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The Great American Recipe 2’s winner on ‘self-induced’ challenges, and inspiring culinary exploration

The Great American Recipe 2’s winner on ‘self-induced’ challenges, and inspiring culinary exploration
The Great American Recipe season 2 finalists Brad Mahlof, Leanna Pierre, and Salmah Hack (Image from The Great American Recipe)

While PBS’s The Great American Recipe season two changed its format to not have weekly eliminations, the cooking competition did have a final three and selected a winner this week.

PBS also renewed the series for a third season, which will air in summer 2024. Season two will continue to stream free the rest of this year, and is also on PBS Living.

In the penultimate episode of The Great American Recipe season 2, the judges chose three finalists based on their performance during the entire season:

  • Salmah Hack, who cooks Guyanese food
  • Brad Mahlof, whose dishes are Libyan cuisine
  • Leanna Pierre, whose cooking is Caribbean-inspired

In the end, the judges chose Brad as the winner, choosing the Kosher home cook because he “showed tremendous growth and was able to show us who they are,” as judge Tiffany Derry said.

Brad’s winning recipe, and how it was judged

Four people sitting at a table, hands clasped in front of them and resting on the table, inside a spacious, modern barn
The Great American Recipe season 2 judges Leah Cohen, Graham Elliot, and Tiffany Derry, plus host Alejandra Ramos (Photo by PBS)

Brad’s mafrum will be on the cover of The Great American Recipe Cookbook Season 2 Edition.

Though he didn’t select that recipe, which he cooked in the finale, he told me, “I’m very happy they did. It’s the crown jewel of Libyan Jewish food. It’s a meat stuffed vegetable and it’s paired with a bunch of different salads, so it’s visually very attractive, and it tastes delicious.”

“Before we actually got there, we did submit recipes” to the producers, Brad added. “And then after the show, they had recipe testers do all the testing.”

Brad said he appreciated that because “I think for all the home cooks, but especially for me, I’m not great at actually writing recipes out. I cook a lot with feeling, with heart. Even if I’m writing out a recipe, I’ll say like, Oh, a tablespoon of salt, and then I find myself sprinkling extra. It’s hard to quantify.”

Speaking of recipes: I asked Brad about my perpetual confusion about what exactly The Great American Recipe is actually judged on. While the show is called The Great American Recipe, the cooks are not judged based on their recipes.

I actually asked the judges about that the PBS’s day at a press conference during the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in January.

Tiffany Derry said, “The recipe is what they’re making, so it is about the recipe itself,” but she also said it’s “what they tell us through the food and through words,” and the “stories behind it. But it is about the recipe, as well.”

Graham Elliot added, “we always say in the kitchen that a recipe, you know, it’s a blueprint,” and added, “when you see these recipes that they present us beforehand and we know what they’re gonna be going after as they’re cooking, as they’ve received different input and tricks and comments from us judging, you’ll see them adapt as they go forward.”

Leah Cohen said “behind any great recipe is a great story,” and said contestants should “take what the judges are saying while also staying true to the recipe that your mother or father taught you, and then be able to adapt it and make it better.”

The Great American Recipe season 2’s winner told me this week that “I think the term ‘Recipe’ is less about a list of ingredients and a step-by-step procedure, and more the concept: This is my dish, and the recipe behind it, and the story behind it.”

“The premise of the show is finding the best American recipes, but they don’t care so much if you’re following [your recipe] to the tee,” Brad said. “If anything, they were actually encouraging us to pivot.”

Brad’s journey to—and from—The Great American Recipe

A person in a blue apron poses with his arms on his hips
Brad Mahlof, winner of The Great American Recipe season 2 (Photo by PBS)

The Great American Recipe was again filmed in Virginia, at a wedding venue, The Barns at Mattaponi Springs, over about three or four weeks.

During that time, Brad said, “the contestants all got along super well. It almost felt like summer camp. We were all there together. There was a sense of competition, but more than anything, a real friendship that developed between all of us. So we all kind of bonded in the good and also in the bad parts of the experience.”

The experience, he said, “was pretty relentless. Not only do you have to be a good cook, you just also have to have amazing stamina.”

The time between casting and filming was short, about two weeks, so Brad said he only had time “to practice every recipe at least once. There were some that just did not work out at all, but I was just like, Okay, well, it didn’t work out the first time, but hopefully on the show it’ll work out.

The Great American Recipe season 2’s non-elimination format was a surprise to the contestants, who learned about it at the end of the first episode—not that Brad was at risk, since he was at the top both episode-one rounds.

“I do think that it alleviated all our stress,” he said. “It gave us all the opportunity to stick around longer and share our stories.”

“I thrive on stress and competition, so that part wasn’t too bad,” Brad told me. The bigger challenge, he said, was that his “dishes take two, three, four, or five hours to prepare. But I still wanted to represent them. So trying to figure out how to consolidate and abridge these recipes into an hour cooking format was challenging, and then also doing that basically for the first time on the show, in a competition format.”

“It was kind of self-induced challenge,” Brad added. “I could have played it safe.” Clearly, his strategy worked.

Like many reality TV contestants, Brad was recruited via his Instagram account, @cookwithbrad. “I actually thought it was a scam. … I ignored it, but they kept badgering me and reaching out, time and time again. Finally, I responded and went through the process thinking hey, even if I get on, I don’t know if I’m even going to do this.”

Brad said he did not imagine himself on a reality TV cooking show, but that “knowing that it’s PBS, which is relatively drama free, was a good kind of stepping-stone into TV. If I was just getting thrown into a crazy, drama-inducing reality [show], I don’t know if I would have done it.”

As Brad shared on the show, telling his family and culture’s story was very important. He said he hopes viewers take away “just knowing that Libyan Jewish people exist, but more so that our food is so delicious,” he told me. “What a shame that people just don’t know what our food is, and they’re not cooking it at home. [I’m] trying to put that food out there and have people be able to see it and hopefully be inspired to try it out and make it themselves.”

Brad shares food on Instagram, and has recently created so that people can attempt the actual recipes themselves. “People got frustrated,” he laughed. “They’re like: Hey, your food looks great, but either invite us over or teach us how to make it.

Besides his website, Brad said “I’m trying to figure out where I belong in the food world, because I would love to continue on the journey of food. Prior to the show, it was not my profession—and it’s still not quite my profession, but I’m hoping to bridge into it. I just have to figure out how I could pay the bills while doing something in food, whether that’s doing private cooking for people, or doing restaurant pop-ups, which I did a few weeks ago.”

Despite his initial reluctance to even reply to casting producers from The Great American Recipe, Brad told me that today, “I would definitely do a TV experience again. I would love to be a judge—maybe not a contestant.”

“I would love to just do cooking demonstrations or bring other people onto a show and explore other cultures. I also love to travel. There’s so much out there.”

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Thursday 10th of August 2023

I liked the new format. I also appreciated that the cooks were true home cooks, and the food was accessible, even if it wasn’t familiar