The Taste debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern.
The Taste begins with Anthony Bourdain announcing that what we’re about to see is “a cooking competition unlike any other.” Bourdain’s reputation as a maverick straight shooter can survive this boast, but only due to a technicality: The Taste is slavishly modeled not on other cooking-competition shows but on a singing-competition show, The Voice. Bourdain is one of four celebrity judges who spend the audition process selecting members of the teams that each of them will attempt to “mentor” to victory. On The Voice, the judges sit in big-ass swivel chairs that are turned away from the stage while those doing the auditioning sing for them, so that nothing will distract them from, you know, the voice. On The Taste, the supplicants, who include both professional chefs (as seen on Top Chef) and home cooks (as on MasterChef), hide in a chamber while the judges sample a single spoonful of their audition piece, the better to focus completely on the taste. It takes about five minutes before you really start to miss the big-ass swivel chairs.
Rip-off or not, there is no good reason this show shouldn’t be fun, considering that ABC has gone all out to corral the kind of talent that foodie TV addicts will drool over. Bourdain is Bourdain: caustic, bleep-able, and somehow charming even when he’s sadistically pausing after telling a contestant, “He who dares wins,” before adding, “Not in this case.” Bourdain, who once asked Tom Colicchio, on Top Chef, “What kind of crack house are you running here?” has been a guest judge on that show no more than a dozen times over the course of its 10 seasons, though Padma Lakshmi would probably be willing to do the show topless to get him to appear more often. So God knows what combination of pirate gold and virgin’s blood he was offered to anchor this thing. Nigella Lawson is the Paula Abdul to his Simon Cowell, and though she isn’t half the space case that Abdul is, she is sufficiently impervious to cool that, attempting a compliment, she can refer to Bourdain as “the Mick Jagger of foodies.” That’s pretty clueless when dealing with a man who’s spent his whole life rehearsing to be the Keith Richards of foodies
Rounding out the panel are Ludo Lefebevre and Brian Malarkey, the latter a name that may ring a distant bell for Top Chef addicts, since he was one of the contestants on its third season. Unlike some of the other contestants who’ve passed through the Top Chef kitchen, he has not become a familiar face on reunion shows and All-Star editions, so I’d assumed he must have been locked up someplace or re-applied to some Caribbean medical school, but it turns out he now has five restaurants. Huh. It’s still hard not to wonder if he wasn’t a late addition to the cast after the producers decided they couldn’t land anyone more exciting, especially when you notice that everyone else’s first name flashes onscreen whenever they pick a team member, but Malarkey is always “Malarkey.” Not that it’s not a fun name to say.
But in the charismatic bad-boy department, he definitely brings less to the party than Bourdain or Ludo, the affable French werewolf and pop-up restaurant king whose TV credits include a season of Top Chef Masters and his own Sundance series, Ludo Bites America. They both know how to pitch themselves as TV personalities without surrendering all dignity, and in fact, the biggest surprise of the première episode is that Ludo, with his French accent, is generally easier to understand than Nigella. At one point, trying to come to terms with the texture of a dish, she says something that sounds awfully like, “Was it like a soft goat turd?” I mean, like there’s any other kind? (She also tells Ludo that she feels that, throughout the competition, he’s likely to… well, she either says she expects him to “fight” or “bite” her. That one could go either way.)
Still, even with all this potential firepower on deck, the two-hour première just lies there, as if there’s something fatally wrong about the format. There may be: Although it may be admirable in theory to go to these extremes to get the judges’ “pure” reaction to what they’re tasting, individual personalities matter more in cooking-competition shows than in singing-competition shows, for the obvious reason that home entertainment technology has not yet evolved to the point that we in the audience have any way of forming our own opinions about what the judges are tasting. The producers must realize that, because they do slip in enough familiar gimmicks to make The Taste look an awful lot like other cooking competitions, especially the populist-themed MasterChef.
Shows like this often provide a sacrificial lamb early on, a contestant who is both clearly doomed and apparently delusional about his own gifts, to such a degree that it’s a pleasure to see him go down. You know that’s what’s going on with the first contestant as soon as you see him doing barefoot martial arts kicks on his front lawn and hoisting a glass to deliver the toast: “To awesomeness!” After sampling his dish, the judges invite him out and ask him what the hell they just ate. After he tells them that their bodies are now playing host to his pineapple ground-turkey mac-and-cheese stir fry, there’s a scary moment where it really looks as if Bourdain might just kill him where he stands and worry later about whether the network’s lawyers can keep it out of the papers. Instead, he just says that “There’s not a college dorm in the world where this would pass muster as food.” The ambitious chef takes his leave, lamenting the fact that the judges were unable to appreciate true originality but defiantly exclaiming, “I make food for awesomeness, not just to taste good.”
On the other hand, another chef seems clearly headed for a spot in the series when she tells the camera that she’s a “[bleep]” and gets into a trash-talk session with the easygoing, heavyset guy at the next station when he asks her, girl, what’s she doin’ over there. When the food isn’t just appalling, and the personalities aren’t striking sparks off each other, The Taste makes for dire watching, in a way that may make you wonder if personality doesn’t count for more than anything in competition-reality shows, and that’s just something we’ll have to make our peace with. Amazingly often, the judges taste someone’s food, vote no, then bring the person out and do little more than express bewilderment over their decision not to take the contestant on.
There are many, many variations on “I don’t know why I’m being so stupid,” which is not an encouraging thing to hear, over and over again, from people who are supposed to represent the sage mentor figures in their field. This is especially hard on Lawson, who seems to spend half the première with her face in her hands, mortified at having rejected someone; at one point, she even asks if she can have a do-over, to no avail. (People are better off inspiring guilt pangs in Ludo, who, as the judging grinds on, starts offering rejected contestants jobs in his restaurant.) Maybe this is, as Lawson says at one point, because there are so many people to consider and nobody wants to fill up their dance card too early. But you have to wonder how much of it comes down to the judges’ fears that they’ll say yes to someone based on a single taste of what might be their one sure-fire dish, prepared on the luckiest day of their lives, and then the doors will fling open and Ed Grimley will come jitterbugging out. This is the Susan Boyle Effect, in reverse.
Maybe The Taste will markedly improve once the endless audition process—which will take up an unconscionable amount of a show that’s only scheduled to run eight weeks—is over, and the mentors and cooks repair to the kitchen. But for now, this show, which is designed to eliminate the factors of personality and appearance from the critical process, may be revealing how important those factors are to this kind of show. Actually, personality and appearance are important in pretty much everything: Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, and Ludo Lefebevre ought to know that as well as anybody. Not that hard work and having a name that's fun to say don’t count for something.