Samin Nosrat, Preeti Mistry, Bricia Lopez, and Pía León on making Michelle Obama’s new, puppet-filled cooking show
Waffles + Mochi, Netflix’s new culinary kids show, follows the adventures of two Muppet-like friends, Waffles and Mochi, who work in a supermarket and spend their free time traveling the world to learn about everyday ingredients. Beyond the eponymous anthropomorphic puppet stars, the 10-episode series boasts a roster of famous names — including, first and foremost, Michelle Obama, whose production company, Higher Ground (created by the the former first lady and her husband), made the show.
But food fans will have plenty of other familiar faces to get excited about, too. There are culinary special guests galore — including Samin Nosrat, José Andrés, Massimo Bottura, Preeti Mistry, Mashama Bailey, Bricia Lopez, Pía León, and Michael Twitty — who show Waffles and Mochi everything from the difference between herbs and spices to how to make tortellini in Italy.
We spoke with some of the chefs to learn more about the food they made on the show, what it was like filming with puppets and kids, and why they think Waffles + Mochi is for everyone. (Oh, and, of course, whether or not they met Michelle Obama.)
The following conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Samin Nosrat (author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat; star of Salt Fat Acid Heat on Netflix) — Episode 1: “Tomato”
Eater: What was your involvement with the show from the beginning?
Samin Nosrat: I think my involvement was a little bit different than other people’s, partly because I already had a food show. Everybody’s been saying things like, “We look to you and to Salt Fat Acid Heat as a model for the spirit of this show.” The minute I clicked open the pitch deck for the idea of Waffles + Mochi, my heart exploded with pure joy. In my heart, I wished I could be in every episode. There were a lot of reasons why I couldn’t. So we figured out, ultimately, the best way for me to be in it was to be in one episode. And then throughout, I was sharing everything that I had learned in making my show, all the mistakes we had made, all the things that I understood I was going to do differently the next time. I have been so deeply, emotionally invested in this show.
Tell me about your episode, “Tomato.”
We shot in November 2019, so they asked, “Can you keep your tomato plants in your garden alive until November?” I was like, “For Mrs. Obama, I can do anything.” So I was doting on these tomato plants like nobody’s business. And when they showed up to film, it was like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that day, it was just pure magic.
They were really trying to get me to think of tomatoes as a fruit for kids, so I was thinking of different recipes that were simple and would make kids think of tomatoes as a sweet thing. That was part of why I called it “tomato candy” in the episode. But before we ended up with this tomato pasta, I was like, “I’m going to invent a tomato dessert that is going to be so delicious; I’m going to invent tomato upside-down cake.” I made all these, like, tomato upside-down cakes, and they were so disgusting. The tomatoes cooked as if they were roasting and caramelizing, turning into sauce, but then there was a cake, so it was this very confusing experience of a savory thing on top of a sweet. It was like tomato sauce on top of a cake. I was like, “This is the reason this dessert doesn’t exist.” Maybe a really talented pastry chef could do it.
What was the pasta with roasted tomatoes, cheese, and basil that you made instead?
I knew I wanted it to be simple for a kid. Mia, the little girl in the scene, is my neighbor who comes over to my house every single day and is always like, “What are we gonna make?” That was a very accurate representation of how Mia is in the kitchen with me. I have a pretty good sense of what she can handle and eat. Keeping things pretty basic and also delicious is important. Pasta’s a thing I make all the time. It’s really accessible for kids.
Netflix had us do focus groups — not even truly traditional focus groups, they were just showing them to various Netflix employees and their children. The feedback we were getting was that people were making the pasta. They were inspired to get cherry tomatoes and roast them and do this pasta. There is a recipe that is going to be published eventually, but I was like, “It worked! That’s awesome.”
How do you view Waffles + Mochi within the same lineage as your work on Salt Fat Acid Heat?
I try to speak to as broad of an audience as possible when I’m talking about food, including kids. I don’t think you have to dumb stuff down for kids. Curiosity, enthusiasm, joy, delight — that is what I try to convey, because that’s what I experience. I think that that’s pretty universal. And I say this with just pure honor, and I don’t even know how to phrase it without sounding like a total narcissist: I think that’s the lineage or the spirit that Waffles + Mochi took as inspiration from us. It feels like we’re in the same family. I feel like Waffles and I are related.
Did you meet Michelle Obama?
In May 2019, during Mrs. Obama’s book tour, I got to go to one of the last events, in Atlanta, and I got to go in the line to shake hands with Mrs. Obama. She told me she was proud of me. That was the most amazing and wonderful situation in my entire life.
During production — I didn’t work with her during that at all. Mrs. Obama, as I understand it, had her own limited time that she did it; her scenes are very contained. But I did have the incredible honor and privilege to make some ancillary stuff with her that is going to come out in the coming months. What I respect and admire so much about her work is that it’s not only about just making an entertaining TV show; she’s so incredibly committed to having an actual impact in the lives of children and their parents. So there is a parallel impact campaign that she’s doing with her organization, the Partnership for a Healthier America. I did get to do something with her for that, related to the show.
Bricia Lopez (restaurateur and co-owner of Guelaguetza in Los Angeles; author of Oaxaca: Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico) — Episode 2: “Salt”
Eater: How did you become involved with the show?
Bricia Lopez: I got a phone call from a production team. They told me it was going to be a show focused on promoting healthy eating with children. And then they mentioned — I always call her “Her Majesty” Michelle Obama, and I was like yes yes yes yes to whatever you want.
Tell me about the mole coloradito you made with Waffles and Mochi in your home kitchen.
They told me a little about the episode, that it was going to be focused on the importance of salt as a flavor enhancer, and that this puppet had traveled the world and was on a quest to make a perfect chocolate chip cookie. I thought: chocolate, salt, my two favorite things in the entire world — let’s teach Waffles and Mochi how to make a great mole and how to create your own seasoning, your own sazón. Mole has this misconception of being a super-difficult dish and something that takes days to make. I wanted children to know what mole is and to understand all the ingredients that go in it, but also that it could be fun.
The fact that they chose to have a Mexican cook on the show, let alone someone who’s from Oaxaca, on such an important show, I thought it’d be great to talk about mole. To bring Oaxaca to the world has been my mission and what keeps me going. It’s beautiful to think about all the beautiful little brown faces that are going to be seeing themselves on TV and seeing their food represented.
That was your sister Paulina and her kids and your son eating with you, Waffles, and Mochi at the dining table, right?
Yeah. The kids loved the puppets. Just being in the kitchen with a puppet, talking to her — and the puppeteer Michelle Zamora is an incredible woman, as well, super talented — it reminded me of how important it is to keep that spirit of childhood alive, especially in the kitchen. I’m a mom, so I tend to be a bit militant in the kitchen. But remember that at the end of the day, cooking should be fun and bring your family together. You should be able to create new memories and introduce your kids to new flavors — you’d be surprised how autonomous and confident a child can get in the kitchen.
On the show, you mentioned sazón: adding salt or seasoning to taste. Can you tell me more about that idea?
With time and practice in the kitchen, with allowing yourself to fail at a few recipes and thrive at others, you come to the place where you create your own sazón in the kitchen. You and I could be cooking the exact same recipe, using the exact same ingredients and measurements, yet yours will always taste different from mine. That’s called your sazón, your flavor, whatever you want to call it: the invisible ingredient that every single person holds in their hand, that ultimately becomes your signature flavor. It is your love, your time, your effort, your essence.
As a mother yourself, does the show get your official mom stamp of approval as a kids show?
One hundred percent. And it’s not only a kids show, it’s a family show. So many of us spent more time in the kitchen this past year than in our entire life, and there’s a whole new level of respect for the kitchen and the cook, which I love to see. The importance of having meals together is going to be a priority now.
Did you meet Michelle Obama?
I was not able to, unfortunately. I can’t wait for the one day that I can cook for her and her family, hopefully.
Pía León (chef and co-owner of Mil and other restaurants in Peru) — Episode 3: “Potato”
Eater: How did you feel when the Netflix production crew reached out to ask you to take part in this show?
Pía León: I was surprised at first, because I never imagined it. But when I heard about the philosophy of the program, at that second I said yes, because my philosophy is the same. It’s a TV show where you don’t feel you’re being taught a lesson; you are learning but in a funny way, with a lot of color. So I decided to do it.
Can you tell me more about the huatia you cooked the potatoes with in your scene, and the potato stew that you made?
I decided to make the huatia, which is a traditional way to cook the potatoes here in Peru. I considered that idea because, for kids, making this construction of stones like a pyramid is like playing. And what better place to film than in Cusco, where these potatoes come from?
Here we have a traditional dish that is called locro. It’s like a stew, but with pumpkin and, in this case, potatoes. I changed the ingredients a little; we used all the ingredients we had around the farm — some corn, a pumpkin, some favas, some chiles we use a lot here in Peru. It’s a way to make it more fun and colorful, and the kids can enjoy it. It’s really simple, not too many ingredients, and an easy way to cook.
Your son, Cristóbal, appeared alongside you in the episode. Did he have fun?
He loves to go to Cusco, he really enjoys it. This time was different because you have these little puppets; he really loved it. At the time he was 3 and a half years old, so he didn’t speak English. But the emotion and the happiness at the moment, he really enjoyed. And he loves food. So yes, we enjoyed it together.
What was the best part about filming this?
I really enjoyed that day we filmed. I was working, but at the same time, I was sharing with my kid this amazing experience of cooking in the Andes, and also sharing with all the world the variety of potatoes we have here — more than 4,000 — and all the biodiversity in Peru. It was a good feeling to show what we have and what we can do with these ingredients.
It was also really important that Manuel Choqque, who harvested the potatoes, was in the show. It was really emotional to see him because, when you cook, it’s not only eating, it’s also about the product, who works with the product, where they come from, how they get the product to your home. In this episode, we show all of the system, from the beginning to the end.
Is it important for kids, in particular, who watch this show to know the whole food system and where their food comes from?
Yes, of course. It’s important to teach our children that food is important. We need to learn more and more about the products. And to show that you can cook simple, delicious food, and be creative. The result is that you have an amazing time that you share with family, because the show is not only for kids, it’s for the whole family.
Did you meet Michelle Obama?
You know, everybody asked me that. The answer is no, but I feel like that’s enough, because we shared the same ideas. But you never know. Someday!
Preeti Mistry (chef; author of The Juhu Beach Club Cookbook) — Episode 7: “Herbs and Spices”
Eater: When did the production team reach out to you about taking part in this show?
Preeti Mistry: The producers reached out to me in the fall of 2019, I think. I was super excited. They were very hush-hush about everything because it was Higher Ground Productions and the Obamas. I was like, “Oh my god, yeah.” And then we shot it at the beginning of 2020.
Were you always going to do this “Herbs and Spices” episode?
They had this concept of specific categories like tomato, potato, water, salt. So we chatted through it to figure out what was the best thing and made the decision together. We’re in Oakland, and there are so many people who have really amazing backyard gardens and stuff, so it just made sense. Both herbs and spices are a big part of my cooking.
Possibly hot debate time: herbs versus spices?
It really depends on the dish, but I suppose in my cooking in particular, spices are pretty prevalent. The pani puri we made on the show, we slipped some spices in there, as well as the herbs on top. But yeah, I suppose spices, at the end of the day. If I don’t have any cilantro to add on top of my chicken curry, I’ll probably live, but if I don’t have my masala, then I’m kind of dead in the water there.
Is there one herb you can’t do without?
Cilantro. The crux of most of my cooking is Indian, so that’s probably No. 1. I also use curry leaves in the cooking process — not in the garnishing process — a lot. I have a curry tree.
Was that beautiful garden you filmed in yours?
No, that was the little boy Bija’s garden, and his parents. That was his dad in the background. His dad is actually a farmer I’ve worked with for a few years now. He specializes in rooftop garden farms, so I used to get a lot of produce from him, and we became friends over time. When Bija was really young, they would bring him to my restaurant all the time. I remember once he tried the tikka masala mac and cheese, and he was like, “Preeti makes the best mac and cheese!” So I’ve known them for a while.
How did you come up with the idea of making pani puri with Waffles and Mochi?
We talked it through with the producers, and we shot around a bunch of ideas that would be fun with kids. It was also: What can we do outside, without a lot of equipment?
I’ve loved pani puri from the time I was a little kid because they’re delicious, but also so fun. Traditionally in India, the pani puri doesn’t necessarily have cherry tomatoes and basil in it; traditionally, it’s chickpeas and potatoes and tamarind water. Every street stall has its specific blend of spices and whatever aromatics they put in the water. But we just wanted to play with it. I’ve always played with pani puri in my cooking in the last decade or two; I’ve done things like putting salmon and tuna and tartare in a puri. I have always thought of it, from the chef perspective, as a fun vehicle. It’s a yummy puffball crispy cracker that you can put anything in and eat. How fun is that for kids? Especially because you have to pop the whole thing in your mouth, otherwise it’ll just fall apart.
What was your favorite part of the whole experience?
I’m excited to be a part of a show that is really international and showing kids so many different elements. There are songs and animation, there are puppets, there are people, there are these playful documentary interludes. Some of them are super educational; I’ve been a professional chef for almost two decades, and I’m learning things. I think it’s a really awesome way to teach kids about healthy food, because it’s got all the fun things that kids are excited about, but it also doesn’t dumb it down in its approach. I think kids are going to love it, and I think a lot of adults who don’t even have kids are going to love it.
From a representation place, I feel honored to be a part of it. It’s great for kids to see different types of people, different races, genders, orientations. All of that inclusivity is a really important thing. I already got a tweet from someone who said that their kid watched it and exclaimed, “They’re like me,” to their parents. I think that that’s really powerful, in addition to all of the lessons and fun. I was watching it by myself and just cracking up and singing along. I can’t stop imitating Mochi — my wife’s going insane. [Mistry then proceeded to produce an uncannily spot-on imitation of Mochi’s coos and burbles.]
Did you meet Michelle Obama?
No. I mean, a month and a half or so after we shot this, everyone went into lockdown. But she did like my photo on Instagram, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m dead.” But I look forward to the day when we do get to meet each other. It feels kind of cool to feel like she’ll just be like, “Hey, Preeti,” as opposed to, “Hi, let me introduce myself.” It feels great. My parents think it’s really cool.