While you’d expect Great American Recipe’s depiction of scrumptious meals to make your mouth water, the heartfelt stories of its chefs are just as likely to reduce you to tears.
In its third episode, fittingly entitled “Love Language,” North Carolina’s proudly southern chef Bambi Daniels breaks down as she cooks up a rich and juicy plate of Honey Turkey Wings. Her mother, Mae Emma, had recently suffered a stroke. Bambi had made it her mission to not just keep the family recipes alive, but to spread them far and wide.
Over the course of its eight episodes, Great American Recipe gives all ten of its amateur chefs chances to do just that. They serve up irresistible dishes from across the world, each with a distinctly American twist — from Rhode Island fireman Dan Rinaldi’s sizzling fried calamari to the decadent Mexican mantecadas with lime atole from California’s Silvia Martinez.
“We want to let the chefs, their recipes and their stories speak for themselves,” said series EP Layla Smith. Despite all the cooking shows on television, “there wasn’t a multicultural one like this.” As CEO for Objective Media Group, Smith has also overseen multiple reality TV and cooking shows, such as Spring Baking Championship: Easter and Worst Cooks In America.
Great American Recipe borrows key ingredients and inspiration from The Great British Baking Show, the BBC import that became a hit for PBS over five seasons. But producers steered away from comedian presenters who lighten the mood and judges whose questions deliberately undermine contestants’ self-confidence.
“PBS always knew what they wanted the tone to be like,” said Smith. “They knew they weren’t the channel to pit people against each other or exploit them. They wanted it to be celebratory. They wanted the chefs to cheer each other on, even though someone would be leaving at the end of the episode.”
“Competition is a part of The Great American Recipe, but there’s so much more to it …,” said Zara Frankel, director of programming and development for PBS. “We wanted each person to showcase themselves, their own personal story and their food journey. I think that’s what makes it unique to PBS and probably why you wouldn’t find it elsewhere.”
Burst of streaming views
As of July 25, The Great American Recipe’s opening three episodes have already accumulated over 783,000 full episode streams. The June 24 debut episode also increased PBS’ average for livestream viewing by 14% compared to the 2022 season-to-date average for Fridays at 9 p.m.
Before the series’ debut, PBS showcased arts and performance programs on Fridays at 9. Live-stream viewing for the timelot during the 2022 season averaged 3,400 before The Great American Recipe took the stage, according to a PBS spokeswoman.
“Friday nights have been a place where we traditionally air public affairs shows earlier in the evening and then … arts and performance,” said Sherri Walton, program manager of Idaho Public Television and a member of PBS’ program advisory committee. “This was an opportunity to try something a little bit different.”
Great American Recipe has had a “great” response from Idaho Public TV’s viewers, especially since contestant Nikki Tomiano-Allemand hails from Boise, Walton said. “We’ve had a lot of nice press coverage.”
“It’s really fun and exciting for us to have a contestant involved,” Walton said. “It gives us somebody to root for, like a sports team. That doesn’t happen often for us. So it’s fun when it does.”
Steve Humble, the chief content officer for VPM in Richmond, Va., which co-produced the series, has been “thrilled with the streaming numbers so far.” He feels “like the series is just going to get better and better, and people are going to get more invested as it goes on.”
A PBS spokeswoman also said that Great American Recipe has “already been a multiplatform success on both broadcast and digital, attracting younger, and more diverse audiences.” Its first two episodes reached a combined audience of over 3.9 million people, which made them “some of the highest rated Friday night shows of the year,” added the spokesperson. These figures were derived from Nielsen NPOWER, which measures viewership and captures audience demographics from streaming platforms and linear television, as of July 16.
PBS promoted the premiere of The Great American Recipe with a paid media campaign that included targeted TV, digital and social media ad placements. Meanwhile PBS Food, its website showcasing content from all of PBS’ cooking shows, has been featuring episodes from the series and releasing a recipe of the week on Instagram.
Local station engagement is another key element of PBS’ marketing plan. Ten stations received grants of up to $15,000 to host events and create local content promoting The Great American Recipe and celebrating multiculturalism.
One recipient, KIXE in Redding, Calif., found a way to blend its viewers’ interests in history and food programming with “Modern Rural,” a series of digital shorts tracing the history of Northern California through historical recipes and multicultural food traditions. Local chef Che Steadman hosts the vignettes, which are posted on the station’s website and social media.
Since a high percentage of KIXE’s audience tunes to linear broadcasts, the station plans to present an hour-long special, Modern Rural: The History of the North State Recipe during the week of The Great American Recipe season finale.
Additional grant recipients are PBS SoCal in Los Angeles; Vegas PBS in Nevada; WBGU in Bowling Green, Ohio; WDSE/WRPT in Duluth, Minn.; WGVU Public Media in Grand Rapids, Mich.; WKNO in Memphis, Tenn.; WMHT in Troy, N.Y.; WNIN in Evansville, Ind.; and WQLN in Erie, Pa. They are creating how-to videos, digital-first series, masterclasses, live events and various other multi-platform projects that honor the culinary diversity of their regions.
WKNO hired local filmmakers to create two digital shorts, said Debi Robertson, director of television content. The first focuses on Pop’s Hot Tamales, a small but popular restaurant that makes “a Mexican dish” with “Memphis flair,” she said. The other visits Global Cafe, an international food court where immigrant and refugee food entrepreneurs prepare authentic dishes from their home countries. WKNO held its first-ever Great Congregational Cook-Off July 24. The event encouraged attendees to prepare and share their signature barbeque and secret family recipes.
PBS, VPM, and Objective Media are confident that station events like this will aid word of mouth for The Great American Recipe and help build viewership over time.
That’s why PBS sought rights for an extended free streaming window for the series’ first season, Smith explained. All eight episodes will remain available for free streaming until the end of 2022. Then they’ll be released onto Passport, the streaming service for station members, as of Jan. 1.
By that point, the closely-held secret of which home chef wins the competition with their great American recipe will be a secret no more. Host Alejandra Ramos will announce the winning recipe on the Aug. 12 season finale, and the dish will be pictured on the cover of the companion book. The Great American Recipe Cookbook, which includes recipes from all of the contestants, the judges and Ramos, will be published Aug. 16.
‘I’m so tired of mean’
Ramos, a trained chef and food and lifestyle contributor for the Today Show, has been promoting The Great American Recipe on her social media accounts. Fans have reacted to praise the “warmth and joy of the show,” she said in an interview.
“They find it soothing to watch on a Friday night after a long, stressful week,” she said. “It’s inspiring people to talk to their families about their own recipes. We hoped that people would be inspired to cook and to try new flavors, but we didn’t expect that.”
Not everyone has been wowed by the PBS nice-ness of the Great American Recipe. TV critic Andy Dehnart, who covers reality TV on his blog Reality Blurred, was disappointed by the first two episodes, he wrote in a review published in June.
“I was hoping this would become PBS’s must-watch show, and it may someday, but I regret to report that while its first season is not bad, it is quite bland,” Dehnart wrote. Referencing chef and author Samin Nosrat, he quipped, “The Great American Recipe has neither acid nor heat, and while there’s not a lot of fat or filler, it doesn’t even bother with a sprinkling of salt to perk things up.
Robertson and Walton, station programmers who have become advocates for the show, dismissed Dehnart’s critique. “I’m so tired of mean, I’m just happy for nice,” said Robertson. “In this world we’re living in right now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little bit of kindness and respect,” Walton said.
Staff from stations that received promotion grants from PBS have become a community of peers, meeting monthly to discuss their events, said Emily Wilderman, director of events and theater at WNIN. She’s never had a “connection with a PBS program” like she has with Great American Recipe, she said. “It’s not about winning or being competitive, it’s really just connecting through food and our culture.”
The contestants who went through an extensive process to get onto the show — understandably with the goal of winning — also developed an uplifting esprit de corps during production. And with the chefs it’s clearly visible in how they behave on the set.
In episode two, Foo Nguyen, a home chef who blends his family’s Vietnamese cooking traditions with Midwestern comfort food, prepares spaghetti and meatballs. Nikki Tomiano-Allemand, the favorite contestant of Idaho Public TV’s audience, lent her expertise on Italian cuisine to provide tips on the sauce. Tomiano-Allemand, meanwhile, is preparing cilantro lime shrimp tacos. Martinez, a Californian who grew up in central Mexico, tastes the taco filling and tells Tomiano-Allemand to add more salt.
Some contestants spent a little too much time on set helping others, Smith said. “They were so happy and keen to help one another that we had to remind some of them to leave enough time for their own cooking.”
The friendships between the chefs didn’t evaporate after filming concluded, according to Frankel. “They were in constant conversation leading up to the premiere. They really bonded and they’re still talking and supporting each other,” she said.
Even the contestants that were eliminated in early episodes continue to support the show by hosting screening parties, Humble said. They keep him updated about their appearances on local TV shows, or work they’re doing to raise funds for nonprofits.
With millions of Americans still so intensely divided by their politics, Great American Recipe can remind people that eating and talking about food can be the “great unifier and bring people to the same table,” said Humble.
Everyone involved in Great American Recipe hopes that another batch of amateur chefs will get the chance to showcase their recipes and tell the stories behind them.
Producers already have their “eyes on wanting to make more seasons,” Smith said.
PBS programmers are still weighing whether to greenlight a second season. A PBS spokeswoman said they are “watching the show’s performance closely and hope to have a decision in the near future.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported on plans for the cover of the Great American Recipe Cookbook. It will feature a photo of the winning recipe, not the chef who prepared it.