The Mole has been off the American television for almost 14 years, but its format has gotten new life recently, and not just in Netflix’s forthcoming revival.
ABC’s The Hustler used it in a quiz show, and now TBS’s Rat in the Kitchen tries to apply The Mole’s format to a cooking competition. I love The Mole so I’m intrigued by attempts to remix it, although applying the format to a cooking competition seemed weird to me when it was announced.
Thankfully, you can just go to Netflix and watch season one of The Mole and be guaranteed a very satisfying first season, and that’d be a much better use of your time. If you just want a playful cooking competition, there’s the great Fast Foodies on truTV.
There’s no real reason for Rat in the Kitchen (TBS, Thursdays at 9) to exist, and too often, it’s just a painful watch.
That’s not my word, it’s judge Ludo Lefebvre’s. At a Television Critics Association press conference in January, Ludo said “the kitchen was very painful,” and explained:
Sometimes it was just a big mess. It was hard to figure out what’s going on in the kitchen. I was not used to seeing a kitchen [with] so many different foods in the kitchen, movement, creativity. I mean, there’s a lot of chefs in one kitchen, and a lot of things going on. It’s very difficult to find the rats.
This is the problem. It is hard to figure out what’s going on, even—or especially—when the editing throws up a literal magnifying glass to highlight something that will most likely just be a red herring.
Considering all of the mistakes that even great chefs make under the pressure of a clock and competition, a saboteur among the other contestants could easily go unnoticed.
But the producers have piled on so many twists and accusations it makes the entire exercise pointless.
I was exhausted with people being suspicious of each other within minutes of watching the first episode, especially when their suspicions had nothing to do with actual cooking. (I have no doubt all of those accusations were requested by producers in interviews, so I don’t think that’s the contestants’ fault.)
At their worst, those accusations border on offensive, when they’re not based on someone’s cooking but on their personality or culture, like when episode-one contestant Khoi suggests borrowing from his family recipes and using fish sauce in multiple dishes. That prompts his partner, Kyle, to say “if it’s trash…” and to later say he’s “really suspicious” because of the fish sauce. (Ludo, to his credit, tells Khoi “I really respect that” use of the ingredient.)
In each episode, six chefs enter the kitchen, which pretends to be in a mansion but is painfully obviously a set. Five of them are competing to split a $50,000 pot, or what’s left of it.
Each dish gets a dollar value, and dishes that fail, according to Ludo, the sole judge, get their value shifted to the rat’s bank.
At the end of two rounds, each chef votes by writing their name on a knife and slamming it into a block of wood, which is the second-most fun part of the show, after Natasha Leggero’s hosting.
If a majority of the team successfully identifies the rat—we don’t see them discuss it—the team splits what’s left of its bank. If they vote wrong, the rat alone gets its bank. And either way, the producers win because they don’t have to pay out the full $50,000 to anyone.
The chefs—who are a mix of pros and home cooks—have the opportunity to sabotage because they’re always cooking in pairs or trios, and sometimes have to switch kitchens.
The pair and team competitions are often my least-favorite Top Chef challenges, because it turns an individual competition into a team one just to create drama. And Rat in the Kitchen has created many opportunities for drama, though it reads as chaos.
In the first two episodes, the only two I’ll watch, there are three challenges in which the chefs swap kitchens. They’re all right next to each other, in a U-shaped space about the size of Chopped’s kitchen, so they can communicate about their intentions. Sometimes they do; sometimes they make assumptions.
Top Chef has a version of the swap challenge where a team makes a dish together, but must work on it individually, and cannot communicate. That format allows us to see each individual’s contribution or confusion. Rat in the Kitchen does not.
Because dishes are getting sabotaged, the output is food that sometimes gets complimented and sometimes gets spit into a bucket. And while good cooking is ostensibly the point, so the team will earn more money, that doesn’t get the focus.
This is not a cooking competition that highlights great chefs. Yet it’s also not a game that’s easy or fun to follow, because of the chaos.
In the same way Craig Ferguson was the best part of The Hustler, Natasha Leggero is the best part of Rat in the Kitchen. She’s particularly great at responding to the players or to what’s happening. “At work they have to tell me to shut up all the time,” a contestant, Jordan, says after the editing suggests she’s been babbling her bio for hours. Leggero asks, “Is it okay if we tell you to do that?”
While The Mole’s quiz gives players an incentive to try to deflect attention from the actual mole, and perhaps sabotage games themselves, Rat in the Kitchen’s bank structure means the non-rat chefs don’t have any reason to sabotage themselves.
Yet, that’s what they end up doing. After being revealed, the episode-one rat tells their fellow chefs, “You guys made mistakes, I just helped you.” (By the way rats were just contestants who, the night before taping, were told they’d be the rat, so they didn’t have much time to prepare.)
To the show’s credit, it walks us through everything that person did, showing footage, and there was clearly sabotage. There’s some potential here, it’s just lost amid the clutter and chaos.
Rat in the Kitchen
There’s no real reason for this show to exist, and too often, Rat in the Kitchen is just a painful watch. C-
What works for me:
- Natasha Leggero’s improvised responses
- Voting with knives
- Showing us what the rat did after the fact
What could be better:
- Finding a better way to allow sabotage than the confusing switching kitchens
- Challenges that allow us to follow what’s happening more clearly