Marcel's Quantum Kitchen
The dinner as special effect.
The press materials for Marcel's Quantum Kitchen (Syfy, Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET) proudly describe its star as "one of America's most notorious chefs," a distinction that places him in the company of, I dunno, Typhoid Mary? Rachael Ray? But the notoriety of Marcel Vigneron owes not to his role in disseminating deadly salmonella or deadlier perkiness, just scullery skullduggery of the usual reality-TV sort. In his appearances on Bravo's Top Chef, Vigneron committed aggressive showboating and intensive preening. He tossed tantrums like confetti, and he contributed enough enthusiastic trash talk to attract a health inspector's disapproval. He had a brash thatch of great hair, and he relentlessly practiced a theatrical brand of "molecular gastronomy" with the confidence of someone who believes that turning fruit into foam is equivalent to converting lead into gold. Clearly, this was a young man in desperate need of his own show.
The production is brought to you by one of Bravo's sister networks, Syfy, which was known as the Sci-Fi Channel before becoming possessed by a spirit of orthographic dystopian-futurism. The debut of Marcel's Quantum Kitchen is slated to cap a programming day otherwise devoted to a Star Trek: Enterprise marathon and a few episodes of the paranormal travelogue Destination Truth. Despite the fact that Marcel is the sort of chef who would sooner be without his knife bag than his food dehydrator, despite the fact that Quantum Kitchen finds him donning safety goggles more frequently than wearing a toque, Syfy is obviously not a proper venue for exploring the science of cooking. (For that, we have the Food Network's Good Eats, where host Alton Brown talks chemistry and geeks out genially, coming across like Mr. Wizard's foodie nephew.) The core audience of Syfy isn't looking for dishes to make their mouths water; Vulcan babes and lithe cylons fulfill all of its saliva-generating needs.
No, this cooking show, like many cooking shows, is not actually a show for people who are interested in cooking—a view that will be supported by an inspection of its commercial breaks, one suspects. I'm not sure what sponsors are lined up for the program's debut, but the most prominent food products advertised on the show's Web site are most notable as miracles of engineering: Velveeta and Double-Stuff Oreos. Rather, it is a personality-driven lifestyle show, one celebrating a lifestyle that suggests a whimsical idea of an upscale supper at Comic-Con.
By necessity, the producers endow the kitchen experiments with quasi-mythic dimensions. Marcel's adventures—fantastic efforts to cater fantastical parties—come to resemble the journeys of a visionary hero supported by a ragtag crew of die-hard believers. Stroking his beard like an apprentice mad scientist and flashing ambition in his elfin eyes, he looks a bit like an interstellar imp. His studly sous chefs and comely prep cook make like space cowboys, heartily playing off the romance of chefs as figures out of the myth of the West, home on the industrial range.
When collaborating with, administering to, and quaking before his clients, Marcel devotes equal volumes of attention to food and atmosphere, with the effect of eliminating any distinction between the two categories. Indeed, he pays attention to atmosphere in the most literal sense, using liquid nitrogen both to create a thick carpet of swirling fog and to build a snack that will get visible wisps of gas wafting from guests' mouths. Marcel whips up that fuming treat, dubbed "Himalayan Tiger's Breath," in the debut episode. The occasion is a benefit for a wildlife refuge, a multistation feast sufficiently elaborate to support the conceit that attendees will require maps illustrated on a sheet of pork skin. The event planner, with her umber tan and her avid eyes and a crystal cross on one black fingernail, seems to have beamed in from another kind of reality-show genre experiment—The Undead Housewives of Orange County.
The chef is eager to dazzle but fearful of having his brilliance questioned. She is eager to applaud her own adventuresome good taste but kind of grossed out, at a tasting session, by a kinda-gross egg thing. He fretfully heads back to the lab with his passion renewed, whipping up some easily digestible froth about gadgetry and imagination. Marcel's Quantum Kitchen celebrates technicians in much the way that Face Off, a Syfy reality competition, celebrates the hard-working dorks in the make-up department. It offers a vision of dinner as a special effect, and its appeal is akin to that of the freeze-dried ice cream available at finer space-museum gift shops. It's a novelty item that makes no claim to please discerning palates.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Photo by Evans Vestal Ward/Syfy.