The cooking competition “The Taste” returns tonight to ABC for its third season. The series introduced blind tasting of food to reality competitions–judges don't know whose food they're eating or even what's in the dish. It also brought Anthony Bourdain to a big, bright, glossy ABC reality show.
The star of Travel Channel's Emmy-winning “No Reservations” and now CNN's “Parts Unknown” seems like perhaps the last person to gravitate to a “The Voice”-like competition for food, but when we talked Wednesday, one day before he was heading to Madagascar for “Parts Unknown,” he was clearly, unabashedly enthusiastic about the series, which he also executive produces.
When I asked about whether skeptical fans have now warmed to “The Taste” and his participation, Bourdain said, “I honestly don't think about. It's always a quality of life issue for me. Am I having fun? Am I working with people I like? It is it interesting to me? I very much understand that a big network competitive reality show is not going to appeal to a certain number of people who really like Kitchen Confidential or are fans of 'Parts Unknown'. I'm a guy with a lot of interests. As I've said before, this bus makes many stops; I don't expect everybody to get off on all of them.”
“What I hope comes through in the show is how much fun we're having, how invested we are in the contestants very quickly,” Bourdain added. “Very quickly we bond with not just the people on our teams, but you start to take a real interest and concern in some cooks on the rival teams who presumably we shouldn't care about, but we do. We all become very involved in the game and our passionate discussions and even arguments continue long after the work day's over.”
For season two, the show fired “Top Chef” Brian Malarkey and replaced him with Marcus Samuelsson, and that, along with several other changes, improved the show significantly.
Bourdain acknowledged the difference, saying, “everybody clicked so much last year” and said “it really is like going away to chef camp” for the four judge/mentors, who “continue talking about how things are going with the game after the cameras stop rolling,” he said. “That conversation continues if we go out for Korean barbecue, or Vietnamese, or Mexican, or wherever we're eating in Los Angeles. It's like slipping back into a warm bath for us.”
Since season one, Bourdain's friend Nigella Lawson has been a mentor and judge, and together they also serve as executive producers. “Our principal concern is and always was a general shaping of the challenges,” he told me. “That they wouldn't be silly or novelty challenges, they would have an application in the real world, that they would reflect our own natures and experiences. They wouldn't be nonsensical.”
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The same is true for each episode's guest star chef, who first picks a winning team via a blind taste test, and later works with that team. Bourdain said that he and Lawson “choose who the guest mentors are. We wanted to make sure they were heavyweights, that they were people with real gravitas and who were respected in their field rather than someone known entirely for a reality show or some kind of novelty act who happens to be in the food space. The food television space is filled with people like that, and it was very important to me and Nigella that we're not like that and that's not who we're having on the show.”
Citing examples such as Eric Ripert and Jonathan Waxman, he said “anybody anywhere on earth who is serious about food knows who these people are and respects their work.”
The appeal for those guest judges, he said, includes that it's “a pretty large platform for them to demonstrate things they believe very strongly. They choose what they're demonstrating–a particular dish or process that they do or feel strongly about, that they think would be useful in not just educating their team of cooks but the public as well. People have taken it really, really seriously as far as what they're showing,” he said. “We're not saying, Eric Ripert, we'd like you to do something really wacky with fried fish. We're saying, come on the show and dazzle. Show us something that the world needs. The reaction from the chefs that we brought on has been really positive.”
“It's been a good excuse to get together with friends” and with “chefs who I've always admired and respected and look for an opportunity to work with,” Bourdain added.
The permanent judges also get to teach, and one of the most pleasurable parts of the series is watching them interact with and teach their team of chef contestants. Bourdain often does that with a glass of wine in hand. Ludo Lefebvre takes a different, far more aggressive approach.
“One of the most fascinating aspects of the show, I think, is watching Ludo. For all his screaming and yelling and terrifying behavior, he is so deeply invested in his team,” Bourdain said. “He always spends his time and attention with the weakest member of his team. What's extraordinary and you really get to see is that he's such a good teacher, he's such a good chef, you get to see people who maybe started the show not particularly good cooks. You see them rise up and become much, much better.”
This season, the show has made several changes. “We paid a lot more attention this year to the guest mentors, integrating the theme to the guest mentor,” he said. “We added a new wrinkle, a taste-off, which is a last chance for two people in danger of elimination to battle it out head-to-head. … It's particularly wrenching for the judges because the respective mentors for these two have to stand there and coach them without being able to taste anything, touch the food, or really do anything other than shout advice and completely stress out.”
Blind tasting remains, and referring to the way the “first two seasons were won by people who were not professional restaurant chefs,” Bourdain told me that “blind taste format levels the playing field. It reduces the evaluation of food to as close to a meritocracy as it can be. The idea is, make us something that's delicious that will be judged on its relative deliciousness and whether it makes the judges happy, rather than a tragic or interesting backstory, a nice haircut, interesting wardrobe choices, a fauxhawk, a signature haircut–these do not factor in, because we don't know.”
That isn't to say the judges don't try to figure out just who might have prepared a certain bite. They do, and on tonight's season premiere, guess pretty accurately with one of the chefs. “One of the things we've had to get good at is judges is trying to extrapolate from a single mouthful of food who could possibly have prepared this. Can we taste crazy?” Bourdain said.”You're trying to figure out what kind of a person cooked this just from the taste, just from the choices they may have made from this one spoonful of food. Because what we're looking to avoid is get[ting] somebody who's crazy and unpredictable on your team, or only capable of doing the one thing.”
“Is that all they're capable of? We try to extrapolate. And that's difficult. And often we fail, but I think we're getting better at it,” Bourdain told me.
The other major challenge is choosing just four people for their teams. “We know the total number spoons that we'll be trying,” he said, but that's it. “You don't want to be stuck at the end. You don't want to fill up too early and find out there's a budding Thomas Keller that's up for grabs near the end; on the other hand, you don't want to get the bottom of the barrel, either.”
In season one, that led the judges to repeatedly and frustratingly reject food they liked. Bourdain told me, “I was holding out for Mr. or Ms. Perfect. I got burned a number of times doing that.”
Despite the rocky start, Bourdain is having a blast three seasons later. “Moments of terror, the stress–that's fun,” he said. “I haven't had that kind of stress since I left the professional kitchen.”