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Secret Chef's Emoji Host Is a Fun Bit, But It Can't Replace the Real Thing

Part Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, part Jigsaw, the chipper animated host can't do what a real-life one can.
  • Secret Chef (Photo: Hulu)
    Secret Chef (Photo: Hulu)

    There's a lot going on in Secret Chef, the new cooking competition show on Hulu. The 10 contestants are a mix of professional chefs, at-home cooks, and social-media cooks. They're each given secret identities — code names like Chef Arugula and Chef Bologna — and when it comes time to cook, they're isolated from each in little cubicles, with only a conveyor belt to send their dishes in and out. They all judge each other's dishes in secret, too, so there's a lot of room for strategy if a contestant was so inclined. It's the kind of show that kicks off with its contestants "waking up" in their little cells and pretending not to know how they got there, like we're in some kind of escape room or a culinary version of Saw. Which would make the host of the show Jigsaw, a conceit which doesn't not fit, considering the fact that the show is actually hosted by an emoji.

    "Cheffy" is what we're supposed to call this animated chef's hat with the sing-song voice and chirpy demeanor. Cheffy is our guide to the competition but also pops up on monitors when it's time to give the chefs instructions. As with everything on Secret Chef, the design choice on Cheffy is a little muddled. She's party Clippy, the anthropomorphic Microsoft paper clip that we all had to figure out how to turn off on our computers, part Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in the face, and part Julie Chen-Moonves beaming in on Big Brother.

    This mishmash of styles fits the neither-here-nor-there design aesthetic of the show, which throws in mid-century furniture alongside more modern marble counters alongside kitschy artifacts like dot matrix printers. The entire show gives the impression that the chefs have been abducted from the outside world and are competing from inside an interdimensional way station.

    In that way, Cheffy makes perfect sense as a host: a bit unsettling, a bit surreal; chipper on the surface, but for how long? It's a cute idea for a show trying to set itself apart from the legions of other cooking competitions hosted by your Guy Fieris and Alton Browns and various Top Chef alums. But in terms of being an optimally functional reality show, Secret Chef could use a real host made of flesh and blood.

    Reality TV hosts aren't just the hood ornaments atop their shows. They're not just there to explain the rules of the challenges or tell the audience to come back next time. They set a tone. They direct the energy. They put the contestants at ease and prod their competitive juices, and act as an audience surrogate. It is very much an "in the room" kind of job. Even the aforementioned Julie Chen-Moonves, while never actually stepping inside the Big Brother house, guides the show from the outside, interacting with the contestants and thinking on her feet (...well, she tries to, at least).

    Cheffy can't do any of that. She's pre-recorded and non-responsive. She's alienating — purposefully so; again, these Jigsaw vibes are not accidental. But on a show where the whole point is that there is no judging panel because the chefs are judging each other's work, the presence of a host is even more important. Cheffy is fun and weird and a little creepy, but Secret Chef is a show about strategy, and a host would be able to dig into that strategy more than Cheffy can. Also, not for nothing, but at a time when feelings are pretty sensitive about artificial intelligence, and the Writers Guild is striking to, among other things, enact protections against AI taking the jobs of human beings, replacing a flesh-and-blood host with a computerized simulation is at best bad optics.

    Cheffy can, and should, be the mascot for Secret Chef. If at any point one of the contestants is called upon to saw their own leg off before cooking their next meal, it should really be Cheffy who delivers that news. But for the business of a reality TV competition, a real host is needed. It's time to place a long-distance call to Flavortown.

    The entire first season Secret Chef is available to stream on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Secret Chef, Hulu