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For All Its Whimsy, ‘Crazy Delicious’ Can’t Escape Reality

A fantastical setting and famous “Food Gods” Carla Hall and Heston Blumenthal only underline how conventional this Netflix effort is

A group stands in a whimsical, Willy Wonka-esque garden, blowing out a sparkler on a cake made of prawns. Channel 4/Netflix

Strawberry cheesecake chicken wings. Prosecco waterfalls and cheese growing on trees. Chef Heston Blumenthal descending in a thunderclap, wearing a tight white suit. It’s not a lucid dream diary: it’s the newest cooking show on Netflix, Crazy Delicious, wherein three contestants compete in three rounds, taking ingredients and inspiration from a Willy Wonka-like garden where nearly everything is edible. The first round is based on a hero ingredient like a strawberry or tomato, the second is a reinvention of a classic, and the third is a showstopper, with inspiration ranging from brunch to barbecue.

No mere panel of mortals will judge such a show. Enter the “Food Gods” — made up of Blumenthal, Top Chef legend Carla Hall, and “Michelin-starred chef” Niklas Ekstedt. Dressed in their pristine white costumes and accompanied by ominous music, the trio might be set up as transcendent, but their actual job is that of the classic food show judge: offer some opinions, throw some concerned looks, and dish out zingy one-liners. (When a contestant tells Hall, that their dish is made with love, Hall replies, “Well, [love] doesn’t have salt, unless you’re crying, honey.”) Host Jayde Adams, meanwhile, adds a decidedly dry British slant to the show’s proceedings, despite the show trying to turn her into a Lewis Carroll character.

While Crazy Delicious aims to break the food show mold — creating something more zany than Chopped and Masterchef, more bonkers than Nailed It, and cuter than The Great British Baking Off — it falls short on everything but the set. What unfolds in the short season is six episodes torn between total culinary fantasia and convention, the result of which is a basic cooking competition, but with more crafting supplies for sets and costumes. Its best efforts to bring something new to food TV only reveal just how conventional Crazy Delicious actually is.

Food TV shows, crazy or delicious, pivot on power dynamics: the relationship between the judges and the judged, mediated and molded by the hosts. While in recent years, shows like Great British Baking Off and Australian hit The Chefs’ Line have extricated themselves from boorish villain/hero tropes, Crazy Delicious wants to go as far as to extricate its judges from earth itself. They are Food Gods: remember this and do not forget it — but in case you do, production is here to remind you with thunder, lightning, and, well, that’s all.

The Food Gods, though, are also actual people with restaurant chops. While their duties rarely go beyond encouraging praise or gentle criticism, the show asks them to show off their conventional culinary credentials, rather than representing anything transcendent or wacky. Ekstedt references Michelin stars as a point of comparison when praising dishes; Hall harks back to her time as a contestant on Top Chef. When Heston Blumenthal becomes a Food God in his Edenic realm, he’s still being leaned on as a famous chef — the famous chef subject to widely reported accusations of wage theft and restaurant mismanagement, and a late-career pivot to casual sexism. The choice of name also unfortunately recalls Time Magazine’s infamous “Gods of Food” feature, whose anointing chefs as figures of worship excluded women entirely. There is no need for them to be culinary gods other than to be culinary Gods — deified shibboleths, set apart from the mortal contestants who try to please them by walking up a slightly steep hill godly mountain with their possibly crazy, possibly delicious food.

The contestants don’t quite get to realize the fantasy either. The diversity in every episode is a welcome development, and it’s interesting that contestants are neither the rank amateurs of Masterchef nor the trained chefs of Chopped. These are keen, often technically proficient cooks, and there is quality technique and great skill on display, so it’s a shame that they’re dealt kind of a raw deal. The stakes too often feel too low, and with each 45 minute episode being a self-contained story, there’s little time to develop intrigue or connections to the people on screen. The prize for winning is a golden apple, which means when crackers break and parfaits don’t set, it’s pride and self-worth that are at stake, not money or prestige. While this makes for more genuine emotion, it also puts limits on the show’s range. With neither financial reward nor — as with Great British Bake Off — the promise of access into the world of culinary celebrity, Crazy Delicious has to stand or fall between the start of each episode and its end. It falls more than it stands..

The prize golden apple is picked from the phantasmagoria of the Willy Wonka set — the most striking departure from the “faintly cool, faintly dangerous kitchen” template of its competitors; exceptions made for the GBBO tent. It could have been the ace in the hole: Everything is edible, and the contestants are instructed not just to find cheese in nooks and eggs in nests, but to “go forth and forage,” plucking tomatoes from vines and digging carrots from the earth, engaging with the agricultural systems that produce food.

Well, not quite. This bounty is artificial, because of course it is, and other ingredients like chopped meat and packets of pasta are not delved from grottos, but removed from fridges and pantries. This happens in any show with an ingredients tray, which is almost all cooking shows, but they don’t try to pretend otherwise. The creation of a fake, bountiful food system that is not entirely fictional but is entirely alienated from labor feels incongruous to the admirable, if unfulfilled ambition of other food TV in 2020 to reflect on the fact that everybody eats. Asking something as fanciful as Crazy Delicious to bear the weight of expectation around Taste the Nation or near-namesake Ugly Delicious might appear unkind, but the show wants it two ways — a magical respite from typical food TV, but with all the same prestige trappings — and ends up in some confused middle ground.

The genuinely fun elements of Crazy Delicious, like candles that burst smilingly with mango pulp or edible cherry blossoms that are sweets, unfortunately become little more than gags; the contestants never engage with them or use them in their cooking. Even Chopped, set in a kitchen and not an edible eden, does more with its introduction of comparatively conventional curveball ingredients. The Crazy Delicious set’s unchanging nature also means that the show runs out of secrets early on. A prosecco waterfall might bubble with whimsy in episode one, but it’ll go flat by episode three. There are some interstitial incursions which are funny albeit a little outdated, like a momentary send-up of the errant coffee cup in Game of Thrones, but as with the rest of the show’s elements, these jokes only further confuse the tone. Indeed, the omnipresent Big Green Egg — the favorite barbecue of chefs, sponconned across the industry — is significantly more disconcerting.

Overall, the place that Crazy Delicious is asking viewers to escape from — the world of food TV — looms so large that the show ends up reiterating familiar tropes rather than subverting them as intended. A set with ovens and blenders and barbecues surrounded by foliage is still a set with ovens and blenders and barbecues. Eurocentric restaurant discourse, standards, and techniques are so present that any fantasy never gets to genuinely establish itself; the final four-hour challenge of the series is “takeaway,” and of course, it pigeonholes Indian cuisine. Ultimately Crazy Delicious is frustrating: it could have been deeply weird, deeply fantastical; it could have been a jolly romp, contestants competing to grab the fruit candles and chocolate tree branches, the chaos of Supermarket Sweep unmanacled from the supermarket. Instead, even with its sweet burgers and activated charcoal pizza volcanoes, it feels like a waste.

It would be seemingly easy to write all these annoyances off because Crazy Delicious is, quite clearly, trying to be a bit of harmless fun. Viewers seeking a six-episode bliss-out with a few laughs and some Willy Wonka flourishes are just in it for the escapism, not the optics, right? But the titular crazy is leaning too much on the delicious, and the delicious is just normie interpretations of “good” food. Despite the ongoing insistence on the show’s wackiness, the results are a less fun, less weird, less intelligent, less crazy, and less delicious follow up to Chopped, GBBO, The Chef’s Line, and Nailed It. Try as it might, Crazy Delicious cannot unmoor itself from the fact that unlike its edible punchlines, food, and restaurants don’t just grow on trees.