Marcel's Quantum Kitchen debuts tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on SyFy.
Marcel Vigneron, the star of Marcel's Quantum Kitchen, explains in a prologue that he practices "a new style of cooking often called 'molecular gastronomy.'" Even if the phrase is new to you, trust that Marcel does not lie, because he is incapable of shutting up, and since there is nothing he would rather talk about than himself and his genius, it stands to reason that if Marcel likes to call his style of cooking "molecular gastronomy," then it has indeed often been called that. Up until now, the likeliest way to encounter the phrase "molecular gastronomy" was to watch Top Chef, where the diminutive Marcel loomed large over all season two (which began in 2006, when Marcel was just twenty-six), before returning for the current season of Top Chef: All-Stars, where he set a new world record for inspiring other people to mutter variations on "I really don't want to have to work with this guy."
Marcel is undeniably a reality-TV star, but he's a star of a special kind. He is the Johnny Fairplay of reality cooking shows, the one who did the most to kill the love in the "Man You Love to Hate" category. There are other people who've trooped through the Top Chef kitchen who rubbed everybody the wrong way and were fun to watch while doing it, but only Marcel has been the recipient of violent attacks both on and off the show. (One of the near-finalists on his season of Top Chef was booted from the show after he drunkenly attempted to hold Marcel down and shave his head; more recently, a Top Chef viewer spotted him in a nightclub and smashed him in the face with a bottle.)
With his spiky brown hair, pointy beard, and intense stare, Marcel looks as if he ought to be emceeing an old issue of a House of Mystery comic. But after you've seen him in action for a while, he doesn't seem demonic, just frenetic and too self-involved to understand how he's coming across. He's like a child prodigy who grew up without doing anything prodigious but still needs to hear about how brilliant he is the way the rest of us need oxygen. On Quantum Kitchen, which documents his efforts to launch the A-Team of catering companies, with himself in the role of Hannibal Smith, there are fleeting moments where something likable and even touching comes across, especially when Marcel is basking in his clients' approval or worrying that it might be withheld. But I don't get the impression that the people who put this show together want to sell it on Marcel's likability. The man made a lot of enemies on his earlier shows, and the SyFy network is banking on all of them tuning in to see him piss people off and fall on his face.
The mystery of what this show is doing on SyFy in the first place is addressed indirectly during the opening titles, with Marcel making David Blaine faces and stressing the science-based, experimental nature of his avant-garde cuisine. In the premiere, Marcel and his trio of helpmates, who are assigned potentially colorful identities—his longtime friend Devon is a mixologist described as "the Marcel of cocktails"; wild man chef/artist Jarrid is there to "make sure the food always matches the surroundings"—but who don't get a chance to make much of an impression next to their colorful boss, are hired to cater a house party thrown on behalf of an animal refuge and sanctuary. The party is hosted by "Carlton", who, with her tanned leather skin, pincushion lips, and snooty-groupie accent, looks as if she's escaped from whatever free-range preserve Bravo maintains for the stars of its Real Housewives franchise in the off-season.
After a "brain-storming" session that looks a lot like one guy throwing shit at the wall to see what'll stick while the three people paid to be in the same room with him murmur their approval, Marcel sets right to work, trying to invent unique dishes that will establish a safari theme without denying him the chance to break out the nitrous oxide. "I trust Marcel, and I'm hoping there's some method to his madness," says Devon, sounding not unlike someone assuring his accountant that not everyone can understand a brilliant financial mind like Bernie Madoff's. Marcel's plan is to spend a day perfecting his plan for all the dishes, then spend another day executing the dishes. When none of the plans he comes up with on day one turn out to be execution-worthy, it results in a time crush that is exacerbated by Carlton's return and her look of stomach-heaving revulsion when he serves her a gooey-looking mess that is supposed to resemble a big egg in a nest. (In fact, as she points out, it looks like the residue of a broken egg, adding, "You don't think it's a little… unappealing?")
From what's onscreen, it seems more obvious than it ever did on Top Chef that Marcel's problem as a chef is that he's in love with fancy ideas about presentation that have taken over his thinking to the point of crowding out such petty concerns as taste and edibility. (Or, as he himself puts it after delivering a very long and complicated speech explaining the thinking behind a creating a kind of tomato jelly and treating it, with, yes, nirtous oxide, "Now I just need to see and hope and pray that it tastes good.") Luckily for Marcel, the show is filmed in the L.A. area, where any gathering of 30 people will not lack for those who know enough to just smile and fight their gag reflex if they want a chance of being on camera. Carlton and her guests are even down for a gimmicky confection—"Himalayan Tiger's Breath"—that uses liquid nitrogen to get cold-weather fumes to drift from their mouths. I guess that adults doing their best to look delighted while blowing gassy clouds through their lips must qualify as good sports; just watching them, I could hear my own brain cells sizzling and popping like a bowlful of Orville Redenbacher's.
I'm not sure that I wanted the crowd to turn the tables over and set them on fire while screaming for Marcel's blood, but it might have made for better TV. While Marcel himself is probably a fine fellow and an excellent choice to be godfather to your first born when he's off-camera and not trying to impress anyone, as a TV star, he's at his best when he's being an ass and helplessly antagonizing somebody. For all the Dali-esque creations his fevered brain can concoct, the most entertaining passages in the first episode are still the moments when he's working someone's last nerve, especially in his dealings with Chester, a party planner whose ambitions for the backyard he's to decorate strike Marcel as insufficiently Wild Kingdom-y. ("I hope the tiger kind of, like, brings a lot to the outside.") The producers may have noticed this, because they clear a lot of space in the second episode to make room for another party planner, who thinks that Marcel is being underhanded on the rare occasions when she doesn't think he's incompetent and deranged; even when she concedes that, of course, everything has turned out wonderfully, her smile is that of a woman internally trying to find a happy place, ideally one where she gets to kick up her heels on Marcel's grave. I'd suggest that they phony up a clause in her release that would force her to become a series regular, but I'm afraid that, after she got through with Marcel, she might come after me.