Hell's Kitchen aside, competitive cooking shows have never fared all that well on network television. While cable series like Top Chef, The Next Food Network Star and Chopped have lasted for multiple seasons and will probably run until the end of time, America's Next Great Restaurant and Iron Chef USA (the original, William Shatner-hosted attempt to bring Japan's Iron Chef franchises stateside) are just some of the many network-based shows that were... well, chopped after one season. Considering that history, the future for ABC's new cooking show Time Machine Chefs, which premiered a one-off special episode last night, doesn't look all that bright.
That's a shame, though, because this special shows a ton of promise -- even amidst a ton of cheese -- for putting a fresh, zesty spin on the typical cook-off. Imagine PBS's Frontier House and Manor House (two of my favorite reality shows ever, by the way) crossed with Top Chef Masters and you've got the basic set-up. Four top-notch cooks (last night, the roster consisted of Art Smith, Chris Cosentino, Jill Davie and Ilan Hall) are ushered into -- what else? -- a time-traveling refrigerator by host Brooke Peterson and transported to two different historical eras (in this case, Ming Dynasty-era China and Tudor England) where they are challenged to prepare a meal using only the ingredients, tools and methods that were present at that time. If, like me, you're as interested in history as you are in good food, you couldn't ask for a better hook. When (not if) ABC declines to make any additional episodes of Time Machine Chefs, I sincerely hope that some cable network (History Channel, I'm looking at you) picks it up, because I would definitely tune in on a weekly basis. Also, whichever channel inherits the show may be able to fix some of things that aren't quite working yet. Here's a breakdown of the elements of Time Machine Chefs that are under and overcooked, as well as which are just right.
They're (Trapped In) History: The ejected contestants on most cooking shows are just sent home. In Time Machine Chefs, the cooks who fail the challenge are "trapped in time." That sounds like a neat idea... until you remember that none of this is real and they're actually just going to get in their cars and drive from the show's period sets back to their restaurants. This makes Peterson's repeated threats about leaving the losers in the past sound exceptionally lame and silly, to the point where the chefs themselves crack up whenever she says it. A new fate for the last-place finishers would help mitigate the cheese factor. Since actually trapping them in the past is scientifically impossible (at least for now), perhaps they could build some kind of "time jail" set that they'd have to stay in until the end of the episode. (This might also allow them to tack on a bonus competition where they have to participate in an additional challenge to win their freedom.) Or failing that, just ditch the whole "trapped in time" concept and boot the losers into a wormhole back to the present. Anything would be better than threatening them with a punishment you obviously can't deliver on.
Babbling Brooke: Self-styled "lifestyles expert" Brooke Peterson must be very good at her job -- whatever that job is -- to have gotten the seal of approval from folks like Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray. And she might have smoothly moved into the role of reality show host on another kind of cooking competition. On this particular series, however, her stilted delivery of lines like "We're history!" (a really dumb catchphrase, to be sure) coupled with her obvious lack of historical knowledge makes her seem only slightly more wooden than the time-traveling mannequin Kristy Swanson played in Mannequin Two: On the Move (only one of the most awesomely bad sequels ever made). On the show's next incarnation, the producers should seek out a host more grounded in culinary history. How about author, chef and official Friend of Tony Bourdian, Mark Ruhlman? Or if they still want more of an entertainer, why not hire Captain Jack himself, John Barrowman? At least he would know a little something about traveling through time and space. Speaking of that...
A Fridge to Far: While the maiden voyage of that TARDIS-style refrigerator from the present to 15th century China warmed my Doctor Who-loving heart, by the end of the hour, I got a little tired of the effect. The fridge is indicative of how the show oversells its time travel premise, saddling it with too much silliness. It's as if the producers (or the network) don't trust the competition element to hook viewers and thus feels compelled to dress it up with distracting "comic" flourishes that inspire more eye-rolling than laughs.
Peasant Pageantry: On a similar note, that fake-looking Chinese open-air marketplace stocked with period-dressed peasants roaming about like they were in a Ming Dynasty version of Colonial Williamsburg was another case of the producers hitting the historical gimmick a little too hard. (At least they resisted the urge of having court minstrels serenade the chefs during the Tudor challenge.) That kind of "authenticity" comes across as remarkably inauthentic onscreen. All we need to see are the cooking spaces of each respective era; don't bother with all the background clutter.
First Class Cooking: Cooking shows live and die on the strength of the challenges they throw at the contestants and both of last night's tasks -- preparing authentic Peking duck in 15th century China and creating a cockentrice (multiple animals in one) in England -- were fun and informative. I particularly enjoyed the cockentrice challenge, both for the unique creations that the chefs came up with (totally agree with the judges awarding the victory to Cosentino's pig-peacock creation, even if he took a bit of historical license by including a soup pot in the presentation) and the fun facts it revealed about Tudor-era cooking, like the way chefs used dogs to run on oversized hamster wheels that turned the spits above the hearth's open flame. Cook-offs like that prove that this is too good a concept to let perish.
Time After Time: Despite some of the phony pageantry, the China and England settings were great choices to highlight the unique quality of this premise and whetted my appetite to see even more exotic combinations of historical periods and countries. For example, I'd love to watch the chefs have to prepare a Mughal feast for 16th century Indian royalty. Or how about an Ancient Roman plate of spaghetti carbonara and oxtail stew? The combinations (not to mention the flavor profiles) are almost limitless. After Time Machine Chefs, all of the other competitive cooking shows on the air just seem so... ordinary.
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