Imagine Microsoft Word’s Clippy donning a white chef’s hat over its paperclip frame, having developed a bit of a sociopathic personality after being deleted all those years ago, finally getting to reappear on our screens unannounced. That’s Cheffy: a sassy and demented animated character that laughs with glee while hosting Hulu’s Secret Chef.
Cheffy introduces the competition: 10 contestants, each with an alias, cooking in sealed-off kitchens, judging each other’s dishes blind, scoring them numerically and judging them anonymously.
“Gee, talking chef hat, that sure sounds like every other cooking competition show,” Cheffy says at one point, and alas, this is too true.
Despite taking a big leap, Secret Chef somehow stumbles backward into being a merely average cooking competition. It’s not bad! The more I watched, though, the less enthused I became.
This is the second zany cooking competition Hulu has premiered this month, Secret Chef is nowhere near the misfire that Drag Me to Dinner is, because there’s real cooking here, not just bits that should have been edited way down.
Yet Secret Chef feels all too familiar for a show that has a talking hat host. (AI is coming for you, Seacrest! Actually, not really: Cheffy is voiced by a human being, comedian and actor Arden Myrin.)
It’s elements come from other shows: individual kitchens from Crime Scene Kitchen, chefs judging each other from Netflix’s Pressure Cooker, pods from Love is Blind, a 1970s-ish aesthetic from ABC’s revived game shows, conveyor belts from Conveyor Belt of Love. (Okay, I don’t think they really ripped off that ABC special.)
The first two challenges, tag-team cooking and recreating a dish after tasting it, are direct lifts from Top Chef.
But before that, the show loses its Secret Chef nerve.
Instead of going full Solitary, locking people in pods to cook and judge without knowing their competitors—which is what I was expecting—it lets everyone out of their tasting pods to mingle and cook for each other, in public, on little stations.
Their task: make an egg dish. Then everyone eats each others’ food. This gives them a baseline, I suppose, to try to determine who’s cooking what during the blind judging—but why? Why do they want to know who each other are?
Secret Chef does correct against Pressure Cooker’s fatal flaw by having blind, numerical judging, so people aren’t scoring or voting based upon each other’s personalities. That turned the Netflix cooking competition into Big Brother.
Here, the chefs cook under nicknames: Joshua is Chef Arugala, Lanky is Chef Macron, Anthony Chef Blueberry, Leon is Chef Donut, Stephenie is Chef Couscous, and so on.
A considerable amount of screen time is given to chefs guessing who their partner is during the tag-team challenge, or who cooked what dish. The editing has fun with signaling whether they’re right or wrong to us.
Why are they trying to guess each other’s identities? Why is this turning into The Mole? It’s just annoying—maybe it’s natural to try to figure out, but the editing over-focuses on it.
Cheffy gives a challenge winner the chance to ask another chef a question about their cooking, and says “later in the game, you may need it.” But a game whose rules aren’t clear is not interesting.
As much as I love The Mole and The Traitors, I don’t need intrigue in my food TV. Just show me some great cooking under pressure.
The secrecy and judging is a solid idea, but it’s combined with traditional reality TV elements that make no sense. For example, after the challenge, the chefs are told whose dishes were in the top and bottom. But Cheffy tells them not to react. “Keep it to yourselves,” the sassy hat says.
That means the winner stands stoically as their identity is announced as the winner, draining the moment of any excitement; the editing’s cut to a confessional where they react later then seems forced.
Secret Chef comes from David Chang, multiple James Beard award-winning chef and host of Netflix’s Ugly Delicious and star of PBS’s The Mind of a Chef season one—and also nine other producers listed in press materials, along with four separate production companies.
There are as many EPs as contestants, not including the showrunner. While giving people an executive producer credit or having several producers’ companies’ names attached to a show isn’t unusual, I had to wonder if some of this was the result of too many proverbial cooks.
Secret Chef’s is all over the place: a computer-generated, animated host, and dot-matrix printers that spit out the anonymous reviews of each chef’s food; stock music and zany sound effects; an objectively scored game with an ambiguous endgame.
I love the sass (“always read the fine print on your contract”) and the structure, and that Secret Chef gives its contestants space to cook amid all this. I recommend it for that reason. I just think it could use a little editing, as a judge on a food competition with judges might say.
A wacky set-up gives way to a surprisingly ordinary competition. B-
What works for me:
- Blind tasting and objective scoring
- Elements of the production design
What could be better:
- A clearer game
- Less tonal confusion
- Committing to the idea of keeping everyone isolated and secret from each other