behind the scenes

How Do You Feed a Puppet? Behind the Tasty Edutainment of Waffles + Mochi

Samin Nosrat offers a bite to Waffles (not pictured: Waffles’s internal “esophagus” mechanism that’s connected to a doggy bag). Photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

How do you feed a puppet?

That was the first question that came to mind as I watched Waffles + Mochi, Netflix’s delightful new children’s series made by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions. A giddy, energetic mix of Sesame Street and Salt Fat Acid Heat, the show’s ten episodes follow the titular Waffles and Mochi (a waffle-yeti hybrid and a sentient sticky-rice ball, respectively) as they travel the world learning about different foods and ingredients — all at the behest of a kindly grocery-store owner named Mrs. Obama.

The result is something inviting for kids and adults alike, a blend of puppetry, food-travel documentary, songs, sketches, and more, all with an eye toward inspiring kids to have fun in the kitchen. In a year where exhausted parents have been trying to get their children to maintain healthy habits while in quarantine, Waffles + Mochi is joyfully committed to getting kids curious about food — not just how to make it, but where it comes from.

Waffles + Mochi has been gestating since 2005 in the mind of show creator and producer Erika Thormahlen, who was starving for a Sesame Street equivalent that taught children the joys of food and cooking. Then along came longtime friend and collaborator (and Drunk History co-creator) Jeremy Konner, who ran into her at a restaurant in Los Feliz one day in 2018: “I said to her, ‘Too bad Waffles + Mochi doesn’t exist right now, because I can’t get my toddler to eat a tomato!’” The two decided then to develop the show together.

Kids are picky eaters, after all; put a vegetable and a dinosaur-shaped chicken nugget in front of them, and we know which one they’ll most often pick. But Waffles + Mochi aims to demystify the foods we eat every day and connect us to the global cultures who make all kinds of culinary delights with them.

Each episode is centered on a different core ingredient — tomatoes, potatoes, rice, eggs, pickles, and so on — that Waffles and Mochi seek to learn about by scouring the globe in their stylish shopping cart/jet MagiCart. There, they meet celebrities (Rashida Jones, Jack Black) and celebrity chefs (José Andrés, Samin Nosrat) who teach them that mushrooms aren’t scary, or that a tomato can be a fruit and a vegetable. And along the way, they (and the kids at home) learn some broader object lessons, like the importance of working together to solve problems or learning that it’s okay to make mistakes.

When Thormahlen and Konner established the show’s tone, the number one rule was to never food-shame. The scripts would treat food as a source of excitement and not lecture kids about nutritional content. (The show’s tagline, “Listen to your vegetables and eat your parents,” is a cute reminder of that fact.) “There’s never this talk of ‘good for you, bad for you,’” explains Konner: “Just make everything look delicious and fun and exciting — because it is.”

It’s a brief that matches the work Michelle Obama has been doing ever since her tenure as First Lady — making good food and nutrition accessible and exciting for kids — which made her involvement in the series a no-brainer. And it was a welcome, albeit intimidating, experience for Konner (who co-directs all ten episodes) to have to direct “literally the most admired woman on planet Earth.” Everybody was starstruck the entire time she was on set, and “the cast and crew were floating an inch above the ground” listening to everything she said.

That glow was palpable throughout the whimsically produced grocery-store and roof-garden sets where most of Waffles + Mochi’s episodes start and end. It even affected R&B superstar (and surprise guest) Lionel Richie, whom Konner remembers beaming and telling him, “Can you believe it? I just met Michelle Obama!” Mrs. Obama’s ability to inspire also came through in her improvisation with the actors and puppets on set. “We’d ask her to talk to the puppets about the virtue of patience, and she would deliver a monologue that had the entire crew behind the monitors tearing up,” Konner recalls.

Of course, the first and most important job was designing the puppets that would fill the world of Waffles + Mochi — from our felt-covered heroes to the grocery store’s other side characters, like anxious manager Busy Bee and the sprightly Intercommy (voiced by Konner’s son, George). Luckily, Konner knew puppeteer and designer Michelle Zamora from previous collaborations with her L.A.-based company Viva La Puppet, whose puppets have appeared in places like A Black Lady Sketch Show and Adult Swim. She was initially brought on just to help design the puppets, but eventually became the voice (and hand) of the ever-curious Waffles.

Zamora and the creators bandied about a host of ideas for how involved the puppetry should be. At one point, they thought about making the puppets as detailed as possible with animatronics, but decided that the simplicity of the old-school, Muppet-like design was the right approach for such a kid-friendly show. They even decided to keep the puppetry rods clearly visible, to maintain the homespun feel of old-school Sesame Street.

Which brings us back to that initial question: How do you feed a puppet? “One of the challenges we had was designing a puppet that could eat on-camera,” Thormahlen admits. “Cookie Monster is the most iconic reference, of course, but we were trying to capture puppets that ate like humans.” Together with Zamora, they eventually designed Waffles with an “esophagus” connected to a doggy bag they could switch out at a moment’s notice.

“You carry around three or four puppets,” Konner explains, “because food is gonna ruin a puppet.” (It doesn’t help, of course, that the foods Waffles eats throughout the show are some of the sauciest, stewiest, creamiest delicacies master chefs like Nosrat and Massimo Bottura have to offer.) What’s more, as Zamora was puppeteering Waffles, she would get a bite of the food at the same time, so she could describe the flavors in real time. “We needed that reaction to be real — ‘Ooh, I detect a hint of lemon!’” says Konner. “Those are things we couldn’t fake.”

Waffles and Mochi’s zest for culinary knowledge takes them all around the world, as episodes take them everywhere from the Maras Salt Ponds of Peru to see where salt comes from, to a kinoko kan (mushroom house) in Japan to show where people are growing mushrooms in dark, humid rooms. This required a ton of logistical work, not just for travel but for the puppets: “If you want to know how to shoot a puppet show in Venice, Italy, in 16 hours, we’ve got the crew,” jokes Thormahlen.

Puppets are heavy travelers, it seems: “There are so many human bodies and things required to make puppets look simple,” Thormahlen adds. When they filmed on a gondola in Venice, she was convinced that the mass of camera operators and puppeteers involved in shooting the scene was going to sink the boat.

Despite the challenges inherent in shooting all around the world — “We were essentially designing the plane while flying it,” Konner notes — it’s that fly-by-night sense of experimentation that adds to the show’s charm, and introduces puppets to a lot of settings you don’t otherwise find them. “There’s a reason you don’t see a ton of puppets on mountaintops in the Andes,” Konner warns, a testament to both the difficulty of location filming and, as his crew can attest during that shoot, the nonzero chance of getting food poisoning.

For Thormahlen, seeing Waffles and Mochi at the Sacred Valley in Peru, for instance, fit the North Star version of the show that had been in their heads for years: puppets in epic landscapes, eating delicious food. But the location shoots didn’t just involve Waffles and Mochi taking in the sights and snacks of wherever they visited. In each country, they scouted nearby schools to their respective shooting locations and interviewed kids about the various ingredients they were exploring — eggs, rice, and so on. “There was always the desire to have kids see other kids talking about the foods we all eat,” explains Thormahlen. “Every kid knows what a tomato is, but they may eat it in different ways.”

And of course, it’s not a kids’ show without catchy songs, and Waffles + Mochi had the added task of working in positive messages about food amongst the danceable tunes. Luckily, Thormahlen and Konner were able to enlist the talents of comedy songwriting duo Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci (otherwise known as Garfunkel & Oates) to craft clever ditties befitting each episode. There’s the Sia-inspired “A Tomato Is a Fruit” (complete with the real Sia on vocals), the groovy Motown licks of “Umami,” explaining that mysterious, savory fifth flavor, and so on.

“We gave [Garfunkel & Oates] a lot of creative leeway” with the songs, Konner explains. The process couldn’t have gone more smoothly, it seems: Konner and Thormahlen would send outlines and points they wanted to hit, and they’d just come back with a perfectly polished two-minute track. “They’re machines, just incredible. I don’t know how they do what they do.”

But all of these elements — Mrs. Obama’s presence, the puppetry, the locations, the songs — meld into a cohesive dish intended to not just get kids cooking, but thinking about the food they eat every day. “We wanted the first ten episodes to feature ten ingredients that changed the world,” says Konner, from pickles’ long history of preservation to the staple ingredients (rice, potatoes) that helped build nations. They’ve got a laundry list of ingredients the show needs to get to: Honey, bread, and beans are some of the items Thormahlen said they’d like Waffles and Mochi to explore in future episodes. But of course, it’d be gauche to anticipate our second course while we’re still savoring the disarming delights of the first.

How Do You Feed a Puppet? Waffles + Mochi Figured It Out