National Market Swells for 'You're the Chef' Cooking Series

Published 04.05.2001


A former cable access cooking series is gaining access to public television viewers in all parts of the country while continuing to rely on its original ingredients for success: practicality and fun.

"You're the Chef," a co-production of Pennsylvania College of Technology and PBS-member station WVIA, is sharing its refreshing menu of culinary basics and good times to millions of households. In its first months of national distribution, "You're the Chef" has exceeded expectations as 17 public television stations covering 10 states, 13.9 million television households, and over 37 million people have requested a serving of the series, which originated in 1996 as a low-budget cable access program in Williamsport.

"When we started on cable, we couldn't even cook on our set," laughs Tom Speicher, co-host and co-executive producer of "You're the Chef." "We had to videotape the cooking procedures at the College and then try to incorporate that footage into our live show at the cable company as we sat behind a small table. When you take a moment to recall where we started, where we are now, and where we're headed, it's quite a story."

"You're the Chef" aired on local cable in Williamsport, located in north-central Pennsylvania and known internationally as the birthplace of Little League Baseball, in 1996 and 1997. WVIA, the PBS station for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton region, spotted the program's potential during the cable run and collaborated with Penn College, a special-mission affiliate of The Pennsylvania State University, to transform "You're the Chef" into a public television series in 1998.

"The chemistry between the hosts Chef Paul Mach (an assistant professor at Penn College's School of Hospitality) and cooking novice Tom Speicher struck me right away," recalled Mark Thomas, vice president of television at WVIA. "When I saw that, I knew the show had an opportunity to be something special. There aren't a lot of people who can cook and have fun in the kitchen at the same time."

The public television version of the series immediately became a hit on WVIA, winning its Saturday afternoon time slot and exceeding the ratings of "national" cooking programs. After tinkering with the series for a few years and seeing it air regionally on public television in Pennsylvania, the decision was made to take "You're the Chef's" 2000 season nationwide through the National Educational Telecommunications Association. A major distributor of "how-to" programs, NETA's lineup includes the public television staple "Ciao Italia!" and about a dozen other cooking shows.

"We were very excited when NETA started distributing our show in February," says Speicher. But even with that distribution, there was no guarantee that stations would pick up the series. "That's what makes the response we've received very gratifying."

According to Gayle J. Loeber, NETA's director of programming and information, the organization is "quite pleased" with stations' response to the initial "You're the Chef" rollout. "There are about 70 cooking series currently available to public stations," Loeber reports, "and the fact that several stations, including some in major markets, have committed to 'You?re the Chef' at this early date is a testament to the show's quality and its promise to grow into a nationally known series."

PBS affiliates in top-20 markets Los Angeles (KCET), Chicago (WYIN) and Sacramento, Calif. (KVIE), have already picked up the series. In addition, medium-market stations in Milwaukee (WMVS), Harrisburg (WITF), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (WVIA), Fresno, Calf. (KVPT), and Charlestown/Huntington, W.Va. (WOUB), currently air the series or will begin broadcasting "You're the Chef" in the coming weeks. Other "You're the Chef" markets include Johnstown/Altoona (WPSX), Binghamton, NY (WSKG), Harrisonburg, Va. (WVPT), Lansing, Mich. (WKAR), Wheeling W.Va./Steubenville, Ohio (WOUC), and Waco/Temple/Bryan, Texas (KWBU and KAMU).

In addition, "You?re the Chef" begins on Maryland Public Television in late May and is scheduled to come to Philadelphia (WYBE), the nation's fourth-largest market, in June.

"I'm confident, that in the coming months, many more public television stations across the country will come to recognize the combination of family-style cooking, professional expertise and fun that 'You're the Chef' brings to the table," Loeber says. "Stations will find that 'Youre the Chef will be a welcome addition to their how-to lineup."

While the show's look has changed drastically since its local cable days, the premise of the Telly Award-winning series remains the same: draw on the resources of Penn College's acclaimed School of Hospitality to showcase practical recipes with readily available ingredients and have a good time doing it.

"Chef Paul's expertise blends with Tom's naivete to produce an informative and entertaining half hour of television," commented Thomas. "Chef Paul always has the average person facing time and budget constraints in mind with he considers the recipes and ingredients. Tom stands in for the viewer by asking questions the viewer is probably thinking but afraid to ask. Plus, the combination of their personalities adds a good deal of humor to the menu."

The practical nature of "You're the Chef" is an extension of the hands-on philosophy of Penn College, Speicher notes. "Penn College prides itself on educating its students for the real world by focusing on real-world skills," he says. "While entertaining, the series serves as a form of educational outreach for the College's School of Hospitality."

The series has benefited from past and current students receiving their education at Penn College.

"Without student assistance, there would be no series," states Speicher. "Most public television cooking series have numerous chefs and other support staff behind the scenes. We don't have that luxury. However, we can draw on the support of students from a variety of majors and at the same time provide them with a valuable learning experience."

Besides Mach, "You're the Chef's" cooking staff consists of three School of Hospitality students. The series is videotaped at Penn College in a functional kitchen designed and constructed by students, faculty and staff from the College's School of Construction and Design Technologies. A select group of students from the College's School of Business and Computer Technologies is currently working on a "You're the Chef" CD-ROM, which will connect to the series' popular Web site.

"Without the support of many individuals at Penn College and some talented production folks at our producing station, WVIA, the 'You're the Chef' story would have been a short one," comments Speicher. "Now with our alliance with NETA and the response we've received by stations, it looks like we're in for a several-course meal. And believe me, we will savor every bit of it because we'll never forget where we started."

"You're the Chef," which also now has an international distributor Teleproductions International, Ltd. starts production on a new season's worth of episodes this June at Penn College.

More information on NETA can be found online.