Brow Beat

Why Samin Nosrat Won’t “Dumb Down” Food for Kids on Waffles + Mochi

“They aren’t stupid.”

Nosrat feeds Waffles the puppet at an outdoor table as Mochi and a human child look on
Samin Nosrat in Waffles + Mochi. Adam Rose/Netflix

Netflix’s newest food show, Waffles + Mochi, follows the adventures of a puppet with waffles for ears (hence the name) and her friend, a small ball of mochi (hence the name), as they taste their way around the world. The show premiered on the streaming platform Tuesday.

The show is anchored by Michelle Obama, who plays the owner of a supermarket where Waffles and Mochi work. Each episode centers on a single ingredient or cooking technique and sees the duo meeting with an array of chefs, celebrities, and celebrity chefs. Samin Nosrat is one such chef who visits the pair and dives right into the joys of cooking, eating, and gardening. I spoke with her in advance of the show’s premiere to learn about her involvement and what makes Waffles + Mochi the must-see program of the moment for everyone (not just kids).

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Michelle Obama puts a toque on Waffles' head as Waffles holds Mochi in her hand
Michelle Obama in Waffles + Mochi. Adam Rose/Netflix

What got you interested in this project, and how did you feel when the producers reached out?

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It was really the best email I’ve ever gotten. It felt so aligned with all of the things I believe in. At first they were writing to ask if I would share what I had learned from making my series, so I shared everything I had learned and all the different resources and people I had met along the way who I thought would be good for them to work with, behind and in front of the camera. I was just so excited that they were doing this. I’ve always loved kids. I love working with kids. At first I was like, can I be in all the episodes?

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Was there a moment when they were like, “Just get in front of the camera”?

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That was always the hope. It was a puzzle for them to figure out which episode or episodes would be best. So I let them figure out where they wanted to put me. They knew they wanted to come to my house. I told them that I live in this unique place where four homes share a plot of land and a garden. Mia, my neighbor’s kid, lives here, and she’s always in the garden and kitchen with me. I knew she would love Waffles + Mochi.

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I am so aware of how limited the representation is of people outside of one very limited kind of scope of cooks on-screen, so I was very excited for this to exist. What I wouldn’t have given to have had this show as a kid. And honestly, what I wouldn’t have given to have had this show as a young cook.

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Did Mia end up being in the show?

She’s in my scenes with me—it’s truly the most joy. The show has the most loving crew. They just were so cooperative and collegial and respectful to one another. I had no idea what goes into puppeteering. To see the physicality, skill, and craftsmanship of it—it’s incredible. Even though Mia, who was 4 years old at the time, obviously could see that there were people bringing the puppets to life, somehow the magic of it was not broken for her.

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We haven’t had the premiere for her yet. We’re going to have a premiere with a red carpet outside in the garden.

Waffles wearing goggles and Mochi wearing a helmet, sitting together in a go-kart
Adam Rose/Netflix
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What are Waffles and Mochi like to work with? Did you get along?

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Waffles and Mochi are so amazing. They’re both incredibly curious. Waffles is very funny, with a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude. Their backstory is that they’ve lived in the Land of Frozen Food their whole lives, and never really had any ingredients beyond ice. They’ve had access to television and watched a lot of Julia Child, so they know that they want to be chefs; they just don’t really know what food is yet.

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They’re the most perfect, wonderful, silly students, and they are so openhearted that they make you be the best version of yourself. They’re the perfect conduit for the kids at home, and allow kids to have that experience for the first time alongside them. The directors were really clear to remind me that they’re not stupid, and to just talk to them like they come from another planet.

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That was a really important point to make, because that’s always how I try to talk to kids. They aren’t stupid, and I hate it when people dumb down food. I think kids can have really sophisticated palates. Frankly, nobody wants the dumb food. Everybody wants to eat delicious, exciting food. Sometimes it takes gradual steps to get there, but that doesn’t mean that you’re dumb or that you have a dumb palate. That was a really beautiful distinction for them to make.

How does that translate into recipe development? What do you think kids need to know in the kitchen?

There’s a tendency to take all the challenging flavors out of food and make things simple and clean and bland for kids. You have your garlicky green beans separate from your plain green beans. But why would they want the plain boiled green beans and not the ones that have salt and garlic and butter on them? Those flavors, they’re going to taste better for kids, too!

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One thing I have always practiced in the kitchen (I did not invent this at all) is when kids have a role in the garden and in the kitchen, they are more invested in the outcome. That’s true for anybody. The first time I made sauerkraut in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, I was like, “Oh, this is what sauerkraut is.” Like, I’m interested, I have a relationship to this thing.

To create that relationship early in life is super important for kids—to create that investment in the garden, whether that’s learning how to sprout seeds, harvest a vegetable, or pick and use herbs. Those are going to be second-nature habits later in life, rather than trying to get adults to create healthier habits.

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I think another key is not forcing it. I sometimes say the rule is you have to taste, and everyone has to help in some way. But I also don’t ever shame people if they don’t like something.

Did you cook as a kid?

My mom was pretty territorial; the kitchen was her space. I think for her, as an immigrant parent, she wanted me and my brother not in the kitchen. She wanted us doing our homework. But she did use our hands for incredibly labor-intensive tasks. We peeled fava beans and picked herbs when there were mountains of them, or peeled eggplant.

She wanted us to have basic skills. She taught us how to cook eggs and make tuna salad. But I was not in there every day at my mom’s apron strings.

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You mentioned earlier this matter of representation, especially in children’s TV shows. How do you see that figuring into Waffles + Mochi?

Oh, my gosh, I cannot wait for you to watch this. In terms of food television, I’ve never seen anything this inclusive or diverse, ever.

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I know the traumatic lunchbox moment at school is a trope that is overused and not necessarily applicable to everybody. But I have had plenty of friends who have been incredibly scarred. In fact, one of my colleagues has been basically lifelong scarred because of being made fun of for the way kimchi smells. There is a kimchi scene in the pickle episode, and when I watched that, all I could think about was him. This is so powerful, to not only normalize kimchi, but to create this incredibly beautiful scene that builds respect by talking about kimchi and the tradition of making it with such respect and honor, treating this food with curiosity, openness, and love. It does that for so many foods, and so many cultures across the world, so many different kinds of people.

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Food is this incredibly, emotionally powerful thing, and it’s incredibly powerful to our identities, especially as children. It’s linked to our sense of where we come from, who we are, what we’re worth, and what our cultures are worth. I think Waffles + Mochi is going to be so meaningful to kids all around the world. Not only kids, but people of all ages. It’s healing to watch.

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