Here are the basic components of Secret Chef: an underground “secret cooking facility” of private kitchens connected by conveyor belts (per the press release). An animated host that is equal parts Jigsaw from Saw and the creepy doll in Squid Game. Competitors who must keep their identities secret and are given aliases so you have to remember both their real names and who is “Chef Radicchio.” Competitors who are sometimes chefs, sometimes home cooks, but also always the judges, tasked with rating each dish within the confines of their secret kitchens.
If this sounds confusing, yes. Secret Chef, the new cooking competition show now out on Hulu and executive produced by David Chang, seems less concerned with actually celebrating talent than taking every trope that already exists in the long history of cooking competition shows, plus some new ones, and throwing them in a blender to create some sort of monster-competition. (Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.)
Secret Chef throws together both home cooks and professionals, to see if the home cooks can cook as well as the pros, and to see if contestants can figure out who is who. The 10 contestants must compete in a series of bizarre cooking challenges, with one eliminated each episode, to ultimately win $100,000.
The judges/contestants cook and eat each others’ food isolated from each other, receiving what they need via those conveyor belts. “With their true identities concealed, everything will be hidden except the one thing that matters most ... the food,” argues the show. But the unintuitive and ever-changing tasks all but guarantee that no one is cooking at their best — the challenges feel particularly sinister, or at least designed to ensure that there is no way to succeed. Instead, as every challenge gets increasingly convoluted, one is left wondering what the point of it all is, and how this showcases anyone’s true culinary skills.
Each episode feels like a speed run of the wildest challenges from Chopped, Guy’s Grocery Games, and any other manner of amateur cooking competition. There are mystery boxes and randomly assigned secret teammates that the contestants can only communicate with via note passing. Now one chef is allowed to ask the animated chef hat to ask one question of another chef. Now a chef has won but has to keep their face perfectly still so they don’t reveal their identity. Now they have to cook without using their knives, or reconstitute the mise-en-place for a gumbo they just ate using their memory, or use a clothes steamer as the only source of heat. Suddenly, here’s Millie Peartree giving feedback, even though the animated host just said it was only going to be the other competitors doing that. And all the while they’re supposed to be trying to suss out who their competitors really are, which has nothing to do with culinary skill.
Watching the show is a dizzying experience. And though we’re given some backstory for the 10 chefs and home cooks, there’s not much time to get to know them with everything going on, nor to get a sense of what would make for a successful or unsuccessful dish. After all, with the judges all being the chefs themselves, there’s no one who is really an expert at explaining how things taste to the viewer.
Cooking shows understand that watching competition is always fun on some level. But the best, and most successful, cooking competition shows succeed because they tap into something intuitive and participatory. Even if the viewer isn’t a professional chef, we’ve all eaten before, and have the ability to determine, even from afar, what good food looks like. The formulaic nature of Great British Bake Off allows viewers to understand the basics of breads and pastry, and even when contestants are thrown a curveball the focus is on the baking. On Chopped, chefs are rushed and given secret ingredients, but within that half hour they are still only supposed to be cooking. Even while watching professionals on Top Chef, you come to understand what’s expected of everyone, and why someone may have botched it during Restaurant Wars.
Secret Chef has its moments. In the first episode, everyone is tasked with making an egg dish, and although this results in four shakshukas, as the group eats together you see their culinary passions come through. And when given the relatively simple challenge of making a “signature dish” that represents their own cooking, many chefs shine. But mostly, chefs must juggle too many weird rules to really let them cook. As a viewer, there is no way to figure out who or what you are rooting for. The expectations change too much and too quickly, and are too distant from the way anyone cooks at home. The joy of being able to say “I would’ve done this” or “No, don’t go for the ice cream machine!” is replaced with the confusion of just trying to keep up.
In a way, it makes sense that Secret Chef is too much. The field is too crowded. If you can’t go prestige like Top Chef or Iron Chef, and shows like Nailed It!, Chopped, and Worst Cooks in America already dominate the disaster cooking space, the only option to stand out is to go even more outlandish. Secret Chef says the food is the “one thing that matters most.” But it’s ultimately too wacky to let that be true.
Disclosure: David Chang is producing shows for Hulu in partnership with Vox Media Studios, part of Eater’s parent company, Vox Media. No Eater staff member is involved in the production of those shows, and this does not impact coverage on Eater.