In the luminous children’s food literacy comedy Waffles + Mochi, we follow two aspiring chefs as they venture from their homeland, a frozen food tundra where ice is on the menu each meal, to a sunny city where they soon get entry level jobs at a community-minded grocery store. Our chattier hero is Waffles, a fuzzy white-and-periwinkle woolen puppet with black button eyes, crispy waffle ears and just two adorable molars lining her mouth. (Her mother was a yeti and her father was a frozen waffle. Don’t think about it too hard or you might accidentally liquefy your brain.) Waffles’ companion is a bite-sized pink velvet mochi ice cream confection who meeps and murmurs and generally plays straight-man to his exuberant buddy. Michelle Obama, whose Higher Ground Productions produces the series for Netflix, plays their kind but dubious boss who often sets them off on ingredient-acquiring adventures. You can imagine some other former first ladies casually squashing little Mochi beneath their stilettos.
This is not a nutrition show or a science show or an environmentalist show. Mrs. Obama, as she’s called in the series, isn’t trying to get kids active to stave off childhood obesity or involved in climate change activism to save the world. Nope, there’s no overt moralism here. (And the show even normalizes disliking some foods.) Instead, Waffles + Mochi does something few other kids programs beyond the occasional Sesame Street curriculum set out to do: teach children the language of food appreciation.
In short documentary sequences, celebrity chefs and farmers, from Salt Fat Acid Heat star Samin Nosrat to Peru’s famed “potato whisperer” Manuel Choqque Bravo, emphasize the vocabulary of the mindful eating experience. Cherry tomatoes are “juicy.” Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms accentuate “umami.” Eggs can be cooked with various “textures.” Waffles + Mochi displays its international sensibilities by highlighting how different foods are grown and prepped across the world, but it doesn’t spend too much time delving into the details of agriculture or cooking. It wants kids to learn how to analyze sounds, flavors, colors, consistencies and temperatures so they can keep on discovering more foods to love. Think of the show as a kid-friendly introduction to the slow food movement.
Grocery stores have been loci for fraught emotions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Waffles + Mochi attempts to refocus that national narrative. Waffles, a proxy for the child viewer, is an outsider newly uncovering the world of food. No doubt many small children watching the show have similarly never even stepped inside a market.
With its focus on pop stars, bougie foodies and lo-fi comedians, along with its nostalgic visual flair that pays homage to 70s kids TV classics, the series is clearly meant to be enjoyed by the whole family. Parents, stoners, college students, Obama family fanatics and pandemic depressives alike could easily turn this series into a cult hit. After all, it’s often just very funny. (As Maya Rudolph warbles in the absurdist earworm of a theme song, “Listen to your vegetables and eat your parents.”)
Waffles + Mochi is a feat of sensoaesthetics from the first moments of the pilot, when we’re introduced to our fabric friends trying to cook ice cubes in their igloo. The art direction team uses a mixed media approach to world-building, utilizing practical effects, stop-motion animation, a full cast of puppets and toy miniatures for set exteriors that create a wonderfully haptic and sentimental diegetic space that evokes the opening moments of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The textures are sublime. Mochi’s plush sheen makes him look both huggable and delectable. The DIY aesthetics of the miniatures, from the fabricators at animation studio Ancient Order of the Wooden Skull, make me want to live in this bright, pastel doll house world. Michelle Zamora’s voicework and puppeteering render Waffles sweetly reactive, even if the character’s surfer dudette vocal fry doesn’t always jibe with her kawaii design.
The best episode of the season, themed around rice, features Mochi on a journey to learn more about his family heritage — in this case, finding out how his strawberry ice cream ancestors joined up with his Japanese mochi forebearers to create him. It’s a clever but also resonant concept that takes him to satirized “food genealogists” as well as real-life culinary historians. I shed a few tears during the segment where Waffles and Mochi meet The Cooking Gene author Michael Twitty, a researcher of African and American foodways who studies his own family legacy through gastronomic history. Twitty doesn’t shy away from talking to the childlike puppets about how rice cultivation in the U.S. was intrinsically linked to enslavement, gently alluding to the pain of the Middle Passage with warmth and frankness appropriate for a young audience. He leads them in a call-and-response singalong that indicates Waffles + Mochi’s potential to become a new classic of children’s television.
Each episode, Waffles and Mochi find themselves in a work predicament, and soon they’re jetting off in their AI-manned magical shopping cart to traverse the globe to learn more about a single food, such as pickles or corn. (Like Knight Rider‘s KITT, Magicart is kind of a salty bish.) The two puppets wander the salt ponds of Peru, attend kimchi festivals in South Korea and make pasta with Italian legends. The show follows a loose structure, squeezing in two or three of these brief docu vignettes per episode while sprinkling in original song sequences, animated interstitials, dubbed interviews with children from all over the world and more. If this sounds jam-packed, well, that’s because it is.
Creators Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner come from disparate worlds. Thormahlen, a former actress, has an academic background in education and initially developed a version of this series back in 2006 under a different title. Konner produced Comedy Central’s Drunk History and Another Period, which explains some of this series’ sophisticated alt-comedy pedigree, including the seemingly improvised banter between the cool-headed Mrs. Obama and a functionary bee puppet who sneers at “Falafel and Mocha” like they’re a couple of rubes.
Waffles + Mochi has a very shiny shell but a slippery yolk. Although I was entertained, I worried there may not be enough educational research or formative evaluation to back up some of the show’s composition. The episodes are shockingly long, at nearly 30 minutes each, and overstuffed with stimuli and information and social-emotional lessons that may be digestible for older children but could max out younger developing brains. (I counted just one educational consultant listed in the credits.) There’s a reason most kid’s shows tend to be broken up into two 11-minute segments; I question whether preschoolers and kindergarteners, the seeming target audience, would be able to cognitively follow along with Waffle and Mochi’s brimming half hour escapades. The loving intentions are clear, but the writers often play with too many lessons at once.
At worst, though, kids will come away from the episodes hungry for a snack. Hopefully they aren’t like me, who started to fantasize how creamy and refreshing little Mochi must taste.
Cast: Michelle Obama, Michelle Zamora, Russ Walko, Piotr Michael, Jonathan Kidder, Diona Elise Burnett, Taleia Gilliam, Lyric Lewis
Created by: Erika Thormahlen and Jeremy Konner
Premieres: Tuesday, March 16th, 2021 (Netflix)