When he was first approached to record a podcast centered around holiday cooking, longtime Today weatherman Al Roker had some doubts. “I wasn’t sure it would work,” he says. “Do people really listen to podcasts to cook?” But as soon as he started preparing for Cooking Up a Storm With Al Roker, his new Thanksgiving-themed podcast, it immediately became clear that the format actually did make sense.
“Cooking is really sort of like theater,” Roker says. “It’s a multi-sense experience — there’s the smells, there’s the sights, and there’s also the sound of cooking. In some ways, it’s easier to concentrate on what you need to do because you’re not so distracted by what you’re looking at.” Home cooks and podcast obsessives apparently agreed, considering that the show immediately jumped into the top 10 most downloaded podcasts on Apple the day it was released.
The six-episode series is essentially a six-course Thanksgiving Day meal; Roker’s been a fixture of the holiday for decades thanks to his hosting duties at the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. In each episode, Roker is joined by an expert like YouTube superstar Sohla El-Waylly, legendary food TV personality Ina Garten, and baker Maya-Camille Broussard to make six different classic Thanksgiving dishes, ranging from a turkey dry-brined with MSG and served with honey-thyme gravy and sweet potato pie with plantains.
When it came to selecting guests for each episode, Roker and his production team wanted to make sure that the show reflected a broad swath of Thanksgiving experiences. He enlisted close friends Marcus Samuelsson, who joins Roker to prepare his recipe for berbere-spiced brussels sprouts, and Alexander Smalls, who cooks up a classic cornbread dressing studded with oysters on the podcast. He also met some new faces, like El-Waylly, who developed a dry-brined turkey breast that Roker says is totally “mind-blowing.”
“These folks are just a really great cross-section of America, along with being terrific chefs,” Roker says. “Getting to talk to them about how they came up with these dishes and their experiences with Thanksgiving and what it means to them was really special.”
One of the podcast’s most compelling moments comes toward the end of the series, when Minneapolis chef Sean Sherman joins to share his recipe for cranberry wojape, a traditional Lakota recipe made with berries, dried rose hips, and maple syrup. “It was really important to us to bring in Sean’s perspective, and he was really eloquent in talking about it,” Roker says. “I think we are a great enough country that we can recognize that, while we have this idealized notion of the way things went, we need to look at how Thanksgiving developed from a realistic standpoint, and perspectives like Sean’s are really important.” (The holiday, of course, stems from a meeting of English colonists and members of the Wampanoag Peoples in 1621.)
Despite his enthusiasm for these classic recipes, Roker isn’t totally committed to cooking Thanksgiving dinner at home — at least not anymore. In addition to his Thanksgiving Day parade hosting duties, his children have gotten older and are working on families of their own. Now, you’re more likely to find Roker dining at New York institution Daniel, helmed by chef Daniel Boulud.
“I first did an interview with [Boulud] when I worked at WNBC in New York and he was a brand new chef at Le Cirque. While we were talking, I was holding his three-month-old daughter Alex and we’re talking about Thanksgiving,” Roker says. “Now we fast-forward it 34 years, and all of our kids have grown up, and Daniel is our tradition. We’ve been very fortunate that we could do that.”
This year, though, Roker says he might consider staying at home to cook Thanksgiving dinner, if only to try out some of the new recipes he learned in working on the podcast. “Doing this podcast has reinvigorated my Thanksgiving dinner,” he says. “Like I said, this turkey recipe is a revelation. It’s a dry-brined, flat-roasted turkey and the flavor is just unbelievable. You usually don’t think of turkey as having a great flavor.”
Roker hopes that listeners of the podcast feel that same sense of new energy with these recipes, but cautions against reinventing the wheel too much — this isn’t the time for a modern, deconstructed Thanksgiving dinner with pressed turkey cubes and cranberry-scented air.
“There are dishes that are just central to your family’s traditions, and if they’re not there, you run the risk of a Thanksgiving Day revolt,” he says. “If your family looks forward to your mac and cheese or your green bean casserole, then by golly, you ought to do that. But there’s nothing wrong with introducing something new while keeping up with traditions.”
All six episodes of Cooking Up a Storm With Al Roker are available for streaming on all major podcast platforms, including Spotify and Apple Podcasts.