I may be an outlier here, but I was sold on The Taste, ABC’s new cooking competition, when I learned that Nigella Lawson was one of the judges. When I say “sold,” I mean I consciously decided to sit down to watch the entire premiere, which is a deceptively lengthy commitment. I often find that once I do this with competition shows, the show has to be really forgettable or bad for me to not get hooked. Along with Lawson, The Taste recruited Anthony Bourdain, Top Chef veteran Brian Malarkey, and esteemed French chef and cable cooking show regular Ludovic Lefebvre as judges. In Tuesday’s premiere, a two-hour program that felt considerably longer than two hours, each judge picked four aspiring cooking stars, whether chefs or home cooks, to be on their teams, borrowing the format of NBC’s The Voice. In future episodes, the teams will of course battle it out, but the catch is that the judges taste blindly; each week they risk eliminating one of their own.
For nearly two decades, Lawson, over in England, has been doing for comfort food what Paula Deen does for comfort food over here, the difference being that Lawson’s food will not kill us nearly as prematurely as Deen’s. You may initially think Lawson has more in common with Giada De Laurentiis, but really, their physical appeal — they are both gorgeous women with long, wavy hair and amazing figures — is where their similarities end. Lawson is very warm and personable. Her cookbooks create this pleasant, cozy aura around food. She gets why food is pleasurable; she does not make us feel bad that we look forward to food (or alcohol) so much. Food is a cause for celebration. Reading the recent news story on a study finding that being overweight or having a binge eating disorder isn’t actually unhealthy per se, I thought of Nigella saying, “Yes, well, I knew that all along.” Food makes us happy. And that’s a good thing — so long as everything we’re eating has some balance to it. And is not entirely deep-fried.
Consider the start of Lawson’s recipe for champagne risotto, from 2004’s excellent Feast:
Please, whatever you do, don’t open a bottle of champagne specifically for this. I mean, not unless you want to, and drink the other half of the bottle as you eat, as a wallowing-in-luxury way to welcome in the New Year, in bed preferably. It’s a great way to use up any dregs from last night, though. And any fizzy white wine would do; indeed I most often make it with Prosecco which I love inordinately for its soft bubble and mood-enhancing Venetian zing.
Lawson has this wonderful blasé attitude toward alcohol and the massive hangovers that follow its consumption, as well as to chocolate and simple carbohydrates of all kinds. And fat. This is an attitude that I tend to associate with the British and the French. “Now, I love fat,” she says at one point in the Taste premiere, in the midst of judging a spoonful of shrimp toast, “but this was too greasy.” But Lawson’s food is not simple or easy to make. She is academic enough to teach you a lot, and ebullient enough to make you actually want to learn. Watching her take bites at the judging table of The Taste while sipping a glass of red wine and you will be hard pressed not to drink along with her. She makes it all seem like great fun, just as she does in her cookbooks.
The same cannot be said for Anthony Bourdain, the real star of this affair. Lawson is a necessary foil to Bourdain. She is encouraging, motherly, apologetic. Bourdain is the Simon Cowell at this table, as the New York Times‘ Mike Hale pointed out in his unimpressed review. Bourdain is detached, potty-mouthed, and cagey up until the last possible moment, at which he invariably decides (at least in this first episode) that he is head-over-heels for a dish that everyone else instantly hated. If you don’t know much about Lawson, or if her approach isn’t for you, I can see why The Taste wouldn’t hold much appeal. For you, there is Bourdain. And for everyone else, there is Malarkey and Ludo, who add a sprinkling of competitive banter into the mix.
There was a slap-dash approach to the premiere, as if the producers were still trying to figure out how this was all going to work as they filmed. As with The Voice and American Idol, the early audition episodes can feel needlessly epic. Here’s a pretty, young food blogger. Here’s a delusional kickboxer. Here’s a woman with a very sick husband. Here’s a head chef who is convinced he will win. Here is Charlie Sheen’s private chef! That was unexpected. (“Winning!” she said, just before the vertical doors separating her from the judges slid shut, and she actually was not voted off. “Let’s make Charlie Sheen proud,” Malarkey said, after selecting her to be on his team.)
There is the sense that the over-tanned Bourdain does not really want to be here, that he would rather be in Panama or somewhere, but, well, he is here, and that seems good enough. Of course, he chose some young, attractive women to be on his team, as did Ludo, who offered this plea to the first contestant of the night, the pretty, young food blogger Sarah:
I really, really love to help you and hope to give you so many aspiration and creativity and do the road together. Please.
ABC, like the other networks, is trying to cash in on America’s cooking show craze. But there is a self-consciousness surrounding Taste that few cable cooking shows exhibit, since, basically, there is more money at stake on the networks. It may go away in future episodes. This attitude extends to all kinds of other shows on the networks. Sometimes I start to feel like I am an executive at one of the networks as I’m watching a new show unfold in front of millions. There is so much to lose! God, this better win the night! Can we beat CBS?!?! We are made so hyper-aware of how much a network is banking on something: the social media fanfare, the perfect time slot, the suddenly totally different time slot, the random overhaul of the entire schedule, the premature cancellation of this, the mystifying continuation of that. Clearly The Taste needs another episode to settle into its skin, but it would be surprising if as many people tuned in next week as did last night. There is too much enthusiasm surrounding the show, and not enough actually in the show. The Taste did “win” Tuesday night, and Nigella Lawson responded to the news on her Twitter today with, “Wowee zowee!” So, I take that back: Nigella’s enthusiasm could carry the whole thing. Mercifully, the format will shift now that the teams have been decided. We’ll have more drama and antics in the kitchen, more of Bourdain being slightly sketchy with the female members of his appointed brood, more of Ludo speaking in passionate phrases, more of Malarkey’s SoCal je ne sais quoi. Most important, we’ll have more Nigella.