TV writers across North America made a big deal when Law & Order: SVU celebrated three decades on the air earlier this year.
Here in Manitoba, however, a similar success story flew under the radar, a show that doesn’t court ratings with ripped-from-the-headlines crimes, but relies on decidedly homier comforts to entice viewers.
This year, CTV’s Great Tastes of Manitoba celebrates 30 years on the air, making it the longest-running locally produced TV series.
Great Tastes, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m., is also the most-watched cooking show in the province, reaching more Manitobans each week than any program on Food Network Canada. Recent ratings show it clocking in at No. 37 in the local TV listings — trailing the aforementioned L&O: SVU by a mere 17 places, and beating out such venerable offerings as The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Chicago P.D.
Chris McIvor credits the ratings bump to the tweaks and modernization he and the team at Frank Digital, his production company, brought to Great Tastes after he purchased the rights to the show it from original producer, Don Hornby, five years ago.
McIvor, who also directs the series’ 15 half-hour episodes, says a stronger focus on Manitoba ingredients is part of the appeal, thanks to the involvement and co-operation of seven different farmer-directed organizations.
"I think Manitoba is the only province where all these commodity groups, which are generally fighting for their own piece of the market, work together and basically market the province together through the show," McIvor says.
"Before, the show was really based on the alcohol pairings," he says. "We wanted to push more of the easy meals for families and the farm-to-table idea."
"I think Manitoba is the only province where all these commodity groups, which are generally fighting for their own piece of the market, work together and basically market the province together through the show." –Director Chris McIvor
Producer Donalee Jones, who is also a farmer, helped steer the revamped show toward using local ingredients — and dispelling myths about food production — even as the recipes expanded to include more global cuisine.
The concept is simple: three recipes — based on a theme and using food from that week’s sponsor — are each paired with a beverage by Aaron Alblas, Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries product ambassador.
For instance, for the show Local Chicken, Global Flavours, Gina Sunderland, a dietitian and the food and consumer relations specialist with Manitoba Chicken Producers, showed viewers how to make Korean Wings (served with 7 Deadly Zins Zinfandel), Spanish Chicken Skewers with Yogurt Sauce (paired with Havana Club Añejo 3 Años Light Rum Mojito) and Thai Chicken Coconut Curry Soup (Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel Chardonnay). (Enticed? Recipes are here.)
Another change was bringing aboard Winnipeg radio personality Dez Daniels as host (the show has had eight hosts over the years, including Virgin 103’s Ace Burpee and Jim Ingebrigtsen).
She was already involved with the show by providing voice-overs; the producers asked her to audition.
Going from behind the mic to in front of the camera was a bit nerve-racking, Daniels admits, but she credits a team — onscreen and off — that’s become like family over the years with easing her transition.
"I’ve gone from not knowing at all what I’m doing to knowing what I’m doing some of the time," she says with a laugh. "We have fun; it’s genuinely fun to do, and I think viewers pick up on that."
The series is shot live-to-tape; a half-hour episode takes about 90 minutes to complete. The crew shoots three shows a day, so the 15-episode season (a total of 45 dishes) is completed in five days.
A host of hosts
Great Tastes of Manitoba has been led by eight different people over its 30 years:
"Unless a disaster happens, it’s one take," director McIvor says.
Daniels, who grew up as part of a farm family in Saskatchewan, started cooking for her family at around age seven or eight. After becoming a stepmom and then a mom, time in the kitchen was an obligatory task rather than something she really enjoyed.
"It’s in the past few years, coincidentally around the time that I started doing the show, that I started cooking for pleasure or cooking just for the sake of cooking," she says, adding that she’s often taken dishes from the show to try out at home.
"The recipes, objectively, are awesome, and I think word’s gotten around about that," she says. "The feedback has been that people enjoy the food that we make and they enjoy trying it — and that it’s good eatin’!"
Research bears out Daniels’ perception. The recipes, which are aimed at the home cook, are triple-tested before they’re prepared on the show, which is shot in the kitchen of the Grant Park Liquor Mart Education Centre. According to a recent viewer survey, 65 per cent of viewers have tried a recipe in their own kitchens; 94 per cent of them were satisfied with the final product.
"We have fun; it’s genuinely fun to do, and I think viewers pick up on that.” –host Dez Daniels
As part of celebrating the 30th season, the show shot six short features on Manitoba farmers and put them up on the website GreatTastesMB.ca, where you can also stream past episodes and find all the recipes. The response has been huge.
"People seem to be fascinated by it," Daniels says. "It’s part of that whole concept of ‘buy local.’ It’s not even a trend anymore; it’s a way of life for a lot of people.
"I do think it’s important. I think it helps promote a sense of community. Obviously Winnipeg is an urban centre and of course there are other urban centres in Manitoba, but it’s a farming province, an agricultural province. I think it’s important for folks to know where their food comes from, how it’s produced. People are now genuinely interested in that for a lot of reasons."
Asked to explain Great Tastes of Manitoba’s longevity, Daniels says feedback from fans who approach her on the street or in coffee shops seems to focus on the show’s family feel.
"There’s something homespun about it, I think," she says. "They sense the specialness of it, that it’s focused around Manitoba: Manitoba people, Manitoba products, Manitoba farmers."
The 30th season of Great Tastes of Manitoba wraps up on Saturday, Dec. 21 on CTV.
Senior copy editor
Jill Wilson writes about culture and the culinary arts for the Arts & Life section.
Updated on Thursday, December 5, 2019 at 9:04 AM CST: Adds missing cast member