somebody getting COVID. We were tested every single day. I started putting it together: This is a huge deal. There’s over 100 people involved in this production. I was like, “Whoa. What did you get yourself into?”
Q: How did you get to so good at cooking?
Rinaldi: I started tinkering when I was a little kid, helping my aunts. I lived across the street from a three-decker that my grandparents and aunt lived in. The whole area was a lot of Italians.
I started to get more involved once I got on the fire department. Again, this is the story of my life: What did you get yourself into?
But I love it. Cooking became self-preservation because there were some pretty horrendous meals.
Q: When did you start cooking for your fellow firefighters?
Rinaldi: It took a couple years, then I started slowly saying, “You want me to cook?” There was a national competition to find the hottest firehouse cook in America, sponsored by Tabasco. I submitted for that and ended up going to New York City and won best firefighter cook in America in 2002.
Q: Wow. What did you cook?
Rinaldi: I did Firehouse Fra Diavolo, which is like a spicy tomato seafood over pasta.
Q: How many cooking competitions have you been in?
A: Maybe 40, including local chili contests. I won the Hood New England Dairy Cook-Off in Portland, Maine. I was invited to the World Food Championships. The sorest subject: Airbnb selected who they considered the top 100 home cooks in the world. I was one. We were getting sent to Italy for a week — then COVID hit. They canceled the entire thing.
Q: So what are a few recipes you made for the PBS show?
Rinaldi: I did a Rhode Island-style calamari, and a tomato gravy that you’d see in any Italian house on any given Sunday. The first episode, we had to make one dish that represents where you’re from, and one dish that represents who you are. So that’s how those two got selected. It mostly revolved around your ethnic background because that’s the premise of the show: diversity of America.
Q: What are some other favorite dishes you make at home?
Rinaldi: Chicken Sicilian. Any type of homemade pasta. I’ll do a cacio e pepe, which is cheese and pepper pasta. I love a great steak, heavily salted and peppered in a screaming hot cast-iron pan. Cowboy rib-eye with the bone in. I have a smoker — I’ll do ribs, brisket, pulled-pork.
Q. You’re totally self-taught?
Rinaldi: Totally self-taught.
Q: What are a few favorite meals at the firehouse?
Rinaldi: A pasta dish with chicken and sausage, marinated artichoke hearts, pepper and cheese, garlic, shallot. That’s a popular firehouse dish. It can be tough to cook because it’s a busy firehouse. Sometimes it’s just grilled chicken.
Q: I read that you were trapped in a burning building. What happened?
Rinaldi: Gravity is what happened. We were in Providence, three three-deckers were burning. The one I was in, the roof collapsed. I got pinned, lit on fire, trapped for 32-and-a-half minutes. When everything came crashing down, I got entombed. The stove is what stopped everything from coming down on me; it created a lean-to; I had that little area of refuge. It’s ironic: the guy that loves cooking, and the stove ends up saving his life.
If you if you look at the national statistics, I fall in the single-digit percentile chance of survival. Pretty much everybody that this happens to dies. The same exact day — January 6, 2018 — a Philadelphia firefighter died the same exact way.
I ended up in the hospital, third-degree burns, skin grafts, rehab. The doctors said, “We don’t know how your leg wasn’t crushed.”
Q: How long did it take you to come back?
Rinaldi: Four months, which is pretty fast. I’ve been burned a bunch of times throughout my career, but I never had third-degree burns. I never had a real understanding of what that entails.
Q: Had you ever burnt yourself while cooking?
Rinaldi: Daily. [laughs]
Q: So I know you like Italian food. What’s your favorite Italian restaurant in Rhode Island?
Q: And was this show your first TV cooking show?
Rinaldi: I’ve done segments. I cooked with Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” [in 2002.] I cooked on “The Today Show” three times. Once with my daughter because we were one of the finalists in a Girl Scout cookie repurposing contest. We called them “Bridging Bars,” made with crushed peanut butter cookies and bittersweet chocolate. I can send you the recipe. They’re a big hit at parties.
Q: You make desserts, too?
Rinaldi: I do. I have a sweet tooth like you can’t imagine. I will be a little bit of a foodie when it comes to desserts, though.
Q: Where do you like to get desserts in Providence?
Rinaldi: Pastiche on Federal Hill. Oh my God. Their coconut cake is ridiculous.