Stranger Things, The Crown, and The Queen’s Gambit may get most of the ink when it comes to Netflix and the streaming wars, but the streamer has also quietly made itself a major player in the food television landscape. Series like Ugly Delicious, A Chef’s Table, and especially Salt Fat Acid Heat are among the best in their genre. (They do, of course, also have Bake Off now.) Waffles + Mochi continues the streak, but it’s a food show of a very different bent. There’s a dash of Parts Unknown here, a dollop of Somebody Feed Phil there; ingredients like excellent cinematography, fantastic location scouting, and the desire to feature some of the world’s best chefs will likely prove familiar to viewers. But creators Erika Thormalen and Jeremy Konner pull more heavily from the major tentpoles of educational TV for kids—theirs is the language of Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fraggle Rock, Blue’s Clues. It speaks that language thoroughly (Thormalen has a background in both film and early childhood education, and it shows).
That’s straightforward enough. However, it also stars an anthropomorphized mochi named Mochi who is always a hairsbreadth away from being devoured by the celebrities with whom he’s taking selfies; Mochi is the best friend of Waffles, the furry child of an unholy tryst between a frozen waffle and a yeti. (Really.) The cast also prominently features former first lady Michelle Obama, who is now running a grocery store in which the intercom, Intercommy, tells our heroes in each and every episode that they should consider eating their parents. Influences include The Muppet Show and Drunk History, which Konner co-created; here the drunks are replaced by presumably sober children, but the surreality is the same. In short, Waffles + Mochi will likely be a big hit with kids, but it’s a hell of a trip for grown-ups, and that’s not even counting the sequences in which Waffles appears to get high off experiencing flavor. It’s a tale of two shows, really, and since Waffles + Mochi is rarely doing less than three things at once, this review should rise to its example. Let’s do three reviews in one.
Kids, if you’re reading this, this paragraph is for you. Review #1: Waffles (voiced and puppeteered by Michelle Zamora), as mentioned above, is part yeti, part frozen waffle, and her biggest dream is to become a chef. It’s a dream she shares with her BFF Mochi (voiced by Piotr Michael, puppeteered by Russ Walko), but they live in the land of frozen food, and the pair can only learn so much from watching Julia Child when they have ice as their sole ingredient. (“You know what this could use, Mochi? Some shaved ice.”) So when a grocery store’s truck winds past their igloo, they stowaway in the back and soon find themselves the newest employees of Mrs. Obama, who runs the store. They learn more every day, mostly thanks to the adventures they take with Magicart (voiced by Diona Elise Burnett), a flying grocery cart with lots of friends around the world who help the pair earn badges for their new work aprons—and by learning about things like pickles, tomatoes, rice, and corn, they also learn some valuable life lessons along the way. It’s silly, colorful, and fun, filled with great people to meet and great places to see. Your parents will like it, too. Bon appetit!
Parents, you’re up next. Review #2: Please don’t worry that Waffles + Mochi will actually prompt your child to consider matricide, patricide, and/or cannibalism; the directive to “eat your parents” is just one of the show’s many moments of absurdity and playfulness. (In addition to being joyfully shouted by our heroes and Intercommy, the phrase “Listen to your vegetables and eat your parents” is also part of the theme song, belted out with gusto by Maya Rudolph.) But for all its fun, the real value here is in education.
Like all great kids’ shows, Waffles + Mochi sees learning opportunities around every corner. From Samin Nosrat, we learn an easy but delicious pasta recipe (it involves “tomato candy”) as well as the reason a tomato is classified as a fruit; but the biggest lesson of “Tomato,” the excellent first episode, is that tomatoes, like people, can belong lots of different places. We’re more than one thing. In the pickling episode, Waffles and Mochi tour the globe, learning about the briny delights of many different culinary traditions, but they also learn about the importance and reward of patience. Young viewers get a chance to meet real-life heroes like José Andrés, with whom they make a couple of dishes and do some seriously excellent dancing. They hear many languages—the show is admirably inclusive, featuring children of many nationalities and cultures in each and every episode. Alongside Waffles and Mochi, kids will perhaps learn not to be scared of foods (or people) who look a little different. That particular lesson earns the pair their mushroom badges (and also results in seemingly endless Stranger Things references, one of the show’s few off notes.)
Waffles + Mochi wants to carry on Anthony Bourdain’s legacy while strolling down Sesame Street, and at nearly every turn, it succeeds. No small accomplishment. If that’s recommendation enough for you, my work here is done.
But what if you’re not a child, but also not a parent—or you’re a parent who needs a little extra convincing to settle in to watch this one alongside your kids? Then this last section, review #3, is for you. Kids, it’s for sure not for you; please hand the phone to your mom or dad, or go ahead and switch back to playing Fortnite or Minecraft or whatever you all are doing these days.
Now that it’s just us grown-ups, here’s review #3: This is some trippy shit. If Waffles is descended from an actual waffle, does that mean she’s devouring a distant relative every time she eats a baked good? There’s an episode in which Mochi goes on a Finding Your Roots parody—hosted by Common, of course—to learn about his ancestors, an adventure that brings them to Japan, where they watch mochi being made. Mochi is then placed alongside some seemingly non-sentient mochi, and then makes friends with some people there to eat the other mochi. Are the mochi screaming as they die?
A guy named Gus also works at the store (which is just called The Store; presumably Mrs. Obama’s second-in-command, Busy the Bee, has been too busy murdering his plants via overwatering to come up with a better name.) Gus is played by Zach Galifinakis, who has never phoned it in a day in his life. He eats some spicy food and then screams in abject misery while he claws at his face and begs someone to remove his beard, lest he overheat to death. That episode is particularly thoughtful and cute; it also features more than one moment I would describe as “deeply unhinged,” if you think about it for more than a second. This is not a criticism. Some kids programming aims to draw in grown-ups through the occasional wink or nudge, and that’s occasionally true here, but more often the draw is a marriage of sincerely excellent culinary photography and this undercurrent of the surreal. It’s a Hensonian fever dream, and I loved every moment. If you love food, you’ll enjoy this show no matter your age, but you might like it even more if you pop an edible first. Michelle Obama won’t judge you. She’s having a pretty great time herself.