Back when Top Chef was getting under way, some people — I may have been one of them but will bald-facedly deny it — suggested that cooking could not translate to reality TV the way that singing (American Idol) and fashion (Project Runway) did. Sound and visuals come across on TV; flavor does not, so viewers could never feel like they could join in judging a prepared dish.
Those doubters, which I am still going to pretend did not include me, turned out to be wrong, of course, and they ignored the entire history of TV’s ability to induce salivation with nothing more than images and some lush description. Food was good enough on its own — appealing enough, tempting enough and exciting enough — to provide plenty of reality-TV drama without having to pretend to be something else. Top Chef was a hit (as Iron Chef was before it), and plenty of food competitions have followed.
ABC’s The Taste, which debuted last night, aims to be another of those shows, but it begins with a premise that oddly borrows from a singing competition: NBC’s The Voice. Like that hit, The Taste has four judges — Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludovic Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey — who will mentor four teams, and a brazenly similar gimmick: the judges choose their teams “blind,” tasting dishes before they see or hear from the cook.
On the face of it, this seems to try to fix a problem cooking competitions generally don’t have. The idea behind The Voice’s spinning chairs was to avoid choosing singers on the basis of their looks or other supposedly less lofty and pure considerations than the Voice.
Shows like Top Chef have plenty of personality drama and backstabbing — just look at last week’s Restaurant Wars elimination — but you don’t generally hear judges saying, “Sure, he can cook, but does anyone want a $200 meal from somebody who looks like that?” In the intro, Bourdain tells us that the mentors won’t hear anyone’s backstory before judging because, “We don’t give a damn.” Great! Neither do I! So why spend half the episode showing the home stories — illness, job changes, etc. — to the home audience?
But as on The Voice, the blind judging on The Taste probably serves the judges more than the contestants. The appeal of a team-based show depends partly on establishing the different personalities of the mentors and the style of their teams: so the first episode introduced new viewers to snarky Anthony, passionate Nigella, flamboyant Ludo and — well, I’m sure we’ll figure him out eventually — Brian. Those personalities will eventually determine rooting interests (we’re told Nigella, for instance, is the advocate of home cooking, in the same way that The Voice’s Blake is the country specialist). No one has yet appeared with a parrot on his or her shoulder à la Cee Lo. But it’s early!
The show at least seems to have picked its personalities: Bourdain, in particular, comes across as a suitably acid host without, so far, seeming to have sold his soul. The biggest problem with the first two hours, however, was how apologetic each judge was about every rejection; over and over, we heard how it was a terrible mistake for them not to have pressed the button. You’re experts, people! Own your authority!
The question of authority gets to the other major distinguishing twist of The Taste: both professional chefs and home cooks will participate, mashing up the concepts of Top Chef and Masterchef. That will probably provide a lot of the drama going forward, and it’s hard to judge its effectiveness from one episode. (But a prediction: if a home cook does not win the first season, I will eat a radish. I hate radishes.)
The show at least seems worth keeping an eye on so far. But its insistence that it is somehow more dedicated to pure flavor without any distractions than any other show is amusing. A big reason to watch the show, after all, is the telegenic star power of the culinary-celebrity judges. It’s no accident that in the first episode Lawson described Bourdain as the Mick Jagger of the food world. You can say that “it’s all about the music” as much as you want. The world still hungers for rock stars.