The Secret Ingredient (2020)

If I had to judge Hallmark baking show movies in the manner of a reality program, The Secret Ingredient would bow out mid-competition. While the film boasts some glossy production design and a constantly upbeat Erin Cahill, it scores average marks and tells its story with minimal flair. Cahill plays Kelly, a baker who runs her successful shop across the street from her parents’ diner. Her business is doing well so she doesn’t want to risk diverting resources to buy the diner, which her parents are selling so they can retire. Instead, she hopes to grow her bakery and expand beyond her small town.

Kelly gets the chance to boost her name recognition in a big way when she’s chosen to appear on Four Square Cooking, a reality baking show à la Chopped hosted by actual Chopped judge Maneet Chauhan. The adrenaline of competing in a stressful televised cooking contest carries her through but she still has plenty of self doubt, and the appearance of her ex-fiancé, Andrew (Brendan Penny), throws her further off balance. He’s been making a name for himself as a pastry chef in Paris but is back home to assist at a friend’s restaurant opening.

After some initial awkwardness, Kelly and Andrew slip back into an easy friendship. Their relationship doesn’t have the testiness of former lovers reunited, and they don’t waste time rehashing old quarrels. But the two sometimes play it cool, a little too cool, and are subdued to the point of dullness. Andrew brings a bit of cheek with his head-pastry-chef-in-Michelin-starred-Parisian-restaurant flexes, but he’s not much more than the boring nice guy. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy seeing Penny; I’ve always thought of him as the listener of a friend group, the guy you’d turn to when you needed a (strong, broad) shoulder to cry on. The dude is so chill though, and sometimes his vibe is not romance as much as it is conflict resolution manager. By contrast, Cahill has the energy of a very excited child. She overcompensates with constant smiles and doesn’t always give Kelly the emotional nuance she deserves. The character doesn’t come off as insincere but she could do with more introspection.

The mild frustrations with this relationship and the acting hardly compare with my feelings about the competition format. Maybe it’s because I don’t like or watch much reality TV to begin with, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the budget and logistics of this Four Square Cooking business. The catch is that the four chefs, all notable names in the industry, have their identities hidden from one another while competing. Is there such a show like that in real life because it seems needlessly expensive and complicated. Each contestant is put up in a different luxury hotel and paired with a 24 hour PA to ensure that he or she doesn’t run into another contestant. That’s exhausting, but what do I know, except reality shows and this movie aren’t my thing.

Released: 2020
Dir: Tibor Takacs
Writer: S.W. Sessions
Cast: Erin Cahill, Brendan Penny, Maneet Chauhan, Gwynyth Walsh, Cherissa Richards, Shannon Coast, Amy Groening, Tom Anniko
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Channel
Reviewed: 2020