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Young Immigrants Are the Stars of a New Cooking Competition Show

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A scene from a cooking competition show: Two female contestants stand in front of a cooking station lined with pots and various ingredients.
Shruti Khandelwal (left) and Betsabe Perez Mertija prepare to compete during an episode of 'No Borders, Just Flavors!'. The web series is a production of the immigrant youth advocacy group United We Dream. (Courtesy of United We Dream)

For years, I watched televised cooking competitions like Top Chef religiously. The amateur home cook in me would nerd out over knife skills and ad hoc sous vide contraptions. The romantic in me loved seeing chefs pay heartwarming homage to treasured family recipes.

Like so much of American reality television, however, over time these shows began to feel overly corporatized and, at times, actively toxic — a microcosm of the restaurant industry itself. They didn’t seem to understand non-European cuisines at all. One favorite chef contestant was outed as an alleged domestic abuser. At least two others were accused of sexual harassment.

I tuned out.

A new web series led by young immigrants is giving me reason to tune back in. Produced not by one of the big cable networks or streaming services, No Borders, Just Flavors! is instead the creation of the nonprofit advocacy group United We Dream, which touts itself as the largest immigrant youth network in the United States. The organization is mostly known for its work pushing for a pathway for citizenship for young undocumented folks.

But a cooking show? Why not? After all, the food of one’s cultural heritage is the throughline for so many immigrant experiences — a theme that comes up again and again in each of the show’s four 15-minute episodes, the first of which debuts on April 20.

 

The show is only a “competition” in the most nominal sense, in that each episode features two contestants — immigrants in their 20s or late teens — who have come prepared to cook a dish that fits the chosen theme of the day (e.g. “stews” or “hand-rolled and fried”). The judges taste each dish and declare a winner, but there’s no big cash prize — or even bragging rights, really — at stake. (In an email, Catherine Lee, a United We Dream spokesperson, clarified that the contestants were fairly compensated for their participation.) Nor is there much focus on complicated cooking methods or technical prowess.

Instead, No Borders, Just Flavors! is mostly a vehicle for storytelling centered on each amateur chef’s cultural identity. In the first episode, Emmanuel Gonzalez Perez, a DACA recipient from Sacramento, talks about how his mother’s carne en su jugo recipe is one of the only ways he’s able to feel connected to his family in Guadalajara, Mexico, since he’s unable to cross the border to visit. In another episode, Betsabe Perez Mertija talks movingly about the little papas rellenas stand that her grandfather used to run in Cuba before coming to the U.S. as a political asylee.

A stew made with bacon, onion, beans and avocado, served with a bowl of tostadas on the side.
Contestant Emmanuel Gonzalez Perez’s carne en su jugo is made with bacon, onions, avocado and beans. The dish is a tribute to the cook’s mother and his Guadalajaran roots. (Courtesy of United We Dream)

All of the contestants are just so darn likable. Even the show’s handful of goofy, lo-fi cooking competition gimmicks — like a button you press to force your opponent to stop what they’re doing to help you — wind up turning into sweet moments of cross-cultural connection instead of cutthroat contention.

A headshot of a young Indonesian-Chinese immigrant with long dyed hair and an infectious smile.
Dru Lay participated in the show’s first episode, representing his Indonesian and Chinese cultural identities. (Courtesy of United We Dream)

As Dru Lay, a Chinese-Indonesian contestant in the first episode, puts it, “Being an immigrant almost automatically means we have a lot in common.”

For those of us who’ve grown accustomed to every reality TV series having a handful of token Black, brown and Asian contestants who all get eliminated halfway through the season, a show like No Borders, Just Flavors! is a breath of fresh air. Nearly everyone involved in the show is an immigrant or person of color — the contestants, host, director, producers and art directors. Some of the crew members are undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients themselves.

That approach is reflected in the show’s intended audience, too: Host Morelys De Los Santos Urbano ends each episode by asking contestants if they have any words of wisdom they’d like to offer to the immigrant youth who might be watching.

Indeed, the main point of the show, for United We Dream, seems to be to flip the script on the typical ways that immigrants — whether they’re documented or not — tend to get portrayed.

“All too often, we hear immigrant stories as told by people other than immigrants themselves,” says Lee of United We Dream. “The immigration headlines are dominated by stories of struggle, suffering and survival. But there’s another side of the immigrant story that’s rarely represented in mainstream media: our joy, our courage and vision.”

And if these four snack-sized episodes serve as proof of concept that America is ready for a more immigrant-centric approach to food television? I’ll be ready to tune in.

The first episode of ‘No Borders, Just Flavors!debuts on YouTube on April 20, at 5 p.m. PST. A new episode will go up online every Thursday night for the next three weeks after that.

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