Upcoming shows refresh food and travel genres with multicultural focus

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John Leguizamo in "American Historia."

Three new series coming to PBS bring new talent and multicultural storytelling to popular lifestyle formats — food and travel programming.

Two of the shows debut next summer: The Great American Recipe, a cooking competition that scours different regions of the U.S. in search of the best amateur recipe; and America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston (w.t.), a travel show that ventures into unique ecological systems to explore how people access and experience the natural world.

The third series, planned for a winter 2023 debut, is American Historia, a travelogue hosted by actor John Leguizamo that will showcase “lost Latino heroes” who made outstanding contributions throughout history.

The Great American Recipe creators spent about two years cooking up the reality competition show, according to Zara Frankel, director of programming and development at PBS. Producers at Objective Media Group America developed the show with PBS, which funded production with support from CPB and presenting station VPM in Richmond, Va.  

“It’s an uplifting cooking competition,” said Frankel. “It celebrates the multiculturalism of the U.S. and what makes American food unique and iconic.” Creating a cook-off that reflects the diverse cuisine, cultures and “regionality of the U.S.” was core to the concept.

To locate contestants, PBS put out a nationwide casting call through its member stations. To apply, prospective candidates submitted videos along with their prized recipes.

Producers selected 10 home cooks as contestants. Their signature dishes range from original recipes created from scratch to those “passed down from generation to generation,” said Frankel. “We really wanted amazing food, great stories and people that are known in their communities and their families for certain dishes,” she said.

Each episode follows two rounds of the contest and ends with the elimination of one contestant. In the eighth and final episode, three finalists prepare an entire meal for the judges to determine the winner. The winner’s signature dish will be featured on the cover of The Great American Cookbook, which will contain recipes from all 10 contestants plus the show’s host and judges.

PBS also wanted the judges and host to reflect the rich cultural landscape of the U.S. “We spent a lot of time searching for the right judges, the right talent,” Frankel said. “We were very intentional in our decision-making because we were hoping to get the diversity of lived experience in the contestants and in the judges.”

The show’s three judges include veterans of reality TV cooking competitions Top Chef and Iron Chef. Leah Cohen, chef and owner of New York City’s Pig & Khao, is known for combining Filipino and Romanian-Jewish culinary traditions. Chef Tiffany Derry is a Texan who founded Tiffany Derry Concepts. James Beard Award–winning chef and restaurateur Graham Elliot hails from a military family and brings his rich travel history to the series. TV personality and food writer Alejandra Ramos, who is Latina and was raised in New York and New Jersey, rounds out the show’s talent as host.

The Great American Recipe “does a good job of explaining dishes that some people were raised eating and others weren’t, maybe breaking down those barriers to try new things,” Frankel said. She hopes the show will “inspire people to try different foods and venture out of their comfort zones.”

Access and equity in ‘America Outdoors’

America Outdoors with Baratunde Thurston transports viewers to unique — and sometimes dangerous — terrain within the U.S. Author, comedian and podcast host Thurston serves as host and travel guide, exploring the outdoors while asking questions about how the landscape is changing and how easily people can experience it.

“We’re looking at conservation, changing landscapes and changing climate,” said Michael Rosenfeld, series EP and VP of national productions for TPT, which is producing the series for PBS with Part2 Pictures. “We’re looking at the whole question of access and equity in the outdoors: Who has access to the outdoors, and who doesn’t have easy access? Who feels safe and welcome in the outdoors, and who doesn’t?”

Thurston (Photo: TPT)

Thurston is author of the New York Times bestseller How to Be Black and a noted thought leader on race, culture and politics. As host of America Outdoors, he asks what’s being done to make outdoor spaces welcoming for everybody, Rosenfeld added.

Rosenfeld is a former president of National Geographic Television who joined TPT in 2016. He worked with Bill Gardner, PBS VP of programming and development, to develop the series. His team conducted extensive research on trends in outdoor travel and adventure as they shaped the editorial framework for America Outdoors. They also wanted to explore how nature is experienced in big urban spaces.

The six-episode series takes viewers to Death Valley, Minnesota, Idaho, Appalachia, Los Angeles and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Thurston tours each location, exploring the history and culture of each place by introducing viewers to people who live there.

“We’ve got a rancher in Idaho, the mayor of a ghost town in Death Valley,” Rosenfeld said. In L.A., Thurston meets a Japanese master gardener and a group of mostly Black, mostly female surfers who call themselves “Color the Water.”

Thurston is a skilled interviewer who brings warmth, humor and reflection to his hosting role, Rosenfeld said. “These conversations just take off, and he’s laughing with people and joking with them but also asking some very deep questions: ‘How do Americans think about the outdoors? What are they passionate about?’ He’s just so good at bringing that out with people,” he said.

The format includes vox pop sections, deep profiles and reflective moments when Thurston describes what he’s experiencing, Rosenfeld said. “In each episode, we’re sitting down with him in a quiet moment and getting him to reflect on what he’s saying and feeling, sort of like a diary,” he said.

“It’s not just that he has a way with words,” said Rosenfeld. “He’s a deep thinker, but he has a way of taking complicated ideas and just making them fun and accessible. And he’s funny — I mean, he wrote for The Onion and The Daily Show.”

Leguizamo’s journey

American Historia, a three-part series now in preproduction, offers another take on the travel genre. Actor and comedian John Leguizamo travels through the U.S., Mexico and beyond to capture the overlooked historical contributions of Latinx people.

The series “focuses on the history, culture, arts and contributions of Latinos, and it has Latinos in front and behind the camera,” said Sandie Pedlow, executive director of Latino Public Broadcasting, one of two executive producers on the series. LPB’s production partners include the WNET Group in New York City and NGL Media, where Leguizamo is a partner.

Lesley Norman, EP for WNET, expects the series to have universal appeal with audiences. There’s going to be an appeal for everyone on this, [including] young people, because it’s John Leguizamo, who’s funny and smart and has a lot to say, and people already know his work,” she said.

Among the production partners, director Ben DeJesus, a producer with NGL Studios, and Leguizamo “are the creative geniuses behind this,” Pedlow said.

In an interview, DeJesus said the concept sprang from Leguizamo’s hit Broadway show, Latin History for Morons.

“When we were in the middle of mounting the Broadway show, I said, ‘Man, it would be really fascinating if people saw the academic part of John’s process behind the scenes,’” DeJesus said. “… And that was the genesis of this project: Instead of just showing John’s end result of the show, what if we saw his journey in building the show?”

The series begins with Leguizamo finding “a historical mentor, a professor from an Ivy League school” who teaches Leguizamo about his heritage and “the impact we’ve had on history,” DeJesus said.

The travel itinerary is extensive, he added. Leguizamo’s journey starts in the U.S. and moves on to Mexico and the Caribbean. Along the way, he comes to understand how the Taínos, the Spaniards and the African slave trade influenced creation of “the Latinos that we know today.”

Pedlow is optimistic that American Historia will resonate with younger viewers in particular. “I’m hoping that it will empower young Latinos and young students that may not know any of the history that we are going to explore,” she said. “It’s wonderful for kids to feel that pride to see themselves on the screen and to be encouraged that they can aspire to more.”

The broadcast series is one part of a multiplatform production that’s planned for American Historia, according to Pedlow and Norman.

The partners are raising funds to “bring this content to where and how different generations are consuming media,” Norman said. They’ve planned a variety of elements in addition to the broadcast, including an original digital series, an enhanced website, social media promotion, curricular materials for PBS LearningMedia and national station engagement. 

“We’ll be designing RFPs to go out to local stations for various kinds of participation — either grants for local events or productions of their own,” Norman said. “We haven’t gotten quite to that point yet because we’re still in fundraising.”

“We know this is aspirational, but we intend to produce as much ancillary content as possible,” she added.

DeJesus believes that American Historia has potential tobecome an ongoing series, just like Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and he already has ideas for how to expand the production.

“Eventually it could be that John may spend one episode, maybe in one Latin American country, and each time he gets into a country, he would link up with a local academic and a local artist, and they would help him understand the specific culture,” he said. “There’s endless heroes and contributions that we can highlight.”

This article has been updated to clarify VPM’s role as presenting station for The Great American Recipe.

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