It all started with a simple question between writing partners Jason Harris and Matt Kaplan: “What if we do an entire cooking show in the era of Mad Men?” Or, for that matter, on a Viking ship or at the first Thanksgiving? One thing led to another, and Time Machine Chefs was born.
Harris, a Las Vegas-based stand-up comedian and Vegas Seven contributor, and Kaplan, who works out of New York, have been knocking down doors, pitching different television show ideas for years. But their time-traveling cooking show is the first to find a home on the airwaves, attracting producers Breakfast Anytime. (Pimp My Ride), who sold it to ABC. It debuts Aug. 16.
“We found what was happening in the genre and flipped it on its head,” says Harris, 32. “It’s not just some cookie cutter Top Chef where people are like, ‘We’ve seen this 100 times before.’”
Time Machine Chefs really isn’t your mother’s cooking show (although technically the show’s blue Frigidaire could land in any era of her life). The pilot transports high-profile chefs—Art Smith (Table 52 in Chicago), Chris Cosentino (Incanto in San Francisco), Jill Davie (a private chef in Los Angeles) and Ilan Hall (Top Chef Season 2 winner)—back in to 1416 Ming China and 1532 Tudor England. There they are judged by cookbook author Nancy Silverton and chefs Dave Arnold (French Culinary Institute in New York City) and Silvena Rowe (Quince in London) as they compete for the title, Greatest Chef in History.
The chefs can use only the tools and ingredients available in the year the refrigerator lands (i.e. no running water and electricity). In ancient China, for instance, they have to build a fire by hand, while the rotisseries in England are powered by tiny dogs running on hamster-style wheels.
“Every chef in the world is going to want to do this show because it’s actually challenging them,” says Harris, who participated on set every day that the pilot was shooting and tasted every dish. “They’re not in their own kitchen, they’re not doing what they do every day, they’re really showing off their skills.”
Reaction has been mixed. The Huffington Post wrote a scathing review of the preview, poking fun at the network’s news release and highlighting some rather snarky Tweets from skeptical chefs. LA Weekly, while mostly enthusiastic, called it a cross between Top Chef and Dr. Who.
Harris is loving every word, good or bad. “It’s part of the fun,” he said. “No one’s really seen the show yet, so they’re judging it without seeing it. The good thing is people are reacting to it. No one’s just like ‘Eh, whatever.’ If you watch it and love it, that makes me happy. If you watch it and hate it, that’s OK. But at least were trying to do something different.”