Pop Culture

Can Mindy Kaling Fry a Chicken? (And So What If She Can?)

September 28, 2016

Just like me, Mindy Kaling is a Bengali person who can't really cook. (Ah, yes—the old dictum that stars are just like us.) Kaling's aggressive lack of culinary dexterity serves as the foundation for the first episode of Star Plates, a thirty-minute show that premiered last night on the Food Network. The show's blueprint, predicated on seeing our beloved stars screw up as line cooks in world-famous restaurants, has innate appeal. "In a one-night crash course," the teaser reads, "the celebrity's culinary dream comes true." Upcoming episodes, airing every Tuesday at 11 P.M. E.S.T., promise to feature Erin Andrews, Colin Hanks, Alyson Hannigan, Minka Kelly and Busy Philipps sparring with such celebrity chefs as Geoffrey Zakarian, Susan Feniger, Michael Voltaggio, and Vinny Dotolo.

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The opening scene of Star Plates is endearing enough—Kaling stands in front of Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster in Harlem, which she declares is her favorite restaurant, only to charmingly flub and slur her scripted lines describing what it is. Red Rooster is a comfort food restaurant that celebrates the life and spirit of Harlem, and it's particularly renowned for its Fried Bird Royale, pictured below, composed of fried chicken and rich sides that I would eat after five days of diligent fasting. Kaling outlines all of this for us while standing awkwardly outside the restaurant. She informs us that the extent of her cooking on camera has been, thus far, pouring a glass of water.

Photo by Food Network

Kaling loves this restaurant so much, though, that she escaped Los Angeles just to come here and try her hand at creating the Fried Chicken Royale under the tutelage of the Ethiopian-Swede chef Samuelsson, whom Kaling refers to as "America's sweetheart, darling chef." Samuelsson comes across as a genial, occasionally strict man who advises Kaling that fulfilling this task won't be easy. If she doesn't abide by his rules, he claims, "she's in for a big surprise." Kaling just hopes she won't poison them. High stakes!

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What follows is an alarmingly unexciting series of incidents in which Kaling is told to perform various tasks around the kitchen, from fetching ingredients to brining chicken to arranging slices of salmon on a plate. These scenes are buttressed purely by Kaling's charisma. She's game and likable from the start, and yet she's slotted into some proto-narrative that attempts to create a sense of tension where it doesn't really exist. Samuelsson never comes down hard on Kaling; he gently pokes fun at her incompetence. One gets the sense that the show's creators aren't entirely aware of the innate richness of the material here, putting undue focus on making the kitchen seem like some incalculably terrifying place for we plebes who've never stepped inside one. The show doesn't seem to have the confidence that its premise is reason enough to sustain thirty minutes.

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I swear there's a more compelling show clawing for dominance somewhere in here, but it never emerges. In one scene, there's some gentle ribbing between Samuelsson and Kaling, in which he claims she works better when she's pissed off. "That's the story of my whole career," she responds, speaking of the way men continually underrate her. "That's what it's like to be an Indian woman in comedy." I would much rather hear her speak about this very topic with Samuelsson—who, like her, is a person of color in an overwhelmingly white industry—than see her thrust into a narrative of false drama.

The show climaxes—barely—in a moment of mild tension when Samuelsson serves two young women Kaling's chicken, cutting through it in hopes that it's not raw inside. It isn't. (Wow. Shocking.) When Kaling is revealed as the dish's chef, the two women feign surprise so unconvincingly that I wonder how much they were paid to do this.

Photo by Food Network

The episode ends with some hoary, eyeroll-inducing statements about how Samuelsson understands why Kaling has had a successful career given her unexpectedly passable performance in the kitchen, lavishing her with praise about her ambition and hard work. By evidence of the first episode, Star Plates reads as a real missed opportunity to create an engaging show that exploits the hilarity of Kaling, a non-cook, wading through a milieu she's ill-prepared to handle.

Star Plates airs every Tuesday night at 11 P.M. E.S.T. on Food Network. Did you see the first episode? What'd you think? Let us know in the comments!

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.