Time Machine Chefs

There are so many cooking competitions these days-- Top Chef (and its variations), Masterchef, Chopped, Iron Chef America, The Next Iron Chef... the list goes on.  So ABC decided to stake out territory on the goofy side of the spectrum with a high-concept idea: Time Machine Chefs.  The silly premise: load four chefs into a time machine, force them to cook in unfamiliar cuisines using only the ingredients and equipment available in that time period, and knock them out one by one over the course of two cooking challenges in two different eras.

What a train wreck.

It didn't have to be.  In surer hands, it could have been a fascinating look at culinary history.  Instead the show was hamstrung by relentless cheesy special effects, a bland hostess with no credentials, a bizarre trio of judges forced to read from a script, and not nearly enough attention to the nugget of uniqueness at the show's core: cooking like a local.  Let's break it down.

Cheesy special effects: Rather than making the time machine a simple conceit-- step into this device, close the door, pump out a lot of smoke, cut to a new set, open the door and poof-- you're in Ming Dynasty China-- they decided to take it quasi-seriously.  Well, as seriously as you can take a time machine that looks like a giant refrigerator.  Using graphic effects that look like they were rescued from the bottom of Sid and Marty Kroft's sock drawer, they make the time machine disappear from the set, and then reappear in an obviously-not-really-China-but-we'll-make-Asian-actors-pretend-to-be-period-natives-anyway outdoor location.  The whole thing made the show feel like it would have been more at home on Nickelodeon.

Hostess: I don't know who she is.  I don't know where they found her.  But she doesn't exude any level of expertise about history, cooking, or even hosting.  I think it's telling that on ABC's web site for the show, all the major players are credited except for her.  They're tied up with other franchises, but someone like Alton Brown or Ted Allen would have been a far better choice.  The job needed someone who could talk credibly about the historical period, how things used to be done, and how the chefs might adapt to their circumstances.  Instead, we got generic vapidness.  And persistent mispronunciation of "cockatrice".

Judges: Nancy Silverton is known even outside the chef community, but lacked any presence here.  Dave Arnold-- directory of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute-- was a fantastic choice.  He had all the credibility the hostess lacked, and should have been the host for the show.  European chef Silvena Rowe, on the other hand, was seemingly cast solely for her Kajagoogoo hairdo.  When she opened her mouth, I thought she was channeling Mike Myers' character from Sprockets-- I kept waiting for her to ask the chefs to touch her monkey.  The credibility of the judges was immediately undermined by giving them scripted roles introducing each challenge.  It made them seem somehow complicit to the hijinks instead of impartial arbiters sitting above it.  Worse, the producers never let us hear much of their deliberation about the chefs' food.  After one comment from one judge about a dish, they moved on to the next.  No discussion, no debate, no insight into the success or failure of the dish.  Judges Table is the best part of Top Chef-- if they'd put it on the web, I'd watch a whole hour of Judges Table.  The short shrift given to the judging here was criminal.

Cooking: The hook of the show is that the chefs are forced to grapple with primitive conditions and unfamiliar techniques, but not a lot of time is spent showing how the chefs adapt.  We get a little bit about burying a cabbage in a heart's ashes, and some comic relief with spit-turning dogs, but for the most part it plays out as a fairly traditional cooking competition.

Time Machine Chefs appears to have been a series pilot, but since it only shows up as a single episode on my DVR it looks like ABC may have decided not to pick it up.  Good call.

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