Television Review: ‘The Taste’ on ABC, Featuring Celebrity Food Judges

January 22nd, 2013

Sasha Shemirani/ABC

“The Taste” judges, from left: Ludovic Lefebvre, Nigella Lawson, Brian Malarkey and Anthony Bourdain. The show provides another outlet for the four food celebrities to become bigger stars.

If there were an Emmy Award for best reality show clone — and wouldn’t that reflect the substance of television better than, say, best children’s nonfiction program? — the clear front-runner for this year would be “The Taste,” the new cooking competition beginning on Tuesday night on ABC.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a close copy of NBC’s successful singing show, “The Voice.” Ripping off “The Voice” is already a TV tradition, Fox having been there first with the dating show “The Choice” last summer. (That was wrong, but for different reasons.)

And as it turns out, “The Taste” takes the “Voice” format — blind auditions producing “teams” of contestants chosen by four judges who double as mentors — and turns it into something better than the original, if your definition of a better reality contest includes more rational and less insulting to the intelligence. (Yes, that’s a big if.)

To be fair, it’s impossible to say what a competition series will be like from just the opening audition episode, a two-hour blur of choreographed humiliation and tear-jerking back stories. But the audition rounds of a new show are the crucible in which the personas of the judges are formed, and based on the opener, the “Taste” panel has enough wit, personality and bubbling contentiousness to provide reasonably guilt-free entertainment.

At the far right, in the Simon Cowell chair, sits Anthony Bourdain, the show’s star, now fully engaged in the TV mainstream after his years of louche, vaguely countercultural globe-trotting for the Travel Channel. He’s as smart and acerbic as ever, and can be relied on to say something that requires bleeping every 20 minutes or so.

Being confined to not just a set but also a desk has a double effect: it mostly eliminates the creepy-uncle vibe he sometimes gave off during the tipsy schmoozing on “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” but it also accentuates a disturbing capacity for the smarmy sincerity of the game-show hack. The jury is out on what an eight-episode season will do to his credibility.

Next to Mr. Bourdain is Brian Malarkey, the show’s de facto host, a San Diego restaurateur and “Top Chef” alumnus (he made the final four in Season 3). He’s the peppy, relentlessly enthusiastic one, and you want to hate him, but beneath the Willy Wonka-meets-SpongeBob affect he’s sensible and appears more than a little self-aware, and he says concrete things about the contestants’ food that we can understand.

He’s followed by the writer Nigella Lawson, whose British accent and mock propriety are counterprogramming to Mr. Bourdain’s American slovenliness. She has two roles: to react disapprovingly to the men’s profane, sexist or over-the-top pronouncements, which she does with polish and humor, and to cheerlead for “home cooking,” which she does with a regularity and sameness that quickly becomes off-putting.

And finally, at the left, is Ludo Lefebvre, the French chef and cable cooking show veteran (“Top Chef Masters,” “Ludo Bites America”) who could be the breakout star of “The Taste” if he maintains his currently perfect balance of Gallic disdain and smooth-operator seductiveness.

In the opening episode, when he and Mr. Malarkey both want Sarah, a 27-year-old food blogger from Florida, for their teams, Mr. Lefebvre purrs to her in his velvet-accented fractured English: “I really, really love to help you and hope to give you so many aspiration and creativity and do the road together. Please.”

Mr. Malarkey stares, open-mouthed, completely unequal to Mr. Lefebvre’s game.

As for the show: it’s called “The Taste” because each contestant prepares just one dish, which is further reduced to four spoonfuls, one for each judge. (These morsels tend to be overly elaborate, multi-ingredient preparations whose descriptions read like the Esperanto of modern cooking show and food blog culture.) In both the team-choosing and competition phases, the judges vote blindly, without knowing the contestants or what kind of experience they have.

Those auditioning for the show’s 16 slots include the expected comic relief, like a kickboxing chef who makes “food for awesomeness, not just food for tasting good” or a waste-water-treatment worker whose chicken mole looks like something he brought home from the plant.

There are also those with sad or discomforting stories of illness, bankruptcy or jobs abandoned for a shot at TV fame, a surprising number of whom are sent home unhappy. The best lines come from unhappiness, of course, one high point being the culinary worker who snaps: “Of course I’m angry with this decision. Nigella chose a woman who made mashed potatoes.”

The Taste

ABC, Tuesday nights at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time.

Produced by Kinetic Content. Directed by Brian Smith; Chris Coelen, Matilda Zoltowski, Emma Conway, Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson, executive producers.

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