Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
I found Cinderella Chef (Chinese title: 萌妻食神) during a month-long binge of transmigration/time-travel Chinese dramas back in 2018, and it’s one of the few that’s stayed with me since. It’s fun, original, and tells one hell of a story!
Cinderella Chef follows the journey of a modern girl Ye Jiayao, or “Yaoyao,” who time travels to the past after bonding with the inventor of a time machine. In ancient China, she finds herself hitched to Xia Chunyu, an agent of an imperial prince who’s gone undercover to infiltrate the Black Wind Fortress (ancient China’s equivalent of an organized mob). Together, they work out the ins and outs of their fake marriage, and what each other’s secrets mean for their relationship.
That’s a very basic synopsis of the premise of a looong fifty-six episode drama.
The Main Pairing
Ye Jiayao does not disappoint as a leading lady. She’s upbeat but pragmatic, idealistic but whip-smart, ambitious but self-aware. She knows her worth and does not care what anybody thinks of her at any time. She is such a go-getter that even if you don’t care for her as a person, her perception of the world and how she toughs out all her obstacles make her an easy character to follow. I love her entrepreneurial spirit and what her priorities in life are—not men, not money (alright, some money), but an innate need to improve her craft and leave a mark upon the world.
Xia Chunyu took me a while to like in the first season, largely because for a good chunk of the drama, I didn’t like his relationship with Yaoyao. He’s not a terrible husband, but because of the nature of his undercover mission, you can’t help but be wary of the motives driving his actions, even as you see his feelings for her slowly becoming more genuine as the drama goes on. I also feel like he loses out to the second male lead charisma-wise, to be honest, before the shit hit the fan.
He’s awful at the beginning of the second season with the ways he goes about winning Ye Jiayao back, the worst of it being when he buys out her place of employment, thus making her have to choose between losing her livelihood or having to work under him. (He eventually reveals that he bought it for her, but like… he makes her suffer for it first, so I don’t count it.)
Luckily, the third male lead can’t hold a candle to him in terms of, well, everything. And once him and Yaoyao got together for real, he becomes a lot better once he stops being petty towards her and includes her in his scheming. (To be fair, she’s also pretty petty towards him. I just think he holds more power over her and is therefore guiltier.)
Tropes, Tropes, Tropes
Time-traveling to the past? Check.
The MC using modern knowledge to their advantage? Check.
Pretend relationship/fake marriage? Check.
Every character you care about dies and the main pairing starts anew with old wounds? Yeah, that happened. Fuck me in my feelings.
Season 1 Characters Deserve Better
I love the Black Wind Fortress gang, aside from that one weaselly looking asshole who betrayed everyone whose name I’m not remembering off the top of my head. I love Bai Chongye’s multifaceted-ness—how he goes from ruthless mafia head, to awkward but loving father, to prankster, to just a Dude You Can Get a Drink With. I love Sheng Sheng and Sang Sang’s mean-girl spirits. I especially adore Song Qi and his devotion to his “grandma.”
I love Ding Qi, his swearing, his child-like sexism, and his all-boys club. Him and his crew just need hugs.
They’ve done nothing wrong and none of them deserves to die. Aside from all the murdering, the pillaging, the smuggling, the blackmailing, the backstabbing, that is… I genuinely did not see the mass murdering coming in the middle of the drama—I literally had to pause and make sure I didn’t accidentally marathon to the end because I was freaking out why everybody died in the middle of the story. When Song Qi was shot, I almost stopped watching, had I not been curious enough to want to know how the rest of the drama is going to go without most of its supporting characters.
Needless to say, I don’t have high opinions of the second 2 folks. Not even He Lianjing, whom I referred to for multiple episodes as Not-Song Qi until he became Yaoyao’s love interest, and then he was Not-Ding Qi until he fell in love with another character.
Second 2 Is a Lot More Conventional
When I wrote earlier that the drama is original, I really meant season 1. Maybe it’s because I haven’t watched enough Chinese historical dramas, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the gangs of the pugilist world depicted as literal organized crime families before. They always tend to be… lofty and… weird in a cult-like way, living in mountain and shit. Not here. These people are literal gangsters with gangster problems, and I just think that’s hilarious.
Season 2 is a lot more entrenched in politics and the usual tropes of “main female character marries into a family out of her social standing.” There’s a wicked stepmother who wants to oust the main male lead from the family, a two-faced love rival who stops at nothing to steal the main male lead, an emperor with numerous sons fighting for the throne, all that stuff. The pro is the plot is a lot easier to follow. The con is it’s not as interesting.
The Villain Is Surprisingly True-to-Life
The single best scene in the drama for me is when Yaoyao confronts the Prince of Yu for actually being the inventor of the time machine and a fellow transmigrator. These two have such great chemistry and energy together that I was really, really bummed out when the Prince of Yu turned out to be the end boss—him being the villain is far from unforeseeable, I just got caught up in the female lead’s joy of finding camaraderie.
The Prince of Yu is an incel. Not in the literal sense of the term, although once he got the idea that he and Yaoyao belonged together, he did take on that meaning as well. It’s that he feels so aggrieved by the slights he suffered (his professor stole his research in his old life, his new identity/body as a prince was of one mistreated badly enough by everyone that he committed suicide) that he becomes convinced that the world he reborn into owes him, and that he’s entitled to what he wants by virtue of him being a superior “modern” man. You know your villain’s good when someone can look at him and think, “I know this dude. I know multiple, real life examples of this dude, and they’re all pathetic and sad.”
He is the perfect foil to Yaoyao, who kept her chin up and kept forward despite suffering similar setbacks in both lives.
Cringes and Surprises
If there’s one thing I don’t like about Yaoyao, it’s her sense of fashion in season 1.
I’m sorry, but she dresses like how a nine-year-old thinks a stylish person should dress. Is that mean?
I could’ve also done without the random bursts of bad rapping and choreographed dances.
One thing I’m surprised by is how integral Yaoyao being a chef is to the story. I had expected the drama to abandon that idea altogether early on, like some other, much worse time-travel/transmigration dramas *cough* Instead, Cinderella Chef went all out and pursued actual chef and food related plot lines, which I really appreciate.
Final Rating and Recommendations
Cinderella Chef’s great. What else can I say but “go watch it” and “put it on your rewatch list if you’ve seen it already.”
It’s got a kick-ass main lady who wants her man but doesn’t need him, two stories for the effort you’d normally put into getting to know one, a pretty nifty endgame villain, and it’s an absolutely great take on the time-travel/transmigration trope.
My Rating: 7.5/10