PBS’s bland cooking competition – reality blurred

In the early 2000s, PBS was home to some of the best reality television: American High and shows like Colonial House and my beloved Manor House that brought history to life — and brought real-life drama, too.

Since then, it’s had some great unscripted series and food shows that are great fun and Hosted by great Talent.

But it has not had its own signature reality competition in the way that the BBC had The Great British Bake-Off.

The Great American Recipe (PBS, Fridays at 9) was announced last summer as “an uplifting cooking competition” that “will give Talented home cooks from different regions of the country the opportunity to showcase their beloved signature dishes.”

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 isn’t bad, it’s quite bland.

To borrow from Samin Nosrat, 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.

Is Great American Recipe a Recipe Competition?

Great American Recipe Judges Tiffany Derry and Graham Elliot, host Alejandra Ramos, and judge Leah Cohen talk to a contestant, far left
Great American Recipe Judges Tiffany Derry and Graham Elliot, host Alejandra Ramos, and judge Leah Cohen talk to a contestant, far left. (Photo by PBS / VPM)

The Great American Recipe‘s title introduces its problem. It suggests it is a show about recipes — one that will actually produce a Cookbook—But the competition itself has nothing to do with recipes.

We don’t see recipes on screen, the Judges don’t look at recipes, and the contestants don’t even work from recipes. Sometimes blank index cards wipe across the screen as transitions, but the fact that they’re blank says a lot.

The judging criteria are taste, presentation, execution, and “how well your dish showcases the theme.” Nothing about the recipe.

I’m not sure what I expected. Top Chef recently had a recipe-creating challenge, with the contestants’ recipes being tested by other chefs, and it was a great challenge, though perhaps not sustainable for an entire series. But I expected something to do with recipes, other than the occasional use of the word.

The Great American Recipe‘s tagline is “putting family favorites to the test,” which could be an idea, though that show has been done on shows such as The Big Family Cooking Showdown, a warm and friendly British show that’s on Netflix.

And there have been many, many shows with home cooks preparing signature dishes.

With its title and tagline failing to provide an identity or direction, the rest of the show doesn’t develop find anything to grab on to.

The cast of PBS's cooking competition The Great American Recipe
The cast of PBS’s cooking competition The Great American Recipe (Photo by Silvia Martinez / PBS)

Each Episode (I’ve seen the first two) has two challenges, with the Judges naming their favorites and least-favorite.

It’s all so aggressively generic, from the music to the physical space, and just flattens into nothing.

Even the space is not specific to any place or time or theme. The Great American Recipe takes place in a barn somewhere in Virginia, but it’s a character-free barn: wood paneled walls, racks of supplies cluttering the edges, bright blue benches and Aprons but baby powder blue dishes.

I don’t expect the art design of Top Chefbut if The Great British Bake-Off can make a tent in a field have a character with some bunting, do something, please, help me here!

Why are they in a barn? What is the point? This seems like a cooking competition designed by people who’ve seen ads for cooking competitions, but have no sense of the history or breadth of the genre.

The Great American Recipe arrives 16 years after Bravo’s Top Chefand 12 years after the UK’s The Great British Bake-Offand yet Somehow Manages to feel it predates those shows.

On top of that, the production has noticably amateurish edges.

Listen as People’s Voices echo in the (unnecessarily) cavernous space, or as the Generic music doesn’t ever really match the moment.

Watch how cameras on Tripods rattle, or as a contestant describes, at length, incorporating butter into dough while we just see his face, instead of giving a medium shot in which we can see him talking and kneading at the same time.

Tiffany Derry on Top Chef Amateurs, and Graham Elliot during Top Chef season 15. Both will judge PBS's new Great American Recipe
Tiffany Derry on Top Chef Amateurs, and Graham Elliot during Top Chef season 15. Both will judge PBS’s new Great American Recipe. (Photo of Tiffany by David Moir / Bravo; photo of Graham by Tommy Garcia / Bravo)

What’s surprising is that this is produced by Virginia Public Media along with Objective Media Group America (OMG America), which has produced Food Network’s Worst Cooks in America and HBO Max’s 12 Dates of Christmas—Competitions with identities and personalities. (Sure, Worst Cooks is a jokeand more like a sit-com than a serious competition, but it offers something.)

Some of the elements are here: Graham Elliot is certainly a jovial presence and an experienced TV cooking competition judge, while Top Chef and Tournament of Champions alum Tiffany Derry offers precise critiques and personality. But the show doesn’t know how to use them in any interesting way.

Also judging is Leah Cohen, who was on Top Chef’s fifth season and now has two New York City restaurants, and host Alejandra Ramos, a food writer and chef.

The 10 home cooks who are competing seem nice, and are nice to each other. They have different backgrounds and experiences, and share stories about their dishes, and this is the part that should have the most life, yet Somehow it’s as flat as the barn’s walls.

“We all have really strong palates here, so I think you can just kick up the seasoning a little bit,” Leah Cohen told one contestant in the second episode. I wish someone would have given the same note to the producers.

The Great American Recipe‘s elements just kind of lay there, a place to place in need of someone with vision and artistry to make it all work.

The Great American Recipe

The Great American Recipe is an aggressively Generic cooking competition, from the music to the physical space, and has no real reason for existing. C

What works for me:

  • The cooking, the judging — it’s fine. Just fine.
  • The people all seem very nice, though Somehow they’re boring to watch

What could be better:

  • An identity
  • Something to do with recipes, or a different title?
  • Better attention to production details, from set design to cinematography

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