Given the surplus of Top Chefs, Master Chefs, restaurant nightmares and cupcake wars, one might have thought the world already had enough culinary competitions. And one would have been wrong, because Anthony Bourdain's new cooking competition on ABC, "The Taste" kicked off tonight with a whole new take on the genre: A little bit "The Voice," a little bit "American Idol," with a dash of "Ratatouille" thrown in.
The new show stars Bourdain and three fellow judges -- England's Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre of Ludo Bites fame, and San Diego chef and former Top Chef contestant Brian Malarkey -- who will dismiss 13 of the 29 competitors based on a single bite, then go on to mentor the remaining 16 in teams, plucked much as they do on "The Voice." They push ginormous buttons before revealing who the contestant is, then the contestant gets to pick a mentor from among the yeses -- or pack their, er, knives and go home.
It's clear early on in the premiere episode that it won't just be the judges pushing large buttons. Given the presence of Lefebvre and Bourdain, the network censor will be hitting the bleep button fairly often.
The first contestants
And we're off, with a cocky personal chef, one Adam "Chef Kaz" Kaswiner, of Las Vegas, who does ninja-like moves on the lawn as he talks about time portals, face smashing and awesomeness.
"I create food for awesomeness," he says.
But his spoonful of
Ludo gets the first real bleep of the night -- as opposed to the previewed bleeps. Once Chef Kaz is safely gone, Bourdain cuts loose: "If you were stoned at 3 in the morning and emptying out your refrigerator to make something, this would still be subpar. There is no college dorm in the world where this would pass as food. This was a food crime."
From there we get a Ft. Lauderdale food blogger, Sarah Schiear, and her seared scallops with a peach and habanero salsa and marcona almond crumble -- Team Ludo. Then LA exec chef Kyle Schutte presents his dish: Chicken fried watermelon with pickled watermelon rind. All four judges say no, but three think they made a mistake.
Khristianne Uy -- Charlie Sheen's personal chef -- offers up a corn puree with seared harissa scallops and duck chicharones. Malarkey says yes, but Bourdain says no, adding, "I do not know what's wrong with me," in what will become the theme of the night.
Regret and mystification
These judges are going to be very lonely indeed when they end up with teams of one, not four. The judges start second-guessing the show's overall concept. They're mystified by ingredients -- is that lamb or beef? And we're mystified by some of their rejections -- and a few acceptances too.
A montage finally moves the action along, sending enough people packing that we can no longer tell how many remain. We get an outraged baker spluttering, "Nigella chose a woman who makes mashed potatoes!" (We're incredulous too.) And we get a quick shot of Bourdain saying, "I'm pretty sure I can't use the term delusional (bleep) on television." We find ourselves wondering whether more occasions for bleeping would make this show better, whether Bourdain needs another shot of espresso -- perhaps 20 more -- and whether Nigella and Ludo's hearts are really in their sniping. They've been cast as the Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, but those Idol divas do the disdain thing a lot more wholeheartedly.
Bourdain's attention is finally caught by Mia Morgenstern, a San Francisco yoga instructor who, she tells us, went to Harvard. Bourdain likes her Indian-spiced lamb with mint-cilantro sauce and finally adds someone to his team. He also opts for a Chilean sea bass with butterscotch made by New Jersey caterer Ninamarie Bojekian. (Butterscotch?)
Malarkey takes a very nervous Micah Kasman, a San Francisco designer, who made a Moroccan-inspired filet mignon with vanilla-parsnip puree. We get a succession of faces and foods. The judges are starting to look as weary as we feel.
A brash, self-assured New York restaurant consultant, Diane Dimeo, is up next with a cumin lamb, cucumber and fig dish. Ludo says no because the tzatziki was amazing and there was too much of it. That's what he said. Bourdain takes her, saying "It took me a sixteenth of a second to make that decision." She wipes away happy tears backstage, then resumes her trash talking.
Ludo says no to a charming culinary school instructor, Renee from Chicago, who quit her job to try her luck here. Her pistachio-crusted halibut wasn't fancy enough for his team, but he offers her a job instead. He asks a Mississippi home baker he has rejected for her flourless chocolate cake recipe. Sweet.
When all's said and done, all four judges finally have their teams, and according to the previews, there are cleavers, flames and beau coup double-entendres ahead -- plus a voting methodology that has judges eliminating cooks from their own teams without realizing it.
Here's hoping it's more fun than the debut episode.