Given the low expectations engendered by its high-concept title, Time Machine Chefs (ABC, Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET) is among the more thoughtful food shows wafting into your living room. It’s a cooking competition on the historical-re-enactment tip. The players fashion meals of olden days using olden kitchen equipment—“No running water,” says one time-traveler of one trip, “just running back and forth.” It proves so silly that it comes out the other side, with its playfulness a portal for exploring intriguing dimensions of culinary tradition.
At the outset of the pilot, a hostess gestures at the star appliance as toothily as a Barker’s Beauty flourishes a manicured hand at a washer-dryer: It is a vintage refrigerator of robin’s egg blue, with Cadillac-y swoops to its styling. It seems taller than a standard Sub-Zero BI-42S but not quite so roomy at the TARDIS, and it promises to transport the chefs to the past. Four will enter; one will leave. “Three of them will remain trapped in time,” the hostess says, cheerfully, further claiming that the victor will rank as “the greatest chef in history.” Well, that’s a stretch, I thought. Maybe they would secret steak knives on their persons and assassinate Escoffier?
A montage suggested the contestants were too personable to commit murder, despite a shared tendency that mainstream audiences may find off-putting. When I tell you that one competitor, named Ilan, revealed himself to be a fan of boar’s head, I’m not referring to deli meat. Indeed, the montage indicated a heady theme: While Chris shows off his calves’ brains with bacon and capers, Jill produces a bodiless animal she’s made from a lemon: Rosemary leaves for peaked ears, cloves or something for eyes, a wedge cut away to represent a mouth; squeezing juice into her saucepan, she pretends that the lemon is barfing into the food. We get the message: These guys won’t take themselves too seriously; they’re down with the “whole animal ethic” (as Chris calls it); they’re not afraid of mad cow disease.
These three, with a fellow with a honey-glazed accent, entered the metaphysical fridge. Where would it land them? A 1970s fondue party? A 1950s clambake? A Roman bacchanal out of Petronius, with eunuchs doing the plating and the vomitorium off to the left?
They went to 1500s China, the Ming Dynasty, and I’m curious about where they shot the scene: The quality of light had a SoCal glare. Clearly, it wasn’t contemporary China, as the air was clean enough to judge the quality of light. I was slightly squeamish about the extras in coolie hats, pointing and gasping to portray ancient Chinese market women, but I settled in soon enough. The chefs were made to do something interesting in the tradition of Peking duck. They had two and a half hours: “There is no clock, but, rather, a burning fuse. When these firecrackers explode, your time is up.”
And then an interesting thing happens, which is that the show becomes interesting. We learn a bit about the history of separating a duck’s fat from its skin, and we fantasize about potatoes fried in duck fat. We ponder the nature of cooking with nothing but a wood-burning oven. We decide that other challenges—such as preparing a mise en place with a shortage of bowls and mixing with one’s hands instead of with a whisk—closely resemble the complications of 21st-century bachelor cooking.
Three chefs survive China and move on to the finale. The year: 1532. The setting: The House of Tudor. And so the bodiless head theme from the intro takes on a new resonance. Again, I don’t think the show actually ventured through space time. If it had, I would have noticed Jonathan Rhys Meyers boffing a chambermaid. But it was passably fascinating to watch the chefs fashion interpretations of the cockentrice, a medieval specialty here likened to an old-school turducken. The judges produce a few small canines that, given the sensibilities of the China segment, I was grateful not to have seen earlier. These were turn-spit dogs, which, trotting within oversized hamster wheels connected to pulley systems, ran the rotisserie. For the cockentrice, the contestants worked with meats including suckling pigs, lamb, and peacock. I had not seen a dead peacock on my television since looking at screeners of NBC’s fall lineup. The producers profitably kept working the same trope: “I’m trying to break my lamb’s head and have to use sheer force to do it. In my restaurant, I typically use a buzz saw.” When one judge grimaces at the toughness of some overcooked meat, another points out that the 16th-century palate would have found such chewiness delightful.
Time Machine Chefs is hardly a full meal, but its historical morsels will tide you over for an hour. Where could this subgenre deliver us next? My editor passes along the idea of a reality show provisionally titled 1970s Office, where contestants go about the business of business with primitive technology, wasting time not on the Internet but via Telex. Perhaps there is room for a Time Machine Apprentice, where wannabes try to keep the Trump Plaza Hotel out of bankruptcy or to make personnel decisions on The Donald’s USFL team. I can also see MTV going in this direction with The Real World or Jersey Shore, but executives should take care that the time machine does not take the housemates back before 1944 and the mass distribution of penicillin.