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The Taste on ABC: The Cook vs. the Chef

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A new cooking show is vying for a slice of the prime time audience on network TV: ABC's The Taste. The title and structure mimic NBC's The Voice, which is supposed to discover new singing talents. In The Taste, four judges use blind tasting to choose a team of contestants, whose looks, personalities and backgrounds remain unknown to them. This first selection is entirely based on what the participants manage to fit on a spoon. Once the judges have formed their teams, the real competition begins. Every week the contestants take on a challenge inspired to a different culinary theme and two of them are eliminated, always based on the judges' blind evaluations of spoon-sized bites.

The premise of both The Voice and The Taste is to limit the impact of the contestants' appearance, to exclusively highlight their skills, an approach that is supposed to go against many deeply engrained show business practices and give a winning chance to anybody. What we get, in the end, is yet another cooking show, a genre whose popularity is still profitable for both network and cable TV. That said, The Taste is quite enjoyable, and presents a few intriguing elements that set it apart from similar competitions.

The judges reflect different approaches to cooking: the French Ludo Lefebvre and the American Brian Malarkey are both professional chefs and restaurant owners, but have two different ways of embracing the role. Ludo is classically trained, proud of his culture, and clearly convinced of the superiority of French culinary traditions. Brian comes across as more pragmatic and open to fusion of ingredients and techniques. Often engaged in loud and testosterone-charged vocal exchanges, both Ludo and Brian are good looking, boisterous and camera ready, just like the third judge, the chef-turned-enfant terrible-turned-author-turned-TV host Anthony Bourdain. He plays the older, more mature character who does not need to assert himself as alpha-male through bantering or posturing. While admitting that he has never been a great chef, he leads an all female team whose members are visibly in awe of him.

And then, there's Nigella Lawson, the domestic goddess herself. Her upper-crust British accent, her classy demeanor and her composed interactions contrast with her sensuality and her obvious passion for eating. "I love stodge, and I love fat," she asserts unabashedly. Never trained as a chef, she is all for home cooking. The show admits both professionals and amateurs, all equally judged on what they can express in a dish. Unlike competitions like Master Chefs, the participants are not held to restaurant standards. What ultimately counts is taste, not gimmicks or originality at all costs, as it challenges the widespread principal that restaurant dishes are intrinsically superior to domestic ones. Home cook contestants are reminded over and over that they do not have to feel less capable and fearsome.

However, judges make their decisions after savoring preparations that are served on a white ceramic spoon with a curved handle, placed on a flat long tray brought by gorgeous women in skimpy black dresses. All in all, not a very homely way to present food. What the show promotes is a sophisticated, visually pleasing and TV-friendly version of everyday cooking, which is not only about feeding families but also creativity and self-expression.

However, the judges reveal ambivalence towards homey fare when they evaluate dishes that contestants describe as part of their personal history and their cultural background, especially of non-white and non-European origin. The experts seem honestly surprised that a seafood stew in coconut milk that they praise as a miracle of refinement is simply considered, by a participant of Pilipino descent, as one of her grandmother's favorites. Talking from their position of authority, they contest the authenticity of an apple pie rendition of an African-American woman and the curried chicken and dumplings of a man of Trinidadian descent. While declaring their openness to all sorts of food, high or low, the judges ultimately seem to favor flavors, textures and techniques from European and Euro-American origin, and a few Asian elements that have acquired global prestige. Despite all the proclamations, The Taste and the culinary approach it promotes stay safely within the mainstream.