When “The Taste” premieres with a two-hour episode tonight (Tues. 8:00 p.m. on ABC), the new cooking contest promises to put 16 competitors of varying skill levels — from professional chefs to home cooks — to the ultimate taste test. Each must create a perfect bite for food icons and judge/mentors Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson, Ludovic Lefebvre and Brian Malarkey. To make it a little tougher on the judges, the taste test is truly blind — they don’t get to see the chef or learn anything about him or her before they must decide whether or not they want that chef to be part of their team. Then, at the end of each episode, they must judge the competitors’ dishes blind to determine who’s getting sent home. You know, like “The Voice,” but with food.
Bourdain, who’s widely credited with turning the food world upside down in 2000 with the publication of his behind-the-scenes book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” and who has hosted his own food-centric shows as well as guest judged “Top Chef,” spoke to a handful of journalists at press tour last month. Not surprisingly, the outspoken chef had plenty to say.
When asked if he and the other chefs were able to identify everything they tasted during their blind samplings, he admitted, “We missed stuff. We were really good on seasonings, on obscure ingredients, on spices, but sometimes we’d miss basic proteins. We’d all look at each other and say, is this chicken or fish?” Of course, professional screw-ups make for good television. “It’s potentially embarrassing, but it’s pretty funny!”
Whether or not eating just one bite of a dish is a fair evaluation, Bourdain had a measured response, no pun intended. “For a fair evaluation of somebody’s food? No,” he said. “But I think it is a fairer evaluation than if you know everything about the person. Then, you’re judging the food about them, what you’ve learned about them over the weeks, their appearance, their background, the fact you just saw them yanking the hair extensions out of another contestant in the stew room. [This is] none of that. If anything, there’s this overwhelming sense of fear that you’re going to send home somebody from your own team.”
That doesn’t mean Bourdain doesn’t appreciate the less-blind competition. “I like ‘Top Chef’ very much. I think they set the standard for professional competition. I enjoyed being on the show and I enjoyed watching the show.” Will he be back, though? “Probably not, but I like those guys personally and it was fun doing the show.
Bourdain also addressed the legacy of “Kitchen Confidential,” which painted chefs (especially Bourdain) as hard-partying, hard-living rock stars instead of bland enigmas behind the scenes. “I mean, if you were to be glib about it, every town in America, there seems to be a heavily tattooed male or female chef with a pig on their arm making pretty good food. There’s real status, real hope and real aspirations to the profession of cooking that didn’t always exist during my time.”
Of course, with the glamorization of cooking comes the talentless wannabes. Bourdain shrugs them off as an unfortunate side effect. “Look, there are going to be delusional people in every profession, just like in music or any other craft or art. The wheat gets separated from the chaff pretty quickly. You may think you can sing, but you will be advised otherwise over time.”
For Bourdain, another unfortunate side effect of the fame that’s come to him with “Kitchen Confidential” and his Travel Channel shows is that, “everywhere I go in this world, people offer me [food]… ‘We saw you eat the lizard; have you had lizard testicles?’ This is a cross I will have to bear, but I bear cheerfully.”
But even if he’s been part of the elevation of chefs in the social strata, that doesn’t mean he wants the general approach to food to be snooty. “I think table manners are overrated. If you watch chefs eat, they all eat with their hands, they eat off each other’s plates, they mop with good bread. I think I’m glad about that. I know how to use a knife and fork if I have to, but I’d really rather not.”
And as far as “The Taste” being a foodie version of “The Voice”? “Fair enough. We don’t have the cool chairs though. Cool chairs. We should have gotten those chairs.”