It is also what turns out to be a highly entertaining show, although perhaps not exactly in the way the network envisioned it. The chefs and judges are high-profile veterans who seem to be palpably amused by the proceedings, as if they, too, simply got tired of the boring food TV out there and signed on to do something funny (and deeply ironic) instead. The fact that the network and the host do not seem in on the joke just makes the irony more pronounced for them -- and for the rest of us.
The premise: Four chefs travel back in time to make period food. The time machine: what looks very much like a bright blue refrigerator, possibly designed by the BBC in the late 60s. The chefs in the first episode: Ilan Hall (the Gorbals), Chris Cosentino (Incanto in San Francisco), Art Smith (lots of places; Oprah) and L.A.-based private chef Jill Davie. The judges: Nancy Silverton (Mozza), Dave Arnold (French Culinary Institute) and Silvena Rowe (Quince in London). The host: Brooke Peterson. The title: "Best Chef in History."
What saves the show is that, not unlike Dr. Who, it is camp. And even if the network execs and the host do not seem to get this, the judges and particularly the chefs do. They treat the title as the hyperbole it is. ("Do you put that on your resume?" the eventual winner asks rhetorically of the title as the credits roll. Of course not. "That was FUN.")The chefs are amused from the very start. "I'd love to go to the Last Supper and roll out matzoh balls for Jesus," says Hall after being told the premise. "It looks like my grandmother's refrigerator," says Smith, after seeing the "time machine."
The pilot is divided into two trips: the first to 1416 Ming Dynasty China, where they're dropped down (refrigerator, lightning) onto a set that looks, to Hall, "kind of like the Santa Monica farmers market." The conceit is that they have 2 1/2 hours to make a meal -- without electricity or running water, and with kitchen-help extras who do not speak English. After their dishes are judged, only three of the four will get back in the refrigerator; the other will be "trapped in ancient China."
Things get seriously fun when the three remaining chefs are dropped down into Tudor England, circa 1532, where they're to cook a fit for Henry VIII. What does this mean? Cook a "cockatrice," something that Ilan Hall describes as "like a turducken," or a hybrid beast composed of exotic animals, including a peacock. Right. The best part of this is not watching the chefs tie together animals with 16th-century kitchen twine, but watching the ad hoc rotisserie, which is powered by Jack Russell terriers running on large wooden hamster wheels (see the wheels to the left in the picture below). At this point, the show is high comedy, more so because the chefs seem to be having a ridiculously good time. They're not cooking on the line in their own restaurants, or having to pretend to take fake cooking on television seriously. They're making jokes about peacocks and dogs in the kitchen. ("No health department! No rules!")"I wanted the peacock to taste of home, almost Thanksgiving-like," says one chef. "I had them as pets; we didn't eat them." [He] "seems to be a little more stressed than he was in the Ming Dynasty," notes another with a straight face. "I can't believe we're really doing this." And of course, since this is Tudor England -- no utensils! -- we get to watch Nancy Silverton eat her food with her fingers.
The beauty of this show is in its casting: The chefs are not only technically masterful, but they bring intelligence, wit and hilarity to a show that could very well have been a really bad high-concept idea. It's still a questionable conceit, but it's funny. "I feel like I'm in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," says one chef. Another considers his fictional fate as he waits for the final decision: "If I stay here, hopefully I can get a job cooking. I don't know what other skills I have. I'm not a fast runner. I have weird man boobs."
If the show's picked up, I really hope they keep the magic blue Frigidaire. But it might be nice if they had a host who could match the wit of the contestants. Instead of Vanna White in period costume, maybe they could get Alan Cumming. Imagine.
Time Machine Chefs premieres Thursday, Aug. 16, at 9 p.m. on ABC. And here's a preview of the show, via Eater.