Netflix’s Snack vs. Chef, a competition where chefs and food scientists try to recreate processed snack foods, has accomplished some incredible transformations.
Snack vs. Chef has taken the format of the very fun Fast Foodies format and transformed it into a show with absolutely none of the personality or charm.
It’s taken the idea of Claire Saffitz’s popular YouTube series and created something far less interested in process, insight, and the joy of experimentation.
It’s taken very funny people Megan Stalter and Hari Kondabolu and turned them into neutered hosts.
Yes, Snack vs. Chef is just like a generic version of a brand-name snack food: painfully different than the real thing, but with enough of the basics to provide some empty calories.
Before I explore why Snack vs. Chef is such a mess, Snack vs. Chef isn’t a failure. It has a delightful collection of talented contestants who demonstrate a lot of creativity, especially in the second challenge. Whether they’re cooking or watching, they’re fun for us to watch.
Their experimentation results in a few fun moments, such as in episode one, where frying faux Cheetos start to explode, splattering hot oil all over the kitchen, including into a gas stove, fueling fire.
Their second-challenge creation of their own snack is presented in packaging, a nice touch.
Each episode has three chefs face off over two rounds: recreate a processed snack food, and then turn its characteristics into their own snack. The winner goes on to the semi-finals; the others do not. That’s a simple format, yet so much of what is built on top of that is baffling.
I certainly don’t need them to emulate other comedian hosts and interrupt cooking with their bits (Bake-Off) or fill every molecule with grating personality (Lego Masters).
But there’s literally no reason for either of them to be here, because they do nothing. Watch an episode and imagine them being cut out, and nothing will be lost.
In the second round of competition, the chefs are asked to create their own snack food, but the challenge is reproducing part of the original: a snack that leaves residue on your fingers, like Cheetos (is that the quality of a Cheeto that we’d want to remain?) or creating functional food like a Pringle (Pringles are functional?!).
Even the set makes no sense. The episodes begin with everyone crushed into a corner of a decently faithful recreation of a bodega, where a vending machine dispenses the challenge and the names of the contestants.
I live in suburban Florida, so bodegas are not a thing here, but I do not think they have vending machines, because isn’t the point that bodegas sell what would be in a vending machine, things like chips and candy?
Some bodega elements find their way into the much-larger kitchen space, like a corner with a soda fountain and frozen drink machines, and bags of chips clipped to metal racks hanging above the ovens.
But there are also glass columns of multi-colored candy; beakers sitting on the blast chillers; and a wall of even more vending machines, including some that are high above the air. And there’s a lounge in the back that seems like it came from a different show.
Even the proportions of the set are off. The kitchen is massive but there’s a lot of unused space. Meanwhile, the other chefs watching are crammed together in the opening bodega, watching from behind a window—an amusing visual that quickly seems silly with all the unused space.
Snack vs. Chef presents all of this with cinematography and editing that’s dizzying, like someone handed their kid a camera. Zooming in and out of focus, whipping left and right; even the locked-off surveillance cameras make Big Brother’s cinematography seem like an art film.
As with so many talent competitions, the judging criteria is slippery, though the judges themselves could carry the show. Food scientist Ali Bouzari has more jokes and ease than the hosts, and nerdy descriptions, like referring to the “ergonomic starch saddle” of a Pringle. Chef Helen Park offers good insight.
Both get caught in the common food competition trap of: What is our actual criteria? When Park criticizes an episode-one, second-challenge snack food for having too much stuff that comes off on her fingers, it doesn’t make any sense, because that was literally the challenge.
“I don’t know if it’s exciting enough, or what the judges are looking for,” contestant Clara says in episode two. If the contestants don’t know what the judges are looking for, that is a problem. Alas, for Snack vs. Chef, that’s just one of many.
Snack vs. Chef
A cooking competition that’s like a generic version of a brand-name snack food: painfully different than the real thing, but with enough of the basics to provide some empty calories. C-
What works for me:
- The casting
- The judges’ expertise
What could be better:
- Using the hosts more
- The cinematography and editing
- The challenges
- The judging