At long last, television is recognizing the ultimate in food service pros — moms!
Tonight, TV One premieres its first-ever cooking competition series, My Momma Throws Down, from the makers of Iron Chef America and hosted by actor/comedian Ralph Harris (Last Comic Standing, Dreamgirls, On Our Own) — or as he introduces himself, “Carol’s oldest boy.”
But this more than your average cooking show. Part culinary competition, part Family Feud update, part comedy contest and part mini-lesson on the rich history and traditions of African American cuisine, My Momma Throws Down has something for everyone. Just like a home-cooked meal.
To start, each mom — backed by a team of four family members — presents her signature dish to a panel of judges made up of culinary experts and celebrity foodies. But that’s actually the easy part. After the judges have weighed in, the moms taste and critique each other’s offerings. Then the moms must create an entire meal culled from traditional African American cuisine. But before they can get down to business, one of their family members can score them some extra prep time via the “Hot Plate Throwdown” — an on-the-fly one-liner contest designed to defend their kin’s cooking. The relatives are also tasked with answering trivia questions about their Momma and acing a blind taste test to help their home cook take the prize.
On tonight’s premiere, Momma Thea — supported by her husband and three strapping sons — and Momma Marilyn — backed by her daughter, her brother and sister and her niece — go head-to-head in a competition that revolves around their take on squash casserole and green salad. On the judges panel: food historian and cookbook author Dr. Jessica Harris (who serves up a lesson in the difference between a yam and a sweet potato) and actresses Nicole Ari Parker, Malinda Williams and Vanessa Williams, stars of the award-winning television series, Soul Food.
Joining Dr. Harris (no relation to Ralph) on the rotating panel of expert judges are Red Rooster Harlem owner and Chopped star Marcus Samuelsson; celebrity chef Marvin Woods; Melba’s owner Melba Wilson; Chef Tanya Holland; and Top Chef contestant and celebrity caterer Chef Brian Hill. Other celebrity judges during the eight-episode season include Trina and Towanda Braxton; The Real Housewives of Atlanta star Kandi Burruss; comedian Loni Love; actor Rockmond Dunbar; Grammy winning songwriter Bryan Michael Cox; and boxer, actor and model Ngo Okafor.
I talked with Ralph Harris about the Mommas, the families and what it’s like to host such a tasty gig.
Channel Guide Magazine: It’s about time that someone recognized the ultimate in Iron Chefs — America’s moms!
Ralph Harris: You know, for years I’ve said, “Mom, you threw down tonight!” when we were eating my mothers food — and it rolls off the tongue so naturally!
And to be a part of a show where these moms come on and have as good a time as they did — not to mention that most of them had never cooked against a clock in a competition format! But you would have thought that they were old pros at it. They watch so many of those shows that they just jumped right in!
And they were moms in that kitchen. Because there were quite a few times when I was standing in that kitchen and they’re trying to chase me out! They got in that kitchen and acted like it was their own and I was like, “Where am I supposed to interview you from? The bleachers?” [laughs]
CGM: The show is from the creators of Iron Chef America, which is evident from the look of the show. That had to make you feel pretty good about signing on!
RH: What they came up with is amazing. And it runs liked a well-oiled ship. I’m very impressed. Because as a comedian, I need to be very comfortable when I’m working. I’ve been in standup for 27 years and it’s been really easy to come into this and just do what I’ve always been doing. How much more could I ask for?
And I really enjoy the realism of the show. The moms weren’t actors. They had never cooked in front of the cameras. And some of them were nervous, but it helps to have me be right in there with them, kind of bringing them to the mindset that they need to be in. Not to mention that they have four members of their family sitting behind them in the bullpen, you know? It was like being at home with a bunch of cameras.
Not to mention that I ate everything! As long as they keep letting me eat, I’ll keep doing the show!
CGM: You also have a live — and lively — studio audience, which lends immediacy to the show that you don’t always see on other cooking competitions.
RH: We do have a live audience that’s pretty vocal! Sometimes they get mad, because they’re sitting there watching all this cooking and they want the food! And it’s like, “No! There ain’t no way they can make enough food to feed all of you!” My mouth is watering when I’m standing there watching them cooking, so I know it must be hard for them, but I don’t care! [laughs]
Once this show airs, there’s going to be a lot of people that want to be in the audience — TV One has got a problem on their hands!
CGM: There’s something for everybody here — cooking competition, game show elements, comedy. Do you have a favorite segment of the show?
RH: The thing that I enjoy most is just that initial meeting with the Moms on camera and watching them come out and high-five their families. And when I’m trying to do the interviews, it’s so funny because they’re standing there looking at me like, “You really need to not talk to me while I’m workin’!” To get them to get out of their shell and talk to me, that’s kinda cool.
And then there is the Hot Plate Throw down where the family has to come out and talk about how good their mama’s food is versus the other food. It’s the old school version of The Dozens: “My mom’s cooking is so good that your mom had to spend the night at our house to figure out what she needs to cook.” There’s a whole bunch of that, and some of them are really, really good.
But the wonderful thing about that is that most of the contestants were able to keep it all positive and polished. And there were other ones where they would lose because we were like, “Hey this is fun! You can’t find anything nice to say about your mom’s cooking?!”
I think this is going to be a great experience for people who like to watch cooking shows, to see one with real people!
CGM: I thought the “Know Your Momma” challenge was comical, too, especially for the fact that it shows that even grown-up children don’t always listen to their mothers.
RH: When it got to the part where they had to remember her favorite cheese, they had no clue! And the mom was like, “You know, I’m not even going to talk to them right now if they can’t even remember my favorite cheese! What’s the use?!” That’ll get you thrown out of the kitchen for good!
I know what my mom doesn’t like … like mayonnaise. I’m good with my momma.
CGM: Speaking of which, at the beginning of the show, you introduce yourself as “Carol’s oldest boy.” Does your own momma have a signature dish?
RH: Carol’s oldest boy — that’s right! I used to love my mom’s sweet potato pie, but she doesn’t get into making them as much any more. I think she has tried to figure out a way to persuade us to stay out her kitchen by cooking bad. When I was young, my mother went from making really great food to just trying to mix stuff up. I go, “Why are you cooking it like that?!” And she says, “Because I want ya’ll to stop coming to my house! Eat at your own house!”
So now getting anything out of my mom is tough! Like, “C’mon, Mom, it’s my birthday!” And she’s like, “Whatever!”
CGM: Funny! And on that subject, for all the fans of your standup act, might we get to see more Ralph Harris comedy as the show goes on?
RH: They’re definitely going to let me do my thing with the little funny quips and stuff. But the standup wing of my career is still constant. Right now I’m in West Palm Beach to kick off a weekend at The Improv. TV One has been very supportive.
Maybe in the next season I can create a character for the show that people get to see occasionally. That might be fun!
New episodes of My Momma Throws Down air Fridays at 8pm ET on TV One. On Sunday, May 6, TV One will air a special My Momma Throws Down pre-Mother’s Day celebration — featuring an encore of the premiere, plus two new episodes — beginning at 8pm ET.