Review: Waffles + Mochi By Diona Elise Burnett
Since Barack and Michelle Obama formed their production company, Higher Ground, in 2018 and made a deal with Netflix, they have produced Academy Award–worthy documentary films and a couple of attention-getting podcasts. Today, the company’s first foray into scripted television lands on Netflix in the form of Waffles + Mochi, a charming, if a bit overstuffed, show that aims to teach kids about food, cooking, and different cultures through the adventures of two puppets mentored by Michelle Obama.
Waffles + Mochi is very much in keeping with the former First Lady’s interests. Like her Let’s Move! campaign, the show’s primary mission is to show what healthy eating looks like. Its heroes, Waffles — who is part yeti and part frozen waffle, and no I am not making that up — and Mochi, a Muppet-ish mochi ball, come from the Land of Frozen Foods and are determined to become educated in how to cook and prepare fresh meals. After being hired to help Mrs. O — psst! That’s Michelle Obama — who works at a supermarket with a rooftop garden, the two spend each episode meeting with chefs and culinary experts from all over the world to learn about specific foods and spices, including tomatoes, potatoes, salt, mushrooms, and eggs.
In certain ways, Waffles + Mochi is just a kindergarten-friendly version of shows like Ugly Delicious, Taste the Nation With Padma Lakshmi, and Salt Fat Acid Heat, whose host, chef Samin Nosrat, makes an appearance in the first episode. It is informative and packed — as previously noted, a little too packed — with segments, including ones that place Waffles and Mochi in restaurants and food-related settings in numerous cities, conversations with kids from various parts of the globe, and animated interstitials that, for example, introduce viewers to the five types of taste, each one cartoonified in a manner reminiscent of a certain recent Pixar. To put it more bluntly, let’s just say that if Sour, voiced by John Early, did 23andme, he would definitely realize he’s related to Anger from Inside Out.
As co-created by Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner, who previously co-created Drunk History, Waffles + Mochi is designed to be educational but also silly and a little off-the-wall. Every time Waffles and Mochi need to do research, they fly off in a magic grocery cart that takes them anywhere they want to go, from Peru to Japan to Los Angeles, in a matter of seconds. At the supermarket, some of the staff are human but others are not. Busy Bee, another puppet, serves as Mrs. Obama’s overly worried helper. There’s also a talking mop named Steve, which, hey, why not. At the same time, it is a little weird to watch Michelle Obama sitting next to a mop that has a mustache and wears Ray-Bans. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that Waffles says his mother is a yeti and his father a frozen waffle because, from a conception standpoint … you know, best not to think too much about that. Let’s just say that if any adults in the Waffles + Mochi audience decided to pop an edible before streaming one of the ten episodes, this Pee-Wee’s Playhouse–influenced world would either a) blow their minds or b) suddenly make absolute and complete sense.
As is often the case with shows like these, there are plenty of celebrity cameos. Rashida Jones plays a cornbread baker named Sheryl. For one episode and one episode only, Zach Galifianakis works at a supermarket keeping the aisles clean and stocked. In an animated sequence during the tomato-focused episode, a tomato that looks like Sia sings a song about being misunderstood because of fruit/vegetable confusion. (The voice of the tomato is actually Sia’s.) There are also a few Netflix crossover moments. In addition to the appearance of Nosrat from Salt Fat Acid Heat, Gaten Matarazzo pops by to make a couple of Stranger Things jokes, and the fact that he talks to Waffles and doesn’t make a reference to Eleven and Eggos feels like a huge missed opportunity. Tan France from Queer Eye appears and tries to make over a potato, for some reason. With all due respect to France, whose hair is extremely on point, that’s a great example of a segment that could have been cut.
In keeping with the Higher Ground sensibility, Waffles + Mochi is a deliberately inclusive show that conveys positive messages about working together as a team and thinking of others. A wide variety of ethnic dishes is represented, and in any given episode, multiple languages can be heard. At one point, restaurateur/living saint José Andrés explains how his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen, provides communities with free meals in the wake of natural disasters. When the puppet pair heads to Savannah, Georgia, to learn more about rice, culinary historian Michael Twitty, who is Black, explains to them, gently, that his Southern relatives used to work on rice plantations when they were slaves. As this series is aimed at 5- and 6-year-olds, even the occasional heavy moment is handled with a light and openhearted touch.
The most enriching and entertaining parts of Waffles + Mochi are these interactions with chefs, as well as the trips to places like Peru’s Valle Sagrado, where the heroes watch a man dubbed the Potato Whisperer harvest potatoes with all kinds of colors inside. If there’s a second season of Waffles + Mochi, let’s hope that Thormahlen and Konner let segments like those breathe a little longer — I could watch a whole half-hour of Andrés making gazpacho with two puppets — and lose the bits that aren’t as necessary. Part of eating well is avoiding empty calories. Waffles + Mochi, a good show that could be even better, would be wise to do the same.